The independent book retailer often leads the departure of small businesses from a shrinking town’s Main Street. The Mad Dog and the Pilgrim booksellers refuse to accept this. The used bookstore, stocked with 70,000-plus titles, stands along a highway that slices Wyoming’s sagebrush sea, bumps across the Sweetwater River bridge, and charges on down Beaver Rim. The spot, known as Sweetwater Station, doesn’t have its own zip code or population count. Yet, Polly Hinds and Lynda German live there. They keep chickens, rescue old sheep, adopt lost dogs, and salvage rare books in need of new readers.
Hinds and German initially operated the Mad Dog and the Pilgrim in Denver, Colorado. It was the typical urban bookstore for a decade. Open six days a week with free hot coffee and fresh-baked cookies. “People would come in, read, drink the coffee, visit with me, and not buy any books,” recalls Polly Hinds. “Meanwhile, I sat there thinking about the $450 yellow pages’ ad and the electrical bill. No book sales, yet the $ 3,000-month rent is due. It took all the joy out of it. A small business costs a lot to run.”
Hinds is a literary type and an academic. Her partner, German, views hills as made to climb. They combined their love for books and adventure and transplanted themselves and their entire bookstore to Sweetwater Station, Wyoming, in 2001. Twenty years later, Hinds still vividly remembers the five months it took to move. Hinds and her family — daughter-in-law Carolyn German and granddaughter Tabby German — drove three trips per week with a 20-foot box moving truck stacked with 1,200 boxes of books each time. The bookstore inventory filled about 57,600 cases.
The anticipated business plan for The Mad Dog and the Pilgrim in Wyoming was to sell rare books online. Hinds and German purchased an empty house — boarded windows, layers of dead mice, and four colors of shag carpeting — along the Sweetwater River. What sold them on the place were the wall-to-wall bookshelves, the jade stone hearth, and historic wagon wheel chandeliers. When they arrived, Hinds discovered the rotary phone and dial-up Internet did not suit an online business.
Reluctantly, due to her desire to no longer be chained to a store counter, Hinds opened the 2-story specially built building that housed the Mad Dog and the Pilgrim inventory to the buying public for one day a week. She worked with German to build and paint a sign to place along the highway. It hosts an American flag and informs travelers of the available “Old Books. Fresh Eggs.”
“I’m a reader, not a book collector,” Hinds says of herself. “I read most books that I buy for the shop. It gives me pleasure to find books for other people to enjoy. I thought I’d just sell Western Americana when we moved here to Wyoming. It no longer surprises me that our best-selling category has been poetry for twenty years.”
The bookstore door’s jingling bell brings Hinds from the stacks, occasionally followed by a sheep. A stuffed lion greets customers. Hinds and German bought it at an auction, along with the ubiquitous haul of books. A trophy hunter out of St. Louis, Missouri shot the lion in 1901. Syrian lions are now extinct in the wild. “It was different in 1901,” Hinds muses. “History must be considered in context. I won’t get rid of the cat. It’s like statues. They help us understand history. We must learn from history. Not erase it.”
Hinds selects books to sell based on her interest in reading them. She also notes her customers’ wish lists. Often, when they walk into the bookstore several months after mentioning an out-of-print obscure book, Hinds will hand them a first edition of it with a grin. “Most stores these days go online to see what they should stock from the best-seller lists,” Hinds says. “Ensuring that your customer locates their sought-after book, and perhaps three more they didn’t know about, is more intuitive than that.”
The neighboring ranchers and Oregon Trail re-enactors thought Hinds and German would blow away in their first winter on the Sweetwater. “Used to be,” Hinds says, “the wind would come up at 10 o’clock in the morning. You had to get all the chores done and nail down anything you wanted to keep. Then, at dusk, it died off.”
“This winter the wind is relentless,” Hinds continues, “It messes with your head. You read about women pioneers going crazy because of the wind. This year, I finally understood it. As much as I love it here, the wind has been hard to endure. Yet, I’m still not giving up. No matter what age you are, or what era you live in, if you go do something new to you — like move your bookstore from Denver to Sweetwater Station — you’re a pioneer, too.”