By Ashley E. Sweeney
When thousands of overland travelers pulled up stakes in the mid-19th century and headed west from wherever it was they hailed from—Keokuk, Iowa; Sangamon County, Illinois; Noblesville, Indiana—all they had for directional aids were rough maps, incomplete guides, and a compass. And, of course, the sun, sinking into the western horizon every night.
The journey to Oregon or California along the overland trail took approximately five months walking at a steady clip of two miles per hour beside heavy-laden wagons pulled by teams of oxen or mules.
Some made it; others did not, buried in unmarked graves or swept away in raging rivers. Emigrants were more likely to be killed by food poisoning or disease or accidents than by hostile Indians, murder in the ranks, or even cannibalism (in my newest novel, Answer Creek, fictional Ada Weeks travels with the Donner Party on their trek west).
One item all the overland travelers carried with them was books, often a family Bible, schoolbooks, and favorite reads. At night, along with music and tall-tale telling, the overlanders read aloud around a campfire.
Today, traveling from Lincoln, Nebraska to Sacramento, California on I-80 takes twenty-two hours and change. And with today’s GPS technology, there’s no excuse for not finding the place you’re looking for (except maybe high atop the Continental Divide near South Pass, Wyoming, that is) along 1,526 miles of concrete and asphalt. Amenities abound: hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and some terrific independent bookstores.
Last summer, my husband Michael and I put miles and miles of mid-America prairie land behind us. But we didn’t zip past historical markers and museums and libraries and bookstores. Following in the footsteps of the Donner Party, we spent a month on the trail, with more stories to tell than the day is long (an authentic wagon ride with two teenage cowgirls outside of Casper, Wyoming, was a highlight).
Along the way west, Michael and I stopped at all the independent bookstores we could find. From full-scale traditional bookstores to urban coffeehouses to mom-and-pop shops (one in an original log cabin) to a hybrid shop (with a wine bar!), we perused shelves, lingered with books, and bought up armloads of western lit. I’ll let you in on a secret: I never leave an independent bookstore empty-handed. Ever.
Now, more than ever in this time of COVID-19 lockdown, indie bookstores need reader support. At the tiny Whistle Stop Mercantile in Douglas, Wyoming (still open for business with one patron allowed in the store at a time), owner Sue McBride says the local community has been very supportive.
“We’ve been fulfilling orders from phone calls and emails. Some people even text pictures of titles. And we deliver. If everyone in every community supports small businesses like this, we’ll survive. We’re a resilient people.”
Here’s a list of 10 indie bookstores along the Oregon-California Trail from Lincoln to Sacramento. Go to their websites (or call if staff is available) to ask for recommendations or to order. Some bookstores offer window-shopping and/or curbside pickup, and others offer free delivery. All offer shipping (for a fee).
Lincoln, NE: Francie & Finch
10-5:30 Monday through Friday
Window-shopping: online orders; gloved curbside delivery; shipping (fee)
Douglas, WY: Whistle Stop Mercantile
9-3 Monday through Saturday
One customer allowed in store at a time; phone, email (email@example.com), and text orders; local free delivery
Casper, WY: Wind City Books
Wheatland, WY: The Wandering Hermit
Rock Springs WY: Sidekicks Book and Wine Bar
Park City UT: Dolly’s
10-6 Monday through Friday
Phone and online orders; curbside pickup; shipping (fee)
Reno, NV: Sundance Books and Music
Phone and online orders; shipping (fee)
Truckee, CA: Word After Word
10-2 Monday through Friday
Online orders; “no-touch” at-the-door pickup; free local delivery; shipping (fee)
El Dorado Hills, CA: Face in a Book
Online orders; local free delivery for books on hand; shipping (fee)
Sacramento, CA: Time Tested Books
Phone and email orders (firstname.lastname@example.org) from 1-5 Monday through Friday; free local delivery and shipping
(Note: Several shops have not updated their websites and/or did not return calls).
I had hoped to hold events at the bookstores along the Oregon-California Trail after Answer Creek’s release. But we’ve all had to be creative and market differently during this time. Until that day, happy reading!
Ashley E. Sweeney is the winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and resides in the Pacific Northwest and Tucson. Her second novel, Answer Creek, follows protagonist Ada Weeks as she travels west with the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. Publishers Weekly calls Ada Weeks “an impressive heroine” and Foreword Reviews (starred) says “Sweeney’s novelization of the Donner Party fuses history, realism, and luminous prose.”