By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, Wyo. — When Legends Bookstore owner Teresa Muhic retired in 2013 from a career as a petroleum engineer and management executive in the oil industry, she was searching for a new project to help her stay busy.
“I kind of poked around for about a year,” she said, while considering consulting and other options. “And then, of course, the Cody Newsstand went out of business.”
At the time, the Newsstand had Cody’s largest selection of books and magazines for sale, and its closure was hardly an anomaly in the retail bookstore landscape.
Borders Group had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011, closing hundreds of Borders and Waldenbooks outlets across the country. The latest version of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, released in 2014, was only $79. It could store hundreds of books and run for weeks on a single charge. Amazon could also deliver the latest bestseller or most obscure title in a day or two, usually at deep discounts.
Despite what appeared like a bleak outlook for opening a small-town independent bookstore, Muhic said she “personally believed Cody needed a bookstore. I just think that’s something a town like ours needs.”
But a personal belief wasn’t enough. “I had to convince myself that I wanted to put money into this,” Muhic said. Being an engineer, she adopted a rigorously analytical approach to researching and evaluating her idea.
Muhic sought local feedback on social media and joined the American Booksellers Association and Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association, using their available sales data to project demand for Cody. She ran countless pro forma profit and loss statements, analyzing numerous retail square footage and inventory options to find the optimum scenarios.
Muhic, 61, also drafted her son, Kalyn Beasley, 35, to help run the store, knowing that support from the town’s younger generation of readers was critical. Beasley now manages the store, which employs a staff of up to five people, most working year-round, despite Cody’s highly seasonal tourist economy.
Eight years after opening, Legends has become a beloved mainstay on Sheridan Avenue, Cody’s busiest street, and Muhic is pleased that the shop has performed “maybe a little bit better than what I had forecast.”
Staff is secret to success
For customers, the secret to the store’s success is not based on detailed market analysis or careful inventory management, but on a staff made up of zealous readers who offer friendly, informative advice that is specifically tailored to their individual tastes.
Sara West, a Cody artist and frequent Legends customer, said she buys at least one book there every month, calling it her “book-of-the month habit.”
“It is to keep Teresa and Kalyn in business, I tell myself. The truth is I’m addicted to books,” she said. “The magic of Legends is that the knowledgeable owners satisfy my cravings with brilliant suggestions, so that I walk out with more than one.”
Earlier this month, West struck out at the Park County Library’s Cody branch while looking for a book about sagebrush, but said she later left Legends with a copy of “Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies.”
Legends places special orders for books “almost every day,” Beasley said, and a zealous focus on customer service is essential.
Some customers shop at Legends because they don’t use the Internet at all, and others don’t like to use credit cards, Muhic said. They enjoy the anonymity of buying a book with cash and getting recommendations from a friend instead of an algorithm. Legends also offers discounts to book clubs, teachers and others.
“We have a lot of people that come in, and I think sometimes they’re just wanting to connect with a human,” she said. “We are a part of their community.”
The community supported Legends during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many businesses were struggling. The store shut down for less than a week before transitioning to phone and online orders with curbside delivery, Beasley said.
“We had exactly what people needed while they were isolated at home,” he said, including cookbooks, children’s books and puzzles, which were the hottest-selling item during the height of the lockdowns.
Serving tourists and locals
Muhic describes herself as an introvert who is now primarily an “accountant in the back office while Kalyn runs the show.” But her favorite part of owning a bookstore remains interacting with customers, especially the many summer tourists who stop in while shopping downtown.
The store “couldn’t survive” without both locals and tourists, she said. But she mainly works to stock books and gifts that residents will want, because visitors are typically shopping for the same things. December is the store’s busiest month.
The store’s name plays off the “legends” recounted in the many books on its shelves, as well as the “legendary” figures from Cody’s past, like William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Beasley said.
Beasley himself is becoming a local legend, building a fervent following as a singer/songwriter who travels frequently to perform at live music venues around the greater Yellowstone area.
“It’s an incredible experience to be able to have that freedom and build my own schedule,” Beasley said. “I’m lucky.”
For bestselling author Craig Johnson, “independent bookstores like Legends are the life-blood of book sales here in Wyoming, where we don’t have a large enough population base for the large chains to come in and dominate the landscape.”
Johnson is the author of nearly 18 mystery novels featuring Sheriff Walt Longmire of the fictional Wyoming county of Absaroka. The books were adapted for a six-season TV show, airing first on A&E and later on Netflix.
When Johnson releases a new Longmire book, his publisher sends him to readings in major cities first, meaning Cowboy State bookstores have to wait a few weeks before he can make the rounds.
“To deal with that, I’ve offered to pre-sign books for the locals before I go out on tour, and Legends is always there,” he said.
Beasley often loads up several cases of a new Longmire release and drives them to Johnson’s home in Ucross, population 26, located between Buffalo and Sheridan.
“Sometimes we just set up on the tailgate of my truck and I sign all their books—a lot of books,” Johnson said. “How many bookstores do you know that would drive their entire stock three hours over the Bighorn Mountains to get them signed for their readers?”
Written by Ruffin Prevost, republished with permission from Wyoming Truth.