What makes the deserts and mountains of eastern California so wonderfully different from the coast and valleys is the lack of people and abundance of public land, best represented by a wild paradise of national parks and monuments and forests from the High Sierra to Death Valley to Joshua Tree.

Since the days of Mary Hunter Austin and John Muir, this immense solitude of mountains and deserts has been especially appreciated by readers, writers, and other accidental philosophers. The small-town backcountry bookstores are cherished in these parts.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Jean-Paul L. Garnier opened Space Cowboy Books in the town of Joshua Tree in 2016, within a funky little homegrown mall called Sun Alley Shops—a convenient two-minute walk from the Joshua Tree Saloon, itself on the winding two-lane road that leads into Joshua Tree National Park. Local gift shops usually have a collection of tourist guides, but Space Cowboy remains the only dedicated bookstore in this sprawling Mojave Desert community of 6,500 people spread over 37 square miles of creosote and sand.

Space Cowboy is only a few steps away from the tourist-season crowds on Twentynine Palms Highway, but like all the best booksellers, it is a refuge—a whimsical refuge, in this case, with a plywood space alien pointing the way inside and a satisfying selection of new, used, and locally authored books filling the compact space. Garnier’s collection of Star Wars figurines and other such sci-fi trinkets watch over the shelves, while Garnier can usually be found behind the tiny counter in back—where, in keeping with his shop’s name, he wears his western hat indoors.

Space Cowboy is deeply involved in its community, as a good local bookshop should be. Garnier works with local schools and Copper Mountain College on projects such as literary readings and library donations, and the back patio of Sun Alley Shops has a stage and seating for the store’s author events and science fiction screenings, including silent classics scored with live music. The most labor-intensive work is the media Space Cowboy itself produces, in the form of the sci-fi podcast Simultaneous Times and a growing collection of paperbacks and chapbooks published by Garnier.

Since 2018, Simultaneous Times has featured local, regional, and international science fiction authors, playwrights, and poets. The short plays are produced in classic radio-drama style, with original soundtracks, making the podcast unique in a crowded field.

Garnier is an author and poet himself, with several collections to his name, including 2019’s Elgin Award–nominated Future Anthropology. Like many sci-fi visionaries, he is fascinated by time travel in all its literary and real-life possibilities.

“Books are time machines,” Garnier says. “One of the things I love about science fiction is that it’s inherently hopeful. By writing about the future, it must be presupposed that there is a future. And if there’s a future, then there is hope.”

Space Cowboy Books

61871 Twentynine Palms Hwy., Joshua Tree, spacecowboybooks.com

Is your favorite indie bookstore missing from this list? Fill out this form or drop us a line at bookstores@altaonline.com to let us know whom we missed and why they should be included. Visit altaonline.com/bookstores for frequent additions.

Ken Layne publishes Desert Oracle and hosts its companion radio show and podcast from a haunted old compound in the great Mojave Wilderness, one of four American deserts he has called home.