Christen Thompson, co-owner of Itinerant Literate Books in Charleston, S.C., and Grace Wright of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., shared their experiences owning and operating bookmobiles at a Winter Institute 2018 panel last week. For Thompson, who launched her bookmobile with co-founder Julia Turner on Independent Bookstore Day 2016, the bookmobile has always been a sort of proof of concept for eventually opening a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Charleston. Wright, meanwhile, is the "captain" of Parnassus on Wheels, a bookmobile created by an established bookstore. Below are some of their insights, lessons learned, and recommendations.
The Itinerant Literate bookmobile is a renovated 1958 Yellowstone trailer that Thompson and her business partner found on Craigslist. The pair raised a bit more than $9,500 through an Indiegogo campaign, and Thompson estimated that the full buildout, including the opening book order, was around $10,000. In terms of day-to-day overhead, Thompson said that the most significant expense was gas, for both the truck towing the bookmobile and to run the bookmobile generator. Since then, they've done a handful of smaller renovations, including putting in better shelves. She advised that anyone who buys something with glass windows should immediately replace them with plexiglass, and emphasized the importance of making sure the bookmobile is watertight. She also warned that summer days in a metal trailer can be very hot; for the first time, this year Itinerant Literate will not operate in the month of August.
Initially, Thompson and Turner did only a few bookmobile events a month. Now, they go to at least one location per week, and Thompson reported having a lot of success partnering with breweries, coffee shops, brunch places with long lines and things like farmers markets and night markets. She suggested setting up shop at places where "somebody is going to be for a while," and reported that so far Itinerant Literate has never been turned down. According to Thompson, people "consistently have higher sales when we park there," and people are now seeking them out. When it came to storing the bookmobile, Thompson said that she currently stores it at a letterpress shop with which she and Turner frequently partner. She also noted that it takes about an hour to set up the bookmobile and advised getting to locations very early.
Wright explained that Parnassus bought its bookmobile from a library in Georgia for about $10,000. Though the 1990 Thomas bus had already been used as a bookmobile, Parnassus still did an extensive amount of interior and exterior renovation, and Wright estimated that the entire process, including buying the bus, designing a new logo for Parnassus on Wheels, and putting in things like new lighting and carpets, cost about $30,000. She reported that the biggest ongoing expense for the bookmobile, aside from books, is maintenance; she recommended that anyone interested in operating a bookmobile form a very good relationship with a mechanic.
In terms of layout for the bookmobile, Wright said that having two doors is "wonderful," and that one bookseller can manage an entire crowd. Given the limited amount of space, in-depth handselling conversations can be difficult; Wright reported that displays and bookseller recommendations are vital. As for parking and setting up, Wright also suggested arriving early, as well as partnering with businesses that have their own parking lots. Noting that a bookmobile can operate as a mobile billboard, she emphasized the importance of getting "your social media links on your bus as big as you can." Wright recalled that while some of the bookmobile's initial partnerships did not work out so well, she's been particularly successful with makers markets, crafts fairs and festivals. She stressed the need to be flexible: "See where the community really needs you, and how you can fit into it." --Alex Mutter