First there were food trucks. Now literacy advocates are filling buses and trucks with a different kind of nourishment—books. Many of the book trucks rely on donations from publishers, community book drives, and First Book, which provides low-cost, high-quality children’s books. And new bookmobiles are revving up. With help from a James Patterson bookseller grant, Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., is about to launch a bookmobile to take to school book fairs. The bus will be painted the same yellow as the bookstore and will have a new awning for its August debut at the Decatur Book Festival.
Launched at BEA in 2013, the bright orange Penguin Book Truck and its accompanying pushcart (modeled after a hot dog cart) are designed to look like Penguin Classics. The readily identifiable truck is warehoused in New Jersey when it’s not at book festivals in Austin, Tex.; Tucson, Ariz.; Nantucket, Mass.; Miami; and Los Angeles. “We’re really open to anything,” said John Fagan, v-p, director of marketing at Penguin. “When we introduced it at BEA, a small college in Iowa invited us out for Banned Books Week.” The truck has followed the route of the fictional Joad family from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and appeared with food trucks in Tulsa, Okla. “People respond to the brand and really respond to the physical books,” said Fagan, adding that Penguin supports the book truck’s efforts with a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. The truck, in turn, supports booksellers. At this year’s BEA in New York City, Word, the Brooklyn-based bookstore, sold its stock out of the truck, which was parked inside the Javits Center.
President and founder Jennifer Frances named Bess the Book Bus, an air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, after her maternal grandmother, who was instrumental in helping her learn to read. But it hasn’t always been easy to keep Bess on the road. Frances cashed in her 401(k) to buy the vehicle, which is based in Oldsmar, Fla., more than a decade ago. After Frances hit financial rock bottom in 2009, First Book put her in touch with Super Pages, which became her first national sponsor. As a result, she was able to make a 72-day trip to 32 states during which she gave away 30,000 books. Now, she said, she does two or three trips a year and, with the support of sponsors, works with bus depots and independent bookstores, such as Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine, and Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, Minn., to pick up books along the way. For a spring tour, which included a stop at Children’s Institute in San Antonio, Tex., Frances stocked only books for young readers so she could carry more inventory. Between national trips, Frances works with local bookstores like Inkwood Books in Tampa. She is looking forward to working with schools and bookstores in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama, too, after a recent move to the Florida Panhandle.
In 2009, John Gervase started Hauling for Humanity, and began driving a big rig to deliver food to food banks. Three years later he bought a 36 ft. bookmobile to deliver books to children who don’t normally have them. “I got enlightened about the relationship between poverty and literacy,” said Gervase, who so far has funded the project by himself since his local church helped him get his start by supplying books. At any one time, he has 7,000 books on board so that a full classroom can come into the trailer and pick what they want. “The idea,” he explained, “is to get kids to read.” He makes school visits during the regular school year and stops at summer schools and special events near his homes in Chicago (May–October) and Ft. Myers, Fla. (November–April). For large schools, he will have classes come on board every ten minutes from the first bell to the last. Since January 2013, he’s give away close to 60,000 books. “The hardest part is funding,” he said. He would like to have help paying for fuel, insurance, and books.
Elizabeth Dragga began delivering books out of her car to teens in foster-care facilities in 2010. At the time, she worked for the nonprofit side of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles and recycled gently used books to schools teachers. When she realized that no one was picking up teen titles, she decided to give them away herself. Then in 2012, with financial support from children’s author Cornelia Funke (The Thief Lord) and used book donations from area bookstores, including Flintridge Bookstore in La Canada, Dragga turned her free-time hobby into a part-time job. Last summer Funke funded the truck that Dragga now brings to foster group homes and alternative high schools. From her bookstore work, Dragga learned the importance of asking kids what they want and sends out surveys in advance of her visits. Requests range from classics like the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe to movie tie-ins like The Fault in Our Stars. “The coolest thing,” Dragga said, “is kids’ excitement and enthusiasm about the books.”
Simone Bratcher and her intellectually disabled son, David, started Bookin’ It! in 2007 in a pop-up tent with a couple of 8 ft. tables and some bargain books. Although they still have the tables, Bookin’ It! relies on the type of trailer used to haul race cars to carry books for all ages and Melissa-and-Doug toys to book festivals and school book fairs in North and South Carolina. It’s air conditioned and has an electric fireplace for year-round story times at preschools and day-care centers. Because the store is mobile, “our demographics change constantly,” said Bratcher. “We can go 20 miles down the road, and it’s different.” In addition to doing well with children’s books, Bookin’ It! has a popular Christian section. Setup can be time consuming—Bratcher refers to it as a “good aerobic 90 minutes.” David helps with all aspects of the bookstore and often suits up one of store’s more than 50 costumes. At present, Bookin’ It! is on hiatus while the Bratchers prepare for their move to Florida later this summer.