A new generation of booksellers is finding a way to open a bookstore despite spiraling costs for traditional bricks-and-mortar outlets. Deborah Bodin Cohen, a rabbi, educator, and children’s book author, attended booksellers school at Paz & Associates’ Bookstore Training Group, but was stymied in her attempt to open a physical store by a lack of affordable rent. “We live in Montgomery County, Md. [outside Washington, D.C.], where rent is crazy high,” Cohen says. “Any way we crunched the numbers, it didn’t look like it would be doable.”
Cohen realized that even if she wanted to run school book fairs instead of opening a children’s bookstore, she’d still need a vehicle. That led her to buy a trolley for $16,000 in September 2016. Seven months later, she opened the Story House, a children’s specialty mobile bookstore.
“Kids get really excited when they come into the trolley—it’s a unique type of space,” Cohen says. Even finding good locations for a mobile shop has been difficult. She regularly sets up at a local grocery store but says that scouting out new spots has been time-consuming and costly, especially when new sites don’t pan out.
For Julia Turner and Christen Thompson, owners of two-year-old Itinerant Literate in Charleston, S.C., finding good locations for their 1958 Yellowstone trailer, Viola, has been easier. The pair moved to Charleston’s Park Circle neighborhood at a time when a number of other small business owners were starting out. “They were receptive to try new things,” Turner says. “And they had parking.”
For their opening in 2015, Turner and Thompson parked at a local brewery, which had its best day on record as a result. Since then, the bookstore regularly partners with other small businesses and also appears at markets and craft fairs.
Similar partnerships have helped Twenty Stories, a new mobile book operation, get off the ground in Los Angeles. In the two months since the store opened, owners Alexa Trembly and Emory Harkins have been welcomed by small businesses across the city, particularly cafes. That may be in part because of their decision to take an even smaller-scale approach to their vehicle and their inventory. Trembly and Harkins purchased a van small enough to park in a regular parking space and, as their name suggests, they stock only 20 titles, instead of the 1,500–2,000 titles that many mobile bookstores stock. Twenty Stories rotates most of the titles each month based on new books coming out and sales of current titles. Roughly 70% of the books have been published in the past two years.
“We are really dedicated to this whole idea of curation versus a larger bookstore where there are so many titles, and you sift through them,” Trembly says. “This is the complete opposite side of it.”
Harkins says the biggest challenge is that many customers think the bookstore carries used books: “There’s a culture that when you see people peddling books by the street, they’re used books.” Yet, he adds, most customers stay even when they find out the books are full price. “It’s something unexpected. A lot of times people won’t take the time to go to a bookstore, but if we’re right there in front of you, you will.”
By contrast, veteran bookseller Diarra Leggett knew that he wanted to sell used books when he opened Boomerang Bookshop: Nomad Chapter in Greensboro, N.C. Initially, he had considered purchasing Empire Books, where he worked, when it went on the market in 2016. “I did not like the location,” Leggett says. “It was not street facing, and the rent was super high.” He confided in his wife, “I think if I buy the store it’s going to ruin us.” She suggested that he start a mobile bookstore instead.
Leggett took her advice and opened with a 1988 Thomas Built Bus in April last year. Later that month, he took a full-time position as the librarian for the Malloy/Jordan East Winston Heritage Center Branch Library bookmobile. He now goes out daily for the library and twice a week for Boomerang, where he specializes in literary fiction, radical politics, and African-American studies. Both operations stand out in a community that has lost many of its bricks-and-mortar bookstores.
Despite his love for bookmobiles, Leggett says there are problems, besides finding staff who can drive a book truck, run a mobile bookshop, and know literature. Most of those difficulties are mechanical. He recently contacted other mobile booksellers to gauge their interest in a mobile bookselling literary festival in Greensboro. There’s been interest, he says, but it hinges on how far his colleagues’ vintage vehicles can go. “I’m happy if I get this thing going up to 60 miles an hour,” he says, “so it’s a genuine question of whether they can make it.”