I thought we’d take a break from writing how to’s and I’d post something fun for you to read. Yes, it’s sort of writing related. I can’t remember where I heard about this traveling bookstore but I knew I had to contact the owner to see if she’d be willing to be interviewed. Say hello to Rita Collins and her St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore and Textual Apothecary.
This Writer’s Life (TWL)-Did St. Rita’s start out as a physical bookstore? And have you always loved to read? What gave you the idea to run it from a van?
Rita Collins (RC)-I have always enjoyed books. And at one point as I was looking towards retiring from my teaching career, I began to think about opening a bookstore (a brick-and-mortar bookstore) in Eureka, the small Montana town where I live. There wasn’t a bookstore here and hadn’t been for some years. It seemed we needed one but I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about starting a business. I signed up for an American Booksellers Association course and the instructors quickly pointed out that it really would be a challenge to have a fiscally viable brick-and-mortar bookstore in such a small town in a rural Montana. So in brainstorming with friends, I came up with the idea to have a traveling bookstore. It would have lower overhead (no rent, no utilities, flexible hours) and I could take it where people were rather than waiting for customers to walk through the door. So I bought a used Sprinter van, figured out how to build shelves that would work while I was driving around and came up with the name. It took about six months and by June 2015 I was ready to take it on the road. The first year I stayed in Montana, setting the bookstore up at farmers markets, music festivals and even a few private parties. That summer, a young couple traveling from NY suggested I bring the bookstore to the Brooklyn Book Festival so I applied to be a vendor there in 2016. In preparation for driving to NY, I did some west coast events which helped develop my confidence in driving and parking the bookstore in larger cities.
Now (Feb 2019), I have driven across country twice, set up the bookstore in seventeen different states with more to come. This spring I plan to take it down through Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California and back up through Oregon. The rest of the summer I will mostly have the bookstore in Montana as there are a lot of events happening here. Then in October I will hopefully be taking it across country again to the Baltimore Book Festival.
TWL-You sell used books…do people donate them or do you buy them?
RC-Yes, I only sell used books and try to offer a well curated selection: fiction, children’s books, books about the NW or by authors from this region, travel, cookbooks, books on health and spirituality, biographies and books on writing. I also have a small selection of books in foreign languages. It surprises even me sometimes how broad my inventory is. I like to think anyone who likes to read would find something enjoyable in my bookstore. I also carry vintage postcards, greeting cards, and tshirts (with the bookstore logo). The books are donated. When I first began, I asked friends to donate books to get me started. Now I realize that people everywhere are willing to donate books. Really, it is a very interesting business model. I sometime try to search for a better word than ‘business’ to describe it but haven’t found the perfect term yet.
TWL-Can you remember people’s reaction the first time you pulled up in the van?
RC-People are always surprised. Not by the van itself but by the interior of the bookstore. Often individuals will pause as though hesitant to go inside. I encourage them – Go on in. It’s a bookstore! Then once they enter it they gasp – this is amazing! Or – How cool! People like it so much. Especially children. The children’s books are near the door so children often just plop down on the floor and start pulling books out to read. Sometimes so many children are sitting in there, it is hard to squeeze an adult customer in.
TWL-Is there a favorite genre or type of book that customers love the most? In fact, if you had to take a guess what’s the bestselling genre?
RC-My top sellers are fiction and children’s books in general. A lot depends on where I am though. In Montana I often sell books about this region and by regional authors. When I set up in North Carolina, people weren’t as interested in books from the northwest. In nonfiction, books on spirituality and cookbooks are probably my best sellers.
TWL-Would you say winter or summer sees more demand for people buying books?
RC-At this point I don’t really take the bookstore on the road in winter. There are a few events in late November and early December that I do in Eureka, MT (the town where I live). The bookstore is not currently equipped with great winter tires. It is more a fair weather bookstore. I usually start taking it out in April and close it up for the winter in early December.
TWL-One last question, do you have a favorite author or any books you can recommend we read?
RC-I quickly learned that when someone asks, Can you recommend a book? – my answer needs to be – What do you enjoy reading? I certainly have my favorites but they aren’t necessarily going to be yours. But if you give a clue as to what you like to read, then I can usually recommend something that will work. As for my own favorites – the list is long so maybe that precludes ‘favorite’. But it depends on the season and my mood, the time of day and the amount of time I have to read. Karen Hesse, Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Solnit, Annie Proulx, Charles Dickens, Beatrice Potter, Ann Tyler, Virginia Woolf are a few.
Learn more about the bookstore at http://saintritasbooks.com/