This Traveling Woman has a Bookstore on Wheels

She’s taken her love of books on the road.

The mobile bookstore.

(Courtesy St Rita’s Traveling Bookstore and Textual Apothecary)

Bookstores are enchanted places. That’s because the books on the shelves can take you away to magical lands, help you learn a foreign language, or cook a gourmet meal. But when your community is too small to house a real brick and mortar bookstore, sometimes you have to improvise. A mobile bookstore that brings books around the country was the result

That is the case for Rita Collins, 70, who dreamed of opening a used bookstore after she retired from teaching, according to TODAY.  She  told the magazine, “Don’t all people who love books want to open up a bookstore?”

A business planning class from the American Booksellers Association convinced Collins – originally from Baltimore –  that opening a bookstore in the small town where she lives would not be sustainable. Eureka, Montana, located just seven miles from the Canadian border, only has a population of 1,517. Collins asked her instructors about a traveling bookstore on wheels and they were skeptical. But she persevered.

St Rita’s Traveling Bookstore and Textual Apothecary
Collins was inspired by Dylans Mobile Bookstore, a  traveling bookstore in Wales run by Jeff Towns, and his son Joe. She contacted Jeff for advice but she was largely on her own when it came to setting up her bookstore.

First, she had to find a vehicle large enough to stand in, that was mechanically sound  as well as easy to drive and park. A local mechanic helped her find exactly what she needed. Then she had to have it refitted with shelves that would hold the books at a 15-degree angle so that they would stay in place while in transit.

Collins named her bookstore St Rita’s Traveling Bookstore and Textual Apothecary, after St Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes. The task did seem impossible at the beginning but the traveling bookstore did get up and running and has been on the road since 2015.

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In the beginning
For the first two years, St Rita’s was a summer project for Collins reported Atlas Obscura. At first, she drove through Montana and then she made her first cross country trip across the US in 2016. After she retired in 2017, it became a full-time stint from spring to fall.

Collins and her 600-volume traveling bookstore has visited 30 states, stopping at festivals and events along the way. In the beginning, she assumed that friends and family would donate books while she figured out how to source her inventory but she doesn’t have to buy books to sell. People donate books to her wherever she goes.

“Often, even if I sell a lot, I return from a trip with more books than I left with,” she told Atlas. “Besides helping with my business model, the donations help me offer a range of books that I might not carry otherwise.” The prices vary depending on her location but children’s books always cost only $1.

Traveling bookstore and more
While the locations change, some things always stay the same. One tip from towns that Collins incorporated is to set up a typewriter outside the store and she encourages patrons to write.   

“One time, a young man typed an entire page and left it with me,” she said. “I read it, and it was this really sad story about a friend of his who died. And I was like, Why is he typing this here on my typewriter? That’s something about this space that I never would have anticipated. Maybe because I’m passing through, and I’ll be gone tomorrow; maybe that makes people more comfortable.”

Collins loves meeting people and making connections. In the summer of 2022, she plans on traveling to the South Dakota Book Festival, and will make stops in Montana, Nebraska, and Colorado, according to TODAY. Later, she plans on heading to Oregon and Washington state.

“I can’t imagine a better way of spending time than the traveling bookstore,” Collins told TODAY. “It’s so special. But for some reason, there are so few.” 

While she loves what she does, Collins doesn’t think she can keep doing it indefinitely. In a couple of years, she hopes to pass her traveling bookstore onto another bibliophile who will keep it on the road.

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