Bookmobiles — mobile bookshops or libraries that bring books out into to the community — are a special part of book-loving culture. Bookmobiles have been around for over one hundred years, many charming books have been written about them, and the American Library Association (ALA) even has a special holiday to celebrate their impact. We can all admit there’s just something delightful about the idea of a vehicle full of books showing up on your street — just like a literary ice cream truck!
But what actually goes into starting and operating a bookmobile? What are the logistics and the how-tos behind these charming mobile libraries? I spoke with Hilary Atleo, owner of Iron Dog Books, about all this nitty-gritty of running a mobile book truck.
Iron Dog Books is an Indigenous-owned bookshop and booktruck dedicated to bringing low cost reading to Səl̓ilwətaɁɬ, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territories (metro Vancouver region). Iron Dog Books began as a mobile bookshop, and was, in fact, Vancouver’s first modern-day mobile bookshop.
The idea for this mobile bookstore first came about when Atleo was working her first book industry job at Wee Book Inn in Edmonton. Around that time, in the 2010s, food trucks were becoming very popular and Atleo and her co-workers used to often speculate about the logistics of starting a bookish version.
A couple of years later, Hilary and her husband Cliff decided to open their own bookstore, but leasing a brick-and-mortar location proved to be prohibitively expensive for them in the Vancouver real estate market. After searching for a location for several months, the Atleos started to plan instead for a mobile bookshop, which could serve multiple neighborhoods, even those that didn’t have, or couldn’t have, a physical bookstore. They also envisioned that the mobile bookstore would allow them to travel to big events, which could generate needed start-up revenue for their business.
They started working in earnest on the plan for the mobile bookshop in January 2017, and officially opened their book truck that November.
Though Iron Dog Books began with a mobile model because of high real estate costs in their market, starting a bookmobile is not without start-up expenses. According to the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS), the average cost for the purchase and renovation of a bookmobile is $200,000, across 647 operational mobile bookshops. Obviously, the largest cost variable in the process of starting a bookmobile is the price of purchasing the vehicle, and the cost of construction to turn it into a mobile bookshop.
For the Iron Dog Books bookmobile, Atleo actually hired boat builders from Commodore’s Boats in Richmond to do the construction work, because they held the expertise that would allow them to build a sturdy moving bookstore that could withstand rigorous use and time out on the road.
According to Atleo, the most essential consideration in the build process is function. It is very difficult and costly to make changes once the truck is built. She recommends owners consider the following questions before the build:
For example, the Iron Dog Books truck has two doors for entering and exiting, because with only one door the truck felt claustrophobic. The truck’s register is located immediately to the right of the main entrance, which allows sellers to ring up customers either inside or outside the door of the truck. The truck has two different sizes of shelving, one size for oversized books (like picture, art, and cookbooks) and one for standard trade paperbacks and hardcovers. Atleo says, “all of these choices are the result of a lot of discussion with the carpenter about my goals for the bookmobile, and the restrictions of an 80 square foot step van.”
She also cautions that several construction decisions were made based on how well she thought she could cope with weather and climate while out on the road. Over the years, she has spoken with many other mobile vendors who have similar warnings about bad weather.
“Spending an hour or two in the rain is very different from being stuck outside at a market for 5–10 hours with the wind, rain, and snow blowing, the batteries in the truck failing, and no prospect of drying the floor or getting the truck to a decent temperature,” she says. Her recommendation for aspiring mobile vendors is to experiment being outside for long stretches of time, in the conditions. Try setting up a vendor tent outside on a particularly challenging day, and then spending all day in the inclement weather.
Other than construction aspects, according to Atleo, many of the other bookmobile start-up expenses are the same ones you would find in a conventional book store, things like an inventory system, website, business email, product, administrative supplies (such as receipt paper, price tags, bookmarks), as well as operational infrastructure such as label printers, computers, cash drawers, scanners, etc.
Of course, the mobile bookstore must also source their book stock. Iron Dog Books stocks new and used books, which they source from the typical places: publishers, distributors, used book scouting, trade-ins, and customer buys. But Atleo says one of the most important skill sets of operating the mobile bookshop is curating a book selection that is fitting for rapid sale.
She says, “A mobile bookshop is incredibly tiny compared to even a small conventional bookshop — at most the truck has approximately 10–15% the number of titles that a 1,000 square foot brick and mortar carries, often less. This means that each of those titles has to be highly likely to sell on any given day, or else we simply don’t make enough revenue to sustain the business.”
Atleo curates the book truck’s selection based on her years of bookselling experience, and says the cornerstone of her philosophy is “enduring quality,” saying, “I consider each book, and ask myself if it will still be a desirable object in two years. If the answer is yes, then I put it in the truck.”
Before purchasing a potential bookmobile or making any serious investments in the project, it’s crucial to research the mobile vending laws governing your areas, as well as possible area marketplaces you can visit to sell. Atleo says, “Despite common perception, you cannot simply roll up on a street corner and sell books.”
In reality, every municipality will have their own set of by-laws governing street retail and you will have to research each area you plan to visit. Some locations may require a license for mobile retail, others will have restricted zones, and others will place limits on the size of vehicle, or have particular safety and accessibility restrictions for certain areas.
Atleo strongly recommends that the first step for every aspiring bookmobile vendor is a visit to their local licensing office. She suggests “having a very frank conversation with the business license folks about whether local laws even allow you to operate a mobile retail business.”
Once you know the licensing restrictions for your area, a good next business step is to research marketplaces where you might sell your books. Atleo recommends identifying at least five markets that will allow your bookmobile to vend, and calculating the vendor fees before booking these events. For example, in 2019, Atleo’s highest one-day vendor fee was $420 for 8 hours of bookselling. Many events charge vendors per linear foot, and with a 28 foot truck — for example — Iron Dog Books must often purchase three standard 10×10 market spots.
Given all this information, Atleo recommends that any person looking into starting a bookmobile approach the project with caution and research. She says to ask yourself why you want a mobile unit, saying: “When you create a proper budget for all the expenses of building and operating a book truck, ask yourself if that same amount of money could be used for a different project that you would prefer.”
But for Atleo, she would never give up her bookmobile. “Never. It’s iconic, it’s our history, and it made us who we are today.”
She says the bookmobile has also made her realize that every person is a book person. Interacting with the public in unconventional environments has been an excellent opportunity for literary outreach, and she sells a lot of books to people who wouldn’t consider themselves readers, or people who might not have sought out her brick-and-mortar store.
Ultimately, what’s the biggest joy of starting and operating the bookmobile, we asked? According to Atleo it’s “when folks tell us that our book truck reminds them that there is genuine magic in the world.” Beautiful.