From May to October, 70-year-old Rita Collins can be found in the front seat of a white Sprinter van, crossing America. In this age of motorhomes and Instagram #vanlife photos, Collins’ ride is special. In the back of his van is a fully functional second-hand bookstore.
As he stops in small towns across the United States, Collins savors the wonder that appears on people’s faces when they realize this van is like no other. Whether parked outside a book festival, cafe or farmers market, Collins finds herself having the same conversation, encouraging people to climb the wooden steps and peek look inside.
“You look at it, and it’s a van. But I say, way too many times, ‘You have to come in.’ People come in and say, “It’s a bookstore!” Collins laughed. “Of course it’s a bookstore!” But it’s such a surprise. It doesn’t look like that from the outside. »
Like most traditional bookstores, St. Rita’s Traveling Bookstore and Text Apothecary has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves organized by genre, overhead lighting, and a carpet on the floor. The main difference, of course, is that it’s on wheels. The bookstores’ 600 volumes are placed at a 15-degree angle to prevent them from falling as Collins drives from state to state – so far she’s been 30 and has traveled across the country three time.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend time than the traveling bookstore,” Collins said. “It’s so special. But for some reason, there are so few.
To set his bookstore in motion – literally – Collins had to dream big, as there weren’t many role models to follow (currently there are only a few other examples of traveling bookstores in operation – one in the Bronx, one in France).
“I can’t think of a better way to spend time than the traveling bookstore.”
The bookstore is named after Saint Rita, the patroness of impossible causes. When Collins first came up with the idea, he really seemed impossible.
In 2015, as she planned to retire from her teaching job, Collins dreamed of making a bookstore her next chapter. “Don’t all the people who love books want to open a bookstore? she thought.
But during a week-long business planning course with the American Booksellers Association, Collins was told that opening a bookstore wouldn’t be viable where she lived. Originally from Baltimore, the self-proclaimed “nomadic soul” left home at 18, living in nine states and two countries before settling in the small town of Eureka, MT, located seven miles from the Canadian border.
With a population of 1,517, Eureka lacks the foot traffic to support a bookstore. So, Collins thought she would bring a bookstore to the others. She got in touch with Jeff Towns, the owner of Dylan’s Mobile Bookstore, a traveling bookstore in Wales (which has since folded into a physical store, as has The Daisy Chain Bookstore in Canada, another similar store).
Towns gave him some advice, like having a typewriter to attract customers. To this day, she places a typewriter outside the store, along with a display table, chairs, and a price board.
Beyond Towns’ advice, however, Collins was largely on her own. The first step was to find a van that could accommodate his vision. Collins went to the local mechanic with her list of requirements: big enough to stand on, low mileage, easy to park and use.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to be able to find something like that,'” she recalled. But two weeks later, Collins received a call from the same mechanic, saying he had found exactly what she was looking for. He even negotiated the price down.
“It seems really fortuitous, how things turned out.”
The details needed to execute his vision continued to line up. She worked with an architect friend to put up shelves – and to date, she says, she has “never lost” a book while driving. Next, she hired a graphic designer to create the logo for the bookstore’s name, partly inspired by traveling medical vans, only books did the healing.
“He said, ‘People don’t like long names. I said, ‘I don’t care. That’s what we’re going to do,” she said.
It worked. “It seems really fortuitous, how things happened,” Collins said.
The first summer she traveled through her county in northwestern Montana. Then, a couple from Brooklyn gave him the idea to go to the Brooklyn Book Festival. Collins made her first trip across the country in the summer of 2016.
Her business – and her itineraries – continue to be sustained by the relationships she builds along the way. “The bookstore opens people up,” she said.
This summer, Collins is heading to the South Dakota Book Festival, after a woman in a parking lot gave her the recommendation, and will also make stops in Nebraska, Montana and Colorado. Later this summer, she will travel to Portland and Bainbridge Island, WA.
“It’s like a rock and roll band. You have an anchor location and then you figure it out from there,” she said. Collins writes his routes in a notebook, then prints them out for the front seat.
The bookstore is a surprisingly social enterprise — perfect for Collins, a self-proclaimed extrovert (and Leo). She said she never felt lonely, even while traveling for weeks. “A friend of mine has a motorhome and travels a lot. It’s one thing to just go to an RV park and move on to the next one. I stop and have so many conversations,” she said.
Collins mainly stays with people she has met through the bookstore or other chance connections. For example, for the South Dakota Book Festival, a member of her quilting group put her in touch with a cousin in Brookings, SD. “I feel lucky because it makes it affordable. But it also gives me insight. I meet people I wouldn’t normally meet,” she said.
Indeed, thanks to his hobby, Collins also has a No. 1 spot in America. “One of the reasons I don’t know why more people aren’t doing it is because it’s fascinating,“, said Collins.
Although Collins drives, people — and strangers — are what make the store work. They donate the volumes that line the shelves. Collins gives an example of the traveling bookstore’s propensity to luck and acts of generosity. One summer, while stopping in Asheville, North Carolina, on her way to a literary event in Raleigh, a local bookseller was impressed with her selection and emptied a third of her stock, which which means she had no books. “I called my host and told him, good news and bad news. I’ve sold a ton, but that means I have no books at this point,” she said.
The woman invited her book club the next day and asked everyone to bring a bag of books. Collins was fully supplied at the time of the occurrence. “I don’t know what makes it work so well. Maybe there’s an alternate universe where no, it wouldn’t work. But at least in-universe things work,” she said.
When she started traveling, Collins put herself on a timeline. Another year, maybe two. Now, she says, she keeps it as a summer hobby indefinitely. “I love doing this so much. I think I’m going to keep doing it,” she said.
But she thinks the bookstore can go beyond her. Although she is “not a businesswoman”, she believes that someone could make a viable business traveling the country in a van. As it stands, Collins said it is breaking even. She doesn’t make money, she says, but she doesn’t lose any either.
“I’m looking for a business partner,” she says. “Someone who might want to take him back. It’s so special. It’s so good.