Ruta Smith file photo

Itinerant Literate Books, which began as a mobile book bus, is attempting to go nomadic again in the era of social distancing. Now with a retail location in Park Circle, Itinerant Literate is turning to the internet to provide books and recreate their personal in-store experience.

Appearances in the original book bus helped to garner much of Itinerant’s community support.

“We did a lot of pop-ups, mostly at breweries, and people would discover us. That’s where most of our followers have come from,” says Christen Thompson Lain, who co-owns the store along with Julia Turner. With such a heavy focus on community, Itinerant Literate uses their sizable social media following to promote events that often revolve around the physical store such as book clubs, personalized recommendations, and neighborhood shindigs.

Even with an involved social media presence, Itinerant Literate still decided not to focus too heavily on online book sales in particular. “We couldn’t really match the service or pricing that Amazon is able to provide. It was never really worth the trouble when we knew that people probably would never use it. But two weeks ago, all of a sudden that changed very, very, very, dramatically.”

As the coronavirus began to spread and affect Charleston, Itinerant Literate had to reassess their retail approach. “We shifted a lot of what we were doing to be able to create the [in-store] experience.” One of their main strengths is having a small space where personalized recommendations can be made with customers browsing in the store. “We are trying to replicate that online as best we can.”

Part of that included involving Itinerant’s social media following to recreate in-store experiences like recommendations and browsing in real time. Facebook livestreams focus on talking about newly released titles and recommendations from the bookseller working at the shop that day. After new streams are finished Itinerant sends out follow-up emails linking to the videos and books discussed. “Not everyone is on Facebook, not everyone is on Instagram, so we want to kind of meet our customer where they are no matter where that may be.”

Itinerant is also experimenting with new concepts such as one-on-one virtual book consultation sessions. “We get a lot of emails and Facebook messages from people asking for books [but] we find it’s a lot easier just to chat with somebody voice to voice,” Thompson Lain says. “We know our strengths and we know our limitations and we are just trying our best to play into that, and our resources.” Beyond this, she explains that she has been updating the store’s website manually to display what books they currently have in stock at the physical location.

Besides the retail store, Itinerant Literate is able to provide virtually any books to customers using Bookshop, an online service dedicated to bolstering support for small, independently-owned bookstores. Built around an “affiliate modeling system” the site gives Itinerant a 20 percent cut from each sale of a book they link to and 10 percent of all overall sales on the site. “It’s built specifically and explicitly to compete with Amazon, no holds barred, and to give booksellers who don’t have the means to have this super slick ecommerce setup,” Thompson Lain explains. Since the shop isn’t currently ordering a high volume of books, Bookshop allows customers to have a wider selection available while still being able to support the store. “It’s still not the same amount we make when we sell a book but we don’t have to handle anything with that, it’s all handled through a distributor.”

As community is a central focus for Itinerant they are also focusing on giving back to people who are not able to afford books but would like to read while social distancing. The shop is allowing the public to take from their collection of “galleys.” Sent by publishers wanting the shop to review or promote the books, galleys are promotional and not for legal retail sale as they are often not in their final proofread form. “We usually give them to a prison locally, or teachers who ask for them. We will be creating a pick basket [in the backyard] for people to pick from at an advisable distance.”

Thompson Lain also encourages parents, students, and teachers to reach out for help or advice as many will be transitioning into online classroom and homeschool environments. “We are here and we want to help. We are completely thrilled with the support we have received in these bizarre and scary times.”

As for customers wanting to support Itinerant Literate in the time of social distancing, Thompson Lain encourages buyers to check out their website first to see what they currently have in stock and ask about what books they will be restocking soon. If a specific book can’t be located onsite, Thompson Lain suggests checking out their audiobooks and ebooks for sale or ordering from Bookshop to make sure a cut of the sale goes to the store.

To purchase books from Itinerant Literate go to itinerantliteratebooks.com