When e-books and e-readers started taking their bite out of traditional book sales about five years ago, we all saw some version or other of the mournful headline that’s been bandied about, recycled, and rehashed since internet media overtook newspapers: This will be the death of print.
Thankfully, we seem to have avoided that fate. Our children still know what paper pages and cardboard covers feel like, college kids still lug around 15-pound textbooks, and independent bookstores do, in fact, still exist — albeit in smaller numbers than they used to.
Take Charleston. For a few years now, the peninsula has had to make do with just one full independent bookstore, the venerable Blue Bicycle Books, which has been in the same location since 1995 (it started life as Boomer’s Books, becoming Blue Bicycle in 2007 when current owner Jonathan Sanchez purchased the store). There are other indie booksellers — you can find historical books at the Preservation Society of Charleston Shop and religious books at the Pauline Books and Media Center, for example. But when it comes to your traditional new-and-used, fiction, non-fiction, etc. indie bookstores, Blue Bike is it.
But not for long. Soon, Blue Bike will be joined by the Itinerant Literate, a two-woman pop-up and mobile bookseller which will operate out of an Airstream trailer in the upper peninsula. It’s the modern incarnation of the bookmobile: stylish, streamlined, and, we expect, endlessly Instagrammable. Currently, the new booksellers are exclusively doing pop-up events around town, but they plan to have their bookmobile up and running by the fall. Depending on when they open their doors, they’ll be only the third or fourth commercial bookmobile in the country.
The women behind the Itinerant Literate are Christen Thompson and Julia Turner, two publishing professionals who hail from Atlanta. After graduating in 2012 from two different colleges in the Atlanta area — Thompson attended Agnes Scott College, while Turner went to Georgia Tech — both went on to the Denver Publishing Institute, an intensive four-week program at the University of Denver that gives students a crash course in the publishing industry. That’s where they met and became friends, and after that, both wound up working at The History Press in Charleston (where they still work today).
That’s also where they hatched their bookstore idea — Thompson and Turner are book people to the core, with a deep love for not only books themselves, but also the business of books, from publishing to selling. Opening a bookstore was a kind of back-burner dream for both of them. “We’d had a conversation about opening a bookstore,” Thompson says. “It happened weirdly naturally and slowly. It would be little things we’d see in Shelf Awareness [a leading e-newsletter for the book industry], or seeing these little ideas for really cool things bookstores were doing. We’d say, ‘We wish there was a bookstore here doing that.'”
So they started keeping a Google doc of ideas for their fantasy bookstore, and over time it grew into a feasible plan. “I think at one time we were talking about a seven-year plan,” Turner says. “Five seemed too short and 10 seemed too long.”
But about six months ago, the duo decided to scrap the seven-year plan and start making their bookstore a reality. They attended the American Booksellers Association (ABA) Winter Institute, a yearly three-day conference for booksellers and ABA members. Before they left for Winter Institute, Thompson and Turner had brainstormed some options for how to get their store off the ground so that they’d be able to get feedback and advice from other booksellers at the conference. That’s when they came up with the mobile concept. “We were like, ‘How can we prove we’re serious about this before we actually have a space? We thought about doing pop-up events, maybe having a trailer we could sell out of. Then we decided we should just do everything mobile — do a bookmobile,” Turner says.
The feedback they got at Winter Institute was overwhelmingly positive, and they came back energized — and with 13 bags of free books, courtesy of Winter Institute’s galley room. Those 13 bags became their first round of inventory, which they used to furnish their first Itinerant Literate pop-up event back in April. They hosted a kids’ Story Hour and raffle at the Revelry Brewing-sponsored Our Neck of the Woods fundraiser for Hampton Park, and Artist and Craftsman offered face painting of the characters from the books Thompson and Turner read.
Shortly after that, Itinerant Literate participated in the Dig South Spacewalk, offering a small selection of tech and creative books for sale at Lowcountry Local First. “Something we’re hoping to be able to do more and more is offer really heavily curated title lists,” Thompson says. “For Dig South we were looking for entrepreneurial books, outside-the-box and creative thinking, left brain-right brain — and of course, books by Dig South presenters.” Those included a children’s book that Thompson describes as “halfway between a children’s book and a graphic novel” called Sidewalk Flowers, by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith, and a little self-affirming book called You Are Doing A Freaking Great Job.
This kind of sales model is something the women want to continue to offer. “When we have our mobile unit, we’re hoping to be able to do the same thing, but in a larger volume for corporate events or festivals,” Thompson says. “It would be amazing to do that for Spoleto, or the Charleston Wine + Food Fest — to have very specific titles in there.” Once they have their mobile unit, they also plan to offer book club packages and party rentals for both kids and adults.
This summer, Thompson and Turner are planning a couple of other events, including a To Kill a Mockingbird trivia night in advance of the July 14 release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (you can pre-order the book on their website) and, tentatively, a Harry Potter Birthday Party. They’ve also developed a partnership with Tricera Coffee on George Street — although the details are still being worked out, the coffee shop will host Itinerant Literate on a semi-permanent basis for literary salons and other book-related events, as well as offer books for sale on consignment.
Then, on or around Aug. 1, Itinerant Literate will launch a crowdfunding campaign to purchase and outfit an Airstream for their own mobile bookstore. They’ve set a goal of $65,000, which will cover the purchase of the Airstream, rehabbing the inside with custom bookshelves, a computer, their first round of business-related fees, and their first inventory purchase, which will be about 3,000 titles. “The vast majority of that money will be for the inventory,” Thompson says. “The amount of money that we need to get the unit and get ready to sell is relatively small.”
Once they’re up and running, they’ll work toward having set locations and a set schedule, in addition to doing events in partnership with other local businesses. “We only want this to be mutually beneficial,” Thompson says. And that includes benefiting other local booksellers, as well. “Blue Bicycle has such a great used selection, and they do a tremendous job with YALLFest. We have nothing to add to that conversation except support and admiration,” she says. “We’ll do different things and occupy a different space in the market, but hopefully we will help to encourage and expand the literary community they’ve helped to build.”
That community is what’s really at the heart of this fantasy bookstore-turned-reality, anyway, say Turner and Thompson. In fact, that’s one reason they started doing these events in the first place: to find out what people want. There are so many different niches for bookstores to fill, Thompson says, and each one can add something unique to the local fabric. “We don’t want to be just the bookstore that we want — we want to be the bookstore that the community wants and needs. And we don’t pretend to know everything the community wants or needs.”