From May to October, you can find Rita Collins, 70, in the front seat of a white Sprinter van, driving across America. In this era of RVs and #vanlife Instagram photos, Collins’ ride is set apart. Rattling around, in the back of her van, is a fully functional used bookstore.
While stopping in small towns and cities around the U.S., Collins relishes in the wonder that comes across people’s faces when they realize this van is not like any other. Whether she’s parked outside of a book festival, coffee shop or farmer’s market, Collins finds herself having the same conversation, encouraging people to climb the wooden steps and take a peek inside.
“You look at it, and it’s a van. But I say, way too many times, 'You need to go in.' People go inside and say, ‘It’s a bookstore!” Collins said, laughing. “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 Textual Apothecary has floor-to-ceiling shelves 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 set at a 15 degree angle to keep them from falling as Collins drives from state to state — so far, she’s been to 30, and has traveled cross-country three times.
“I can’t imagine a better way of spending time than the traveling bookstore,” Collins said. “It’s so special. But for some reason, there are so few.”
To get her bookstore in motion — literally — Collins had to dream big, for there weren’t many models to follow (currently, there are only a few other examples of traveling bookstores in business — one in the Bronx, one in France).
The bookstore was named after St. Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes. When Collins first came up with the idea, it really did seem impossible.
In 2015, while anticipating retiring from her job as a teacher, Collins dreamed of making a bookstore her next chapter. “Don’t all people who love books want to open up a bookstore?” she mused.
But in a week-long business-planning course with the American Booksellers Association, Collins was told opening a bookstore would be unsustainable 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 doesn’t have the foot traffic to sustain a bookstore. So, Collins thought she would bring a bookstore to others. She got in touch with Jeff Towns, the owner of Dylan’s Mobile Bookstore, a traveling bookstore in Wales (which has since folded back into a brick-and-mortar store, as has The Daisy Chain Bookstore in Canada, another similar store).
Towns gave her some tips, like having a typewriter as a way to beckon in customers. To this day, she sets out a typewriter outside the store, along with a display table, chairs and price sign.
Beyond Towns’ advice, though, Collins was largely on her own. The first step was finding a van that could accommodate her vision. Collins went to the local mechanic with her list of requirements: large enough to stand up in, low mileage, easy to park and used.
“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 got a call from the same mechanic, saying he found exactly what she was looking for. He even negotiated the price down.
The specifics needed to execute her vision continued to line up. She worked with an architect friend to set up shelves — and to this day, she said, she’s “never lost” a book while driving. Then, she hired a graphic designer to create the logo for the bookstore’s name, partially inspired by traveling medicine vans, only books were doing the healing.
“He said, “People don’t like long names.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. This is what we’re going with,’” she said.
It worked. “It really does feel fortuitous, how things unfolded,” Collins said.
The first summer, she traveled around her county in northwestern Montana. Then, a couple visiting from Brooklyn gave her the idea to travel to the Brooklyn Book Festival. Collins made her first cross-country trip in the summer of 2016.
Her business — and her routes — continue to be sustained by connections she makes along the way. “The bookstore opens people up,” she said.
This summer, Collins is traveling 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’ll head 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 down her itineraries on a notebook, then prints them out to have in the front seat.
The bookstore is a surprisingly social venture — perfect for Collins, a self-described extrovert (and Leo). She said she never gets lonely, not even while traveling for weeks at a time. “A friend of mine has an RV and travels a lot. It’s one thing to just go to an RV park and move on to the next one. I’m stopping and I’m having so many conversations,” she said.
Collins mostly stays with people she met through the bookstore, or other fortuitous connections. For example, for the South Dakota Book Festival, a member of her quilting group connected her with a cousin in Brookings, SD. “I feel fortunate, because it makes it affordable. But it also gives me insight. I’m meeting people I wouldn’t normally meet,” she said.
Effectively, through her hobby, Collins also has a front-row seat to America. “One of the reasons I don’t know why more people don’t do this is because it’s fascinating,” Collins said.
Though Collins is doing the driving, people — and strangers — are what keep the store going. They donate the volumes that stock the shelves. Collins gives an example of the traveling bookstore’s propensity for good luck and acts of generosity. One summer, while stopping in Asheville, NC on her way to a book event in Raleigh, a local bookseller was impressed by her selection and cleared out a third of her stock — meaning she didn’t have books. “I called my host up and said, good news and bad news. I sold a ton, but it means I don’t have books at this point,” she said.
The woman invited her book club over the next day, and asked each to bring a bag of books. Collins was fully stocked by the time of the event. “I don’t know what makes it work so well. Maybe there’s an alternate universe where no, it would not work. But at least in the universe, things are working,” she said.
When she started traveling, Collins put herself on a timeline. One more year, maybe two. Now, she said, she’s keeping this as her summer hobby indefinitely. “I like doing this so much. I think I’ll just keep doing it,” she said.
But she thinks the bookstore can go beyond her. While she’s “not a businesswoman,” she believes someone could make a viable business from traveling the country via van. As it stands, Collins said she breaks even. She’s not making money, she said, but she’s not losing it either.
“I’m looking for a business partner,” she said. “Somebody who might want to take it over. It’s just so special. It’s just so good.”