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Little Bookshop owner Julie Wilkins sorts through books inside her mobile cart as construction on her storefront continues. Photo: Marieta-rita Osezua

How indie bookshop owners are using trucks to increase book accessibility

In the midst of a pandemic book boom, mobile bookstore owners are popping up in B.C. and increasing diversity 

By Josh Kozelj and Marieta-rita Osezua , in City , on February 8, 2022

When Julie Wilkins launched her mobile book business, Little Bookshop, four months ago in Squamish, she never imagined it would find a permanent home.

Her goal was to teach her two daughters about the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equality — especially following the focus on social justice in 2020.

That was a year that saw children’s books written by authors of colour grow by three per cent compared to 2019. According to a June 2020 New York Times article, seven of the top 10 books on Amazon and the top nine books at Barnes & Noble focused on race and anti-racism in the week following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. 

After Wilkins started a club focused on family-friendly resources to highlight diverse and underrepresented voices, she realized Squamish needed a bookstore that focused on those issues.

Julie Wilkins removes a sheet covering a bookshelf as construction continues on her permanent storefront location. Photo: Marieta-rita Osezua

Her solution, creating a bookmobile that visited parks and communities, quickly garnered attention.

“There’s such an appetite for those types of books here,” said Wilkins.

“Ever-changing topics like gender, inclusion, diversity, trying to stay on the tip of those topics and having new books is something we don’t have access to. People were always asking where to buy them and Little Bookshop grew out of that.”

Located about 70 kilometre north of Vancouver, Little Bookshop has amassed a large following on social media and high local interest in Squamish. Photo: Josh Kozelj

In just four months of operation, the Little Bookshop has gained 1,300 followers on Instagram and 1,000 likes on Facebook. Wilkins is now preparing to move into a storefront location in downtown Squamish later in 2022.

The move represents a larger shift of book owners in the province getting in the industry through a mobile van.

Construction paper hides the renovations of Little Bookshop’s upcoming permanent downtown location on Second Avenue. Photo: Josh Kozelj
A pandemic bookboom 

Bookmobiles have been around for many years and used by libraries to reach out to local communities. The Toronto Public Library still operates a bookmobile regularly. However, bookmobiles by independent booksellers are opening up in places around the United States, including Santa Ana and the Bronx, and now here in B.C.

In 2017, Iron Dog Books became the first mobile book business in Vancouver when their bookmobile hit the streets with the goal of increasing readership and building community. Two years after opening, owners Cliff and Hilary Atleo opened a permanent storefront location in Vancouver. 

That storefront gave the owners space to house an additional 15,000 books, and anchor their business while maintaining the ability to reach different areas of the community with a bookmobile. 

“I want our city to reflect our regional specificity, to have a unique character, and to be a viable home to the type of locally owned businesses that anchor a neighbourhood,” Atleo told the CBC in 2019. 

An interior shot of Fable Book Parlour’s bookmobile. Photo: Stacy Batchelor

Two years after Iron Dog’s permanent store launched, roughly 560 kilometres away from Vancouver, Stacy Batchelor, co-owner of Fable Books Parlour, launched a bookmobile during the pandemic months after Revelstoke’s only bookstore closed its doors in January 2021. 

Batchelor used her bookmobile to attract customers as her plans to open a storefront came to fruition.

“It really garnered excitement towards the storefront opening because people had seen us and they knew our names and our faces,” she said.

Stacy Batchelor, Allie Bruni, and Kristin Olsen are co-owners of Fable Book Parlour. Photo: Stacy Batchelor

The book industry saw its popularity skyrocket during the pandemic while other industries struggled.

Patricia Massy, owner of Vancouver’s Massy Books which focuses on Indigenous books, does not own a bookmobile but found other mobility initiatives — such as offering free shipping to customers — to make books more accessible amid the renewed interest in the industry.

Located in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood, Massy Books is 100-per-cent Indigenous-owned. Photo: Marieta-rita Osezua

Similar to Wilkins, Massy wanted to heighten awareness about diversity and social justice in her local community.

“We did it because people weren’t coming out and people wanted books,” Massy said. “We decided that we would bring the book to the customer. Make it enticing. We would make it easy for them to get their book,” said Massy.

“They wanted to shop at Indigenous-and Black-owned bookstores because of what was happening in the world at that time.”

Focusing on diverse and representative books for young folks, children’s books line the front porch of Little Bookshops’ bookmobile. Photo: Marieta-rita Osezua
What is next for bookstore owners? 

From Squamish to Revelstoke, these bookstores are bringing broader conversations about diversity and inclusion into local communities.

For instance, Batchelor says her bookmobile allowed her to reach audiences in unexpected places.

“There’s a crowd of people that you can access that you would never see. They’re not regular to a bookstore, they’re not going to seek out a bookstore,” she said. “By virtue of being in an unexpected place, it gave us access to different demographics”

Although Fable Books Parlour has only been open for four months, just as Little Bookshop, Batchelor plans to continue growing her bookstore to serve the Revelstoke community. As for the bookmobile, she wants to potentially use it at campsites, music festivals, farmers markets and other special events. 

“It really was a fun, achievable way, I think, to enter into the idea of a world of business,” Batchelor said. 

Julie Wilkins looks on as her storefront completes renovations. Photo: Marieta-rita Osezua

Wilkins hoped to have Little Bookshop’s storefront opened on Feb. 1. However, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she has delayed opening until at least March.

Wilkins wants to establish her storefront as a safe space for folks to enjoy and expand the reach of her bookmobile throughout the Sea-to-Sky corridor.

“We have a large elderly community, there’s people that live out in the valley, Bowen Island, Pemberton that don’t have a bookshop either,” Wilkins said.

“It’s important for everyone to see themselves in the pages of a book.”