Asheville’s mobile bookshops bring lit to unconventional places

WHEELS ON THE BUS: Chapters Bookstop is the brainchild of Dawnn Sanders, who converted a decommissioned 1989 school bus from Robbinsville into a pop-up bookstore on wheels. Photo courtesy of Sanders

Book lovers, not surprisingly, are often bookshop lovers as well. The pleasures of being surrounded by literature and recommending the right title to a reader are an attractive pull for those in the trade. And while Asheville has long been home to brick-and-mortar bookstores that are beloved spaces for readers, joining them recently are two mobile bookshops that bring the printed word to coffee shops, markets and fairs.

Lit Local Mini Bookshops is the brainchild of Jacqui Castle, an author and a former Mountain Xpress contributor. Rather than a singular space, the mobile bookshop is actually four small carts stacked with books found at four locations around Asheville: Filo Pastries & Post 70 Indulgence Bar in South Asheville, Gallivant Coffee in Woodfin, PennyCup Coffee Haw Creek and Story Parlor, an arts space in West Asheville.

Chapters Bookstop is a converted bus that owner Dawnn Sanders parks at locations around the region. Her stock of new and used books, organized by genre, lines the shelved interior. “It feels magical when you step into a mobile bookstore,” she says. “It’s not something you see every day. It feels whimsical and sweet and unique.”

Promoting local authors

Lit Local Mini Bookshops seeks to highlight local authors, so Castle limits inventory to authors who live in WNC. “There’s so many writers in this town, and it just boggles my mind that I don’t feel like I’ve really scratched the surface,” she explains. She’s currently limiting each cart to one title per author because the carts are small — they’re utility carts from a Michaels craft store — and she wants everyone to be represented.

Castle hopes the region’s residents as well as visitors will delight in immersing themselves in the local literary scene. “Tourists come here, and they love to see all the art,” Castle says. “[Writers are] part of that, and I think sometimes we don’t consider ourselves part of that. So how do we bring [literature] to the spaces where people already are?”

The book carts display a mix of fiction and nonfiction from 35 authors who are with traditional publishing houses as well as self-published. Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, Wiley Cash, Thomas Calder (Mountain Xpress managing editor) and Alli Marshall (former Mountain Xpress arts and entertainment editor) were just a few authors whose books filled the cart at Filo.

READ ‘EM AND WEEP: Jacqui Castle sells books by Western North Carolina authors from Lit Local bookshops-on-carts at coffee shops around Asheville. Customers can pay for their books via Venmo. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Lit Local’s stock includes young adult novels, picture books and poetry. Each book has a Venmo code on the back, so customers can purchase directly without involving the coffeeshop staff. The carts are sponsored by local businesses, and Castle hopes that more businesses will reach out to sponsor carts in order to bring them to more locations.

Dreams come true

Chapters Bookstop opened in June, and Sanders has parked her bright, turquoise-painted minibus at 30 events.

The book bus is a part-time job for Sanders, who works full time as a business manager. But her weekend gig hawking books is a labor of love for which she’s grateful. “For as long as I can remember I’ve had a love of books and literature and always wanted to have a bookstore,” she says. However, she assumed that opening her own bookstore might happen later in life, given the startup costs of opening a brick-and-mortar establishment.

But then she realized she didn’t have to open a brick-and-mortar. During the pandemic, Sanders says she saw an online meme that joked, “This is how you can kidnap me” alongside a picture of a van filled with books and plants. Researching how to outfit a van with bookshelves, she says she “went down a bit of a rabbit hole with mobile bookstores.” Having witnessed such enterprises while traveling in Europe, she realized there might be a market for them in WNC.

The small school bus, which was built in 1989, was retired from the Robbinsville school district. Sanders bought it from a private seller who purchased it at an auction. “It’s actually never left WNC, which feels really special,” she says. “That feels meant to be.”

She and a former partner ripped up the bus’s flooring and put down new floors, assembled the shelves and painted. (The bus does not have electricity.) Sanders’ former partner is “very handy” and completed a lot of the woodworking, she notes — but she also learned a lot of refurbishment skills via YouTube and jokes that she was going to Lowe’s three times a week at one point.

The end result is a bus with one row featuring children’s and young adult books, two walls of shelves featuring books with local authors, poetry, short stories and classics, and coffee table books, and then rear shelves with fiction and nonfiction. Sanders says customers are charmed by the cozy atmosphere she’s created: wooden shelves, potted plants, a pale mint-green interior. In between sales, she says, “I just read — it’s perfect.”

Pre-loved and new

Chapters Bookstop carries about 500 books on the bus. The sales vary, says Sanders; at some venues, she’s sold only three books, and there are others where she has sold a hundred.

Sanders buys new books directly from publishers, and she sources used books herself. Selling new books is more of a financial risk as a bookseller, she says, noting how the shop can be stuck with inventory if a title doesn’t sell. Sanders stocks only two or three copies of new books at a time, and as a result, “I get really excited when I sell a new book because there’s a little more thought that goes into it,” she says.

Two recent new-book sales that brought her pride were Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures by Connie Wang, a memoir about a mother and daughter who travel, and Weyward by Emilia Hart, a novel that has been a New York Times bestseller. (Sanders suggests that the artful cover of Weyward, which depicts birds, beetles, bees and butterflies, attracts customers, but notes it’s a great read as well.)

Sanders bulk orders used books on sites like eBay and sorts through them to find what is sellable. People also donate books for her to sell. Used books that have been a little too “loved” are available for free in a basket on the bus, and they’ve been popular with customers.

More to come

Chapters Bookstop has primarily parked at markets, although Sanders has to be mindful about the venues to which she applies. Many WNC markets focus on crafts or foods, and Sanders explains that she doesn’t make any of the items she’s selling.

Her favorite location for Chapters Bookstop was The Learning Community School, a private school in Swannanoa. “I’ve never had that many kids on the bus at one time. … The joy on their faces was so sweet,” she recalls. The school brought the bus to campus for a parents day event, and families browsed together. Sanders found the experience touching and hopes to be invited to more school events in the future.

Although Lit Local Mini Bookshops is based in coffee shops, Castle is willing to travel, too. For example, she recently appeared at a poetry and prose event and sold Lit Local inventory at Story Parlor, as well as the Read Local, Write Local fair at Black Mountain Library.

In July, Castle partnered with Gold Leaf Literary, a public relations agency that works with many local authors. Two of their clients — Lauren Yero, who recently published Under This Forgetful Sky, and Meagan Lucas, who recently published Here in the Dark: Stories — participated in a Lit Local Mini Bookshops signing event at Filo and Gallivant. “They both sold out,” Castle says of the authors, adding that it encouraged her that customers may enjoy more book signing events.

The book signings also provided a joyful community connection for the authors and let them share their books in a celebratory setting, Castle says. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and the self-promotion that comes with marketing one’s own project isn’t always a comfortable fit for writers, she notes.

“I’m an author myself, and sometimes launch day [when a book is published] … it’s a little anticlimactic,” Castle says with a laugh. “To be able to sit around with writers and be excited and celebrate all day, it was just so fun.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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