Two years ago, Melanie Moore looked out her kitchen window and saw a 1962 Volkswagen Transporter. The vehicle had been sitting in her driveway for years, but she suddenly saw it in a new light. Moore was in the middle of reading Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels, the story of a fictional horse-drawn bookseller.
Moore, a newly retired schoolteacher of 25 years, always dreamed of opening her own bookstore. She was even in the process of signing a lease for a brick-and-mortar store when Parnassus on Wheels fell into her hands.
Moore opened up the first chapter and read: “As he spoke he released a hook somewhere, and raised the whole side of his wagon like a flap. Some kind of catch clicked, the flap remained up like a roof, displaying nothing but books—rows and rows of them. The flank of his van was nothing but a big bookcase. Shelves stood above shelves, all of them full of books—both old and new.”
Moore paused, looked out the window and thought, “I could make that my bookstore.” She liked the idea of being able to run it whenever she wanted, from anywhere. “From that point, it was a year or so into getting it up and running,” Moore says.
Stumble upon the Book Bus before an event and you’ll find the exact same scene that’s depicted in Parnassus on Wheels: Before each event, Moore parks The Book Bus and unhooks the 100 percent cotton tarp of her VW Transporter, folding it up to reveal rows and rows of books.
In the middle of a nationwide heatwave, I drive to Wyoming Community Coffee—15 minutes north of Cincinnati, Ohio—to meet Moore. We were supposed to meet the day prior at Coffee Emporium in downtown Cincinnati, but a torrential downpour dampened our plans. As Moore says, “Books and rain don’t mix.” (Luckily, she has a climate-controlled room in her house to protect the books from the elements when she’s not on the road.)
When I arrive, the Book Bus sits in front of the building, but the tarp is drawn, with neither Moore nor any books in sight. Even so, a family walking a dog stops in front of the teal Volkswagen to inspect the bright orange logo.
As I walk inside the coffee shop, Moore greets me with a smile. “Sometimes, when it’s as hot as it is today, they let me set up shop inside,” she says.
Though the Book Bus is an independent, mobile store, Moore often partners with coffee shops and community markets across the greater Cincinnati area to set up a pop-up shop for a day or two. In the winter months—or during a heatwave—businesses like Wyoming Community Coffee invite Moore to park the bus in front of the building and bring some boxes of books inside to sell. During the warmer months, Moore still partners with local businesses, but instead opens the cotton flaps, displays her books in the sunlight, and invites customers to spend time walking around the bus, taking in all it has to offer.
For both Moore and the local businesses, the relationship is mutually beneficial. “These businesses usually like to have me come, because it gives them a special something to draw people in,” Moore says. A one-woman business, Moore drives The Book Bus, acts as a salesperson, sets up partnerships across Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, and runs all social media accounts. According to Moore, the Book Bus has enough fans that she usually ends up bringing her own customers. “Even today, I introduced this coffee shop to a couple of regular [Book Bus] customers who have never been here before,” she says.
As we chat, a barista—who Moore knows by name—picks out two books for her children: collector’s editions of The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden.
“Every time you come here, I can’t help myself,” the barista tells Moore. “I spend all of my money.”
Cover to cover, coast to coast
One would think a store on wheels would make for a great road trip vehicle, but because the Book Bus is over 55 years old, it’s not the easiest ride.
“It’s just really hard to drive. It’s a rough ride, it’s slow. You can only go 55 miles per hour, so keeping it local is best,” Moore says. “It’s a very physical drive, so you’re tired just from driving.”
With the Book Bus, Moore typically only drives as far north as Columbus, and as far south as Northern Kentucky. But even though the bus can’t always make long journeys, Moore travels far and wide to find the best quality books for her customers.
“My husband travels a lot for business, and I love to tag along. I visit bookstores wherever he travels, and some of the books come from there,” Moore says. Many of the books come from different regions across the country, but Moore also gestures to a specialty shelf with a small placard that reads, “Not currently sold in the U.S.” “When he goes abroad, I also go with him and bring back books that aren’t published here.”
Moore prides herself on stocking the best, most unique books for her readers: “I like to get books that are awesome, amazing books, but they’re not always a New York Times Bestseller.” To do so, Moore reads nearly every single book she stocks on her shelves. One of her favorite parts of owning the Book Bus is getting to introduce customers to their next favorite book.
She also stocks books based on events she’s working at, businesses she partners with, or holidays. When there was a homeschool conference in Cincinnati, Moore made sure to stock her shelves with as many children’s and educational books as she could find. When she partners with coffee shops, she often adds a few more poetry books to her collection. This weekend, Moore is attending The Jerry E. Moore Memorial 65th Annual Antique and Classic Car Parade in Hamilton County, Ohio, and plans to stock her shelves with books about cars and road travel.
Since she can’t take her bus or her books with her everywhere she goes, Moore wants to help connect readers with literature and other independent bookstores around the world.
Turning a new page
Though Moore is no longer a grade school teacher, her life and her business are still undoubtedly connected to the classroom. With the profits she makes from selling adult fiction, she buys books for teachers, students, and school libraries in inner-city and low-income neighborhoods of Cincinnati.
“I bought books before they went on summer break, so that the kids would have books to take home. I work with the teachers to build up their classroom libraries,” she says. “Teachers don’t make enough money and they don’t have enough money for their classrooms.”
When I ask Moore what her favorite part of owning and operating the Book Bus is, she excitedly tells me about how she hand-delivered dozens of books to a group of students several weeks ago.
When she arrived at the elementary school, the third graders came to the front of the school, and were so excited to see the Book Bus. Before Moore could grab the boxes, the kids started taking the books inside themselves. “They took the books off the bus and we carried them to the classroom, then we had reading time together,” Moore says.
Even though Moore had to retire from teaching in order to pursue her dream of opening a bookstore, she didn’t have to sacrifice any of her passions in the process. “I get to do it all—I get to have the teacher side and the book side,” Moore says. “But, meeting the kids and getting to see them excitedly hold the books in their hands—that’s my favorite part.”