Tuesday, April 20, 2010

America's first bookshop caravan

Nearly one hundred years ago, the idea of a portable book shop, motorized on wheels, was just that--an idea. Then along came Christopher Morley's little book, Parnassus on Wheels, in 1917, and the idea soon became a reality in the summer of 1920 thanks to a woman named Bertha Mahony, whom I'll introduce a bit later. First, here's the roundabout way I discovered her.

The following book introduced me to the first book shop caravan in the United States: The Truth About Publishing, by Stanley Unwin (Houghton Mifflin, 1927). This book appears to have been from a special edition published for the American Booksellers Association, with the compliments of the Houghton Mifflin Company.

Almost hidden, deep inside this book on page 191, is a footnote about the first attempts to put a motorized caravan into action for selling books to rural customers.

In a chapter titled, The Actual Selling, the author wades into a subject he's long been interested in--the idea of a caravan book shop to serve the rural areas. He makes the comparison to libraries and the loan of books through traveling caravans, or what came to be known as bookmobiles. He goes on to describe a scenario for how such an undertaking might actually be successful. He foresaw a group of publishers managing the caravan bookshop as a cooperative working closely with local booksellers' associations. The goal would be "to put every new customer in touch with the nearest bookseller from whom supplies could be obtained between the caravan's visit."

The author asks the question, "Is this Utopian?" He then answers his own question: "I think not." He ends his thoughts on the subject with the following footnote:
In the summers of 1919 and 1920 the Women's Industrial Union of Boston, through its Bookshop for Boys and Girls, with the backing of a group of American publishers, made the experiment of sending a motor caravan, equipped as a bookshop, throughout the country districts and summer resorts of New England. The enterprise was not a financial success and the supporting publishers lost heart after two seasons. It is possible that greater perseverance would have brought about a different result. In any event, valuable educational work was done. In the summer of 1926 several adventures in the field, undertaken by enterprising young women, achieved a modest success.
And with that chapter's footnote, I put the book down and began searching for a footnote in history--the first book caravan in America. Akin to an early bookmobile, this caravan was for selling books, not renting them out. I thought it an intriguing bit of history and soon learned others felt the same, as there was a good bit of material on the subject.

Bertha Mahony was the driving force (no pun intended) behind the book shop caravan. She was the founding editor of the Horn Book Magazine (publications about children's literature) and later founded the Bookshop for Boys and Girls in Boston in 1916. She began to envision selling books from a rolling caravan throughout rural New England before Morley's Parnassus on Wheels was even published, but Morley's book may have provided the encouragement she needed to make her dream a reality.

The Horn Book site has a Virtual History Scrapbook with articles and images of the Bookshop Caravan. Barbara Bader wrote an excellent piece in 1999, titled Treasure Island by the Roadside.

My search on the subject led to an ad for the "Miniature Bookshop on Wheels." Extracted from a contemporary publication, it offers an illustration of the caravan, which I now have in my collection of book trade ephemera:

Real photos of the caravan, as well as related images of a log book, can be seen HERE. For another set of scrapbook entries, which feature original clippings of publicity for the bookshop caravan, click HERE. There, you'll also find a link to a readable format for the clippings. And finally, for a related post on book automobiles, see Larry T. Nix's recent article on the subject HERE.

For you bibliophiles and history buffs, once you start digging into the story of the bookshop caravan, you're in for an intriguing journey through the history of bookselling, bookshops, and caravans and bookmobiles, not to mention books, during the early twentieth century. It's a fascinating trip with some interesting stops along the way.

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