On a July morning in 1920, a strange, hybrid vehicle headed north out of Boston for a summer’s tour of New England towns and villages, for all the world like a traveling circus or a band of puppeteers. Aboard were a pair of young women with a working knowledge, between them, of auto mechanics, shopkeeping, and books, especially children’s books. The signboards read, doubtless to the mystification of many, The Bookshop for Boys and Girls and Women’s Educational and Industrial Union.
This apparition had, fittingly, both real and fictional antecedents. Here and there a library “book wagon” made the rounds of outlying communities — the first appeared in Maryland in 1905, and others soon followed. Hibbing, Minnesota, had the first full-fledged bookmobile — the first vehicle that could be entered — in 1915. But it was a novel about an itinerant bookseller, Christopher Morley’s 1917 charmer Parnassus on Wheels, that turned a gleam in Bertha Mahony’s eye into a game-plan.
The Bookshop for Boys and Girls, founded by Mahony in 1916 as an adjunct of Boston’s Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, was a handsomely appointed, expertly staffed children’s library — modeled after Anne Carroll Moore’s Forty-second Street redoubt — where, invitingly, the books were for sale (and a small, compatible selection of adult titles kept child-minders occupied). Mahony herself was as passionate about promoting good books, and good books only, as any librarian, a bold stand for a bookseller. From the start, the Bookshop issued a buying guide prepared with librarian assistance, and presented a variety of programs, often with librarian speakers. The partnership extended to staffing. Children’s librarians worked in the shop and, in due course, on the Caravan.
Other interested parties helped get the Caravan on the road. Publishers paid for the vehicle and its maintenance. Maurice Day, illustrator of juvenile make-believe, drew the poster and leaflet promoting the tour. John Farrar, incoming editor of The Bookman and author of masques, contributed a set of buoyant, fanciful verses promising, in one stanza,
A turquoise book for mid-day,
A golden book for dawn,
A calico book for kitchens
And a green book for the lawn.
Christopher Morley lent his good name as Godfather.
The tour was minutely planned and exuberantly spontaneous. Each day the Caravaners set up shop on schedule in a different locale. “Monday, August 8, Ogunquit, Maine. Location is near the Post Office on the land of Mr. Ray P. Hancom. Tuesday, August 9. Kennebunkport. Location is near Mr. Hoff’s blacksmith shop.” They put up their striped awning, set out table and chairs, and threw open their doors. Then they could expect the unexpected — a visit from a curious town official, an impromptu reading by a local author, an invitation to address artists- or librarians-in-training. Between scheduled stops they found themselves dispensing books — about finger plays, Western adventures, and the Treaty of Versailles — at gas stations and general stores.
To Mahony’s regret, the Caravan had to stop at many “fine summer places” — seashore and mountain resorts — to provide dollars-and-cents returns to the sponsoring publishers. What was the value of taking books to people who took books for granted? So she was gratified, even exhilarated, to report that sales in the industrial town of Barre, Vermont, equaled those in posh Northeast Harbor. Purchases by servants and modest folk at the fancier spots were another plus for the Caravan’s real, social purpose.
Most productive of all, probably, was the library connection. The 1920 summer schedule wound up at the New York Library Association meeting at Lake Placid, where the Caravan was much admired. The expanded 1921 schedule routed the Caravan to that year’s ALA convention, at Swampscott. In town and countryside, a traveling bookstore was picturesque, romantic, evocative. A bookmobile, bearing the name of the local library, was realizable.
The 1920s, the Motor Age, saw bookmobiles — still known as “book wagons” — in service from coast to coast, in urban as well as rural areas. The Bookshop’s Caravan, a conspicuous business failure, had a long, useful afterlife as a bookmobile in upstate New York, with an ex-Caravaner in charge. Nothing daunted, Mahony and her cohorts devised other schemes to lure people in and to reach out. Some, like the Puppet Parade, are fond memories. The Horn Book, which grew out of the booklists, is still on schedule and wide-open at seventy-five.
© 1999 by Barbara Bader