Nashville Schoolchildren Discover New Equation: Bus + Books = Magic

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Beep beep! Your bookstore’s here.

Want to make a crowd of schoolchildren go wild (without serving even a single ice cream cone)? Pull up in a bus full of books and let them climb inside and browse. When we put the Parnassus on Wheels bookmobile on the road nearly two years ago, we had a hunch it might be popular at local schools — but even we didn’t realize what a hit it would become with kids, parents, and teachers. Sure enough, Nashville-area schools are falling in love with the little roving bookshop.  

Want to get in on the fun with your own school or organization? Here’s a Q&A about how it all works — with the bookmobile captain herself, Parnassus bookseller Grace Wright.


Q: For those who are new to Nashville or haven’t seen it around town yet: what is the bookmobile?

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Grace on the bookmobile

A: When we say it’s a bookstore on wheels, we mean it quite literally. As soon as you step on the bus, you’re standing inside a little store with books taking up every available inch of “wall” space. Occasionally, we are mistaken for a library-on-wheels or a food truck (food for the mind is more like it!). That’s one of the reasons we keep a bookseller on board who is always excited to make personalized recommendations just like in our brick-and-mortar store. Our goal is to take the Parnassus experience — the joy of visiting an indie bookstore and taking home a book you’ll love — all over Nashville and its surrounding communities.

The bookmobile has become a part of the Parnassus family. While her given name is “Parnassus On Wheels,” don’t be surprised to hear booksellers referring to her fondly as “Peggy.” Karen was inspired to start calling the bus Peggy because of the Pegasus logo artist Bryce McCloud designed for the bus. It’s a nice extension of the Greek mythology in our name: Parnassus, Pegasus . . .

Q: So is it always stocked with the same books, or do you switch up the selection?

A: Our general inventory has selections for readers from infants to adults. We pack the bus full of staff favorites, bestsellers from the store, books we think everyone should own, and of course signed Ann Patchett books. I like to think of it as the Parnassus Books’ “best of” collection. My favorite section, personally, is a shelf of small-format books, including our reigning bestseller, Sad Animal Facts.

However, when we go to schools or festivals, we tailor Peggy’s inventory depending on the age and interests of our audience, which is part of the fun of running a bookmobile. You can really see this when we visit schools. We try to pack the bus with our favorite titles for young readers as well as books that have been requested by the school — for example, summer reading or books that the library is hoping to add to their collection. (Sad Animal Facts, of course, remains a mainstay.) Even then, we do keep at least some adult titles on hand. I’m sure it will surprise no one to know that teachers love browsing books as well!

Q: You mentioned schools. Have school events turned into the most popular destination for Peggy?

Musing_PRIDEkidsA: We definitely have a special relationship with schools, but we’ve also participated in art crawls, makers’ markets (such as The Sunday Market and Porter Flea), bazaars at Casa Azafran, the Shops at Porter East 1st Sundays block party, and even the Nashville tree lighting ceremony — to name just a few. It has also been really exciting to partner with Good Neighbor Festivals and attend some of Nashville’s wonderful festivals like the American Artisan Festival and Pride. We’ve worked with so many local businesses and organizations that have welcomed us and helped make the bookmobile’s journeys possible. Nashville is such a creative and collaborative community. I’m sure there are partnerships out there we haven’t even imagined yet.

But yes — we’ve found a really great match working with schools. I am continually excited to work with educators and help support the amazing work that they are doing. We’ve been very fortunate to work directly with individual schools as well as with programs like Read to Be Ready, an incredible organization that supports literacy across Tennessee. Not to downplay our other amazing partnerships, but getting to engage with students is my favorite part of running a bookmobile.

Q: Are the kids curious when they see the truck pull up at school? Do they get excited?

A: They get really, REALLY excited! I have a working theory that there is some magical alchemy that happens when you combine a bus with books — it creates instant wonder. The excitement definitely doesn’t fade when they realize the bus is full of books. I think that’s when they get more excited, actually. They can touch the books, show friends stories they love, and hopefully find a book that speaks to them.

For a lot of the kids, a bookstore — not to mention a bookstore on wheels — is a new experience, but it’s also small and cozy enough not to be overwhelming. My hope is that the bus feels like a space that has been created just for them.

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Extremely adorable young book-lover onboard Parnassus on Wheels!

Q: How do these events work? Are they all the same? 

A: Our school events work in a variety of ways. Last May we visited a number of schools before the semester ended, stocked with assigned and recommended summer reading titles. We’ve joined literacy nights and talent shows and award assemblies. We’re working on ways to partner with schools for fundraising or to help fulfill library wish lists, too. Given the flexibility of the bookmobile, it’s easy to work with schools on what kind of visit would be best for their community.  We collaborate to make the event successful all around and provide a specifically tailored inventory that students, parents, and educators can all be excited about.

Last year, for example, Peggy had the honor of being invited to Lebanon High School to take part in their book club’s Literacy Fair. The students set up an entire fair centered around recommending their favorite genres and titles. They and their fellow students then got to visit the bookmobile and experience a space with titles tailored directly to their interests. It was a really fun, engaging event.

What remains the same with every visit is that we donate a portion of the proceeds back to the school or an organization of their choice. It’s really important to us as a local business to help support our community, especially the institutions educating the next generation.

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Q: Is there anywhere the bookmobile doesn’t go?

A: Well, Peggy can’t go much further than an hour outside Nashville. She’s an older bus, so unfortunately she can’t get out and about like she did in her youth. Otherwise, we really just evaluate each potential partnership based on its own unique benefits and challenges. We are a small business, of course, so we have to think about covering the costs of each outing. (After all, we need to keep Peggy in diesel and fluids!) But we’re still discovering all the wonderful possibilities of the bookmobile, and we’re always interested in hearing from anyone with a new or unusual partnership idea. From there, we can figure out if it’s a good fit for everyone involved!

Q: Winter will be over before we know it. Are you scheduling spring events and appearances now? And what should a school or organization do if they’re interested in teaming up?

A: Believe it or not, yes! We even have several plans already in place for summer.  Anyone with interest in proposing an event with Peggy the Parnassus on Wheels bookmobile should simply email me, Grace Wright, at bookmobile@parnassusbooks.net, and we can get the ball rolling. Or . . . get the bus rolling.

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Where’s Peggy? Right now she’s resting in her garage, but soon she’ll be out and about all over Nashville. Track her whereabouts — and find out when you can visit her next — by following @ParnassusTruck on Twitter! #wherespeggy