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The Life and Trials of a Mobile Bookstore

05 Jul

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Eight years ago, we embarked on a journey to provide literature to a city without a bookstore at that time. It was a move that was worth it; the supporters we’ve met, the connections made with other published and aspiring authors, and fun times setting up our mobile bookstore inside the Vallejo Farmers Market.

We got questions of how and why we did it, setting up a “mobile bookstore” in the middle of a farmer’s market every Saturday. First, as a transplanted author via Southern California, I met and established a partnership with Vallejo’s art director who allowed me to sell my then fiancée’s novel and my own books at the Artist’s Square, a small public park reserved for artisans who sold their wares. When I began to sell my books at the square, it was a regular four foot table with my works, a mailing list, nothing fancy or elaborate, just a normal set up. We heard from local residents of the lack of a bookstore, explaining the times the city had shops in the past only to see them fail. Reasons included high overhead, ridiculous demands by politicians, and so on. For us to be successful, we had to create a presence where potential readers could access. As we continued to sell our books in the square, more books were added from book sales in the area and posting Craigslist ads online. Our assertive actions paid off as we gathered the attention of book lovers, literary enthusiasts, even bloggers who worked for publishing houses in the Bay.

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We believed that our solitary four foot table wouldn’t be enough. Visibility was key in order to stand out from the many vendors who occupied the farmers market. Fortunately, we had a canopy that we used selling our books at different gatherings in the North Bay. Once the canopy was rolled out that first Saturday, created signage to alert the passers-by of our presence, our mobile bookstore was up and ready to go. Commitments back home and inclement weather caused us not to set up often in the first two years, but we stuck with our dream of becoming an impromptu local bookstore that was well known by city leaders, activists and the media.

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Four months after we established our business we were interviewed by a reporter who worked for the city’s newspaper and covered our efforts. This same reporter would frequent our mobile bookstore often and bought a book or two. The interview was what we needed to let this city know Chatmon’s Books was on the map. Now the folks of Vallejo felt with our mobile bookstore, they would finally get what they deserved; a bookstore to call their own. Offers began pouring in. We spoke to people who advised us to rent space for at least six months at one of the vacant storefronts in the downtown area. Keep in mind, we set up shop at the exact time Vallejo declared bankruptcy, so while creating and maintaining a mobile bookstore was fun at first, the depressing sight of businesses moving in and moving out was a challenge to us.

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The following year, the art director allowed us to move on the corner in front of his store. This was a shot in the arm as far as visibility and sales. We developed regular customers and made sure to purchase the books they were looking for. Our bookstore focused on buying used books because the process of obtaining new books by bestselling authors involved using money which we did not have to buy the new titles out on the market. Used books are easier to buy for a mobile bookstore because someone has already read the book and either decided to keep it in their garage or just give it away. This is where we made most of our purchases to build our inventory.

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The year 2008 was significant for a number of ways. Not only is it the year we opened our mobile bookstore or the year Vallejo declared bankruptcy, it was also the year a major threat to not only our bookstore but other brick-and-mortar shops emerged; Amazon unleashed the Kindle. Booksellers had to figure out a way to beat the convenience of books anyone could read on a battery-operated device with as many titles as they wanted. It was a paradise for readers; an inferno to most of us who deal in selling books. It wasn’t long before the questions for our bookstore’s existence were asked, or the folks who approached our canopy proclaimed within earshot, “I get my books for free!” Although we fluctuated on prices when we started, settling on a nice range that would motivate the Saturday crowds to buy from us, there was no way we could ever beat ‘free’. Even the Kindle users would stop by our table, peeking at our selection before telling us, “I have nine-hundred books in my Kindle!” Those words were a sure sign this reader would not buy from us. It was a statement heard often.

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If the weather was sunny and perfect, it was a good day to operate the mobile bookstore. Sales were great during those times and conversations with readers and local folk were interesting and informative. On days when the weather was cloudy or terrible, we decided to stay home to protect the books from damages caused by rain or harsh temperatures. We would still receive “advice” on where our bookstore should go. Our supporters would tell us to use an old house away from downtown, far from our usual space in front of the Art Department and other suggestions were made as well, none of them would have made sense to open a bookstore. Our presence at the farmers market would have drawbacks too. Our host from the Art Department would have other artists to occupy the space we were in which made our days difficult to make sales. We would be in competition with a jewelry dealer with a canopy bigger than ours, along with painters, craft makers, all on the same corner. The host would even ask us to move away from our spot around the corner to make room for these other artists which would have been a challenge had we not hung banners inside our canopy. Although we had no idea at the time, the shine, the excitement of a mobile bookstore in a city without one started to fade.

As time passed, we spent Saturdays without one single sale. We had a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, created a mailing list alerting folks of our presence or ‘special sales’ but the crowds never showed up. It reached a point of frustration when a group of dancers in the middle of one street (all the streets in the farmers market were blocked off) in front of our A-frame sign, bumped into it without any regard of the reason it was placed there. I was angry, upset, felt bitter for our all times we had set up on that corner, it was apparent we had become invisible. Even our appearance on a local public access channel advertising our bookstore felt wasted. Even though times were rough, we would not give up. We continued spending our time looking for books that we felt might sell, we created an online bookstore via connections with authors I knew from the literary event I ran in L.A. We had come too far to give up. We would not stop until we decided it was enough.

Whether it was Juneteenth, the Wednesday Night Celebration or other festivals taking place in Vallejo, we were there selling books while establishing our presence in the community. Through our rough times of not making too many sales, we were fortunate for the few who supported us along the way. It wasn’t just hard on our bookstore; it was hard on the artisans too. The failing national economy hit all of us hard, not just the folks in Vallejo. Along with the bankruptcy on one end, the rise of Kindle on the other, there were days we wondered if the bookstore was worth setting up on most Saturdays while facing disappointment week after week. Besides my other commitments back in Los Angeles in teaching writers workshops and running a book expo, the bookstore turned from a labor of love into a nightmare.

With an uncertain future facing us, it was time to make a decision to move out of town and head towards Southern California. The present situation of living in Vallejo became unbearable as storefronts closed and potential businesses stayed away. Even the citizens began to lose faith in their own city. Therefore, these factors made our decision easier to leave Sweet Home Vallejo. Personally, I was frustrated by the declining readers who moved out of the city to find ‘greener pastures’, activists who wouldn’t even bother to approach our table or turn their heads at the first sight of us, and the endless conversations with folks who had something to say but nothing to buy. It became too much and in April 13, 2013 after five challenging years of running our mobile bookstore, we decided to leave that chapter preparing ourselves for the new one.

Since our move back to Southern California, Chatmon’s Books as a mobile and online bookstore is inactive for the moment. The mobile bookstore made one appearance at a literary event in a local college and a Juneteenth program in 2014 and the result was still the same. Not one sale. I blame it on the shifting winds of the book trade. The creation of e-books has made it harder to sell printed books these days as sales for both have both lowered recently. Still we continue on with our social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram. As far as our experience in the city of Vallejo, California, perhaps we were either the ‘little mobile bookstore who could’ or the ‘little mobile bookstore who couldn’t’. Either way, we did our best so we’ll always be proud of that. Outside of our efforts, Vallejo did gain a bookstore by way of Koham Press which now operates as Vallejo Bookstore. Of course, this blog and perhaps one or two websites associated with us are the only ones that mention “Chatmon’s Books” and “Vallejo” in the same sentence. One would say the fact we have not been mentioned at all speaks to our time in the city, “out of sight, out of mind”.

Charles L. Chatmon
President, Chatmon’s Books

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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