Georgia Southern University junior and Savannah resident Kaitlynn Perry knows books.
And she should.
When the double history and archeology major isn’t researching artifacts from digs in and around Chatham County, or studying early 19th century pottery fragments, she’s curating and selling used and new novels, short stories and poetry.
Earlier this year, Perry painstakingly converted a small school bus into a mobile bookstore, and this month “Betty the Book Bus” launches into regular business at pop-ups and celebrations around the city.
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A history aficionado, Perry made her way to Savannah four years ago from West Virginia to be steeped in and learn from the city’s rich and complicated past. When she found the archeology program at Georgia Southern, Perry knew she had landed in the right place. She dove into her studies, soon garnering a research assistantship in which she worked hands-on with local artifacts.
“I was in a lab for two years to fulfill a project, processing artifacts from digs around Savannah,” recalled Perry. “I cleaned, categorized, identified and pulled research to further generate questions about specific finds and engaged in lots of research around the use of pottery in enslaved people’s lives.”
Once the assistantship was completed, Perry had more time to focus on her lifelong dream of owning a retail book space. In Savannah, with rents at an all-time premium, she knew a brick-and-mortar store would be out of reach. But she noted that mobile sellers seemed to be doing well, especially since they weren’t tethered to one place in the city.
Perry got the idea early last December to start looking into utility vans and busses. Soon after drafting a business plan, and as fate would have it, she returned to West Virginia during the winter holidays and met up with a friend who happened to have a small school bus for sale.
By the end of January, Perry had purchased it, and by mid-February relocated the bus to her new home in Savannah.
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Converting it to a bookshop on wheels and getting registered as a business in the city provided their own sets of challenges.
Perry is partially disabled — a connective tissue disorder makes it so she often must rely on a cane to walk. With the help of her life partner, she began the bus conversion, which moved forward slowly. Perry found lots of online tips on how to make a bus into a living space, but didn’t find much on building sturdy, reliable floor-to-ceiling shelving tailored specifically for the small bus’s unconventional interior dimensions. Trial and error ruled the process.
“We wasted a lot of money on shelves,” recalled Perry. “I wanted to install pre-made ones to save on cost, but because of how the bus curves at the top, traditional shelving didn’t work at all. We then designed and built shelves for the bus and attached them directly to the walls. The shelves have a bottom edge to make sure books stay in place, and bungee cords to help keep them secure while driving. When the shelves are packed, the books don’t move.”
The book bus is Perry’s first commercial venture through which she’s learned what it takes to start a business. Perry became keenly aware of the disadvantages many first-time owners often face.
As a full-time student without much cash, she turned to online crowdsourcing to raise funds. A successful Kickstarter campaign yielded just over $3,000 to help defray some of the costs of converting the bus. But other challenges, like getting a business license, proved more daunting.
“I’ve done most of this on my own,” stressed Perry, "in a place without family to ask for help or money to hire a lawyer for legal paperwork. It didn’t help that the city dropped the ball on my business license for two months. That was a very stressful time with a lot of ramen noodles and a lot of lost income opportunity. But I’ve pulled it off, and here we are. I am thankful for every supporter, everyone who has pitched in along the way to bring this book bus to life.”
With business license officially in place, Betty the Book Bus has been selling a range of novels and tales around the city since late-July.
Currently, the bus frequents Starland Yard, De Soto Street Market, Coastal Empire Beer Company and Merchants on Bee bringing along an ever-changing curation of nearly 500 books. One section is sourced solely from thrift stores and donations; another section features hardbacks and new releases. She also carries children’s books.
“Where the Crawdads Sing,” is this summer’s top seller along with any title by young adult novelist, Colleen Hoover.
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Perry, who envisions herself as one day enrolled in an archeological anthropology PhD. program at William & Mary College or Yale University, considers the book bus an important community tool for inspiring people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life.
“Literacy impacts every area of life, it affects one’s ability to do math and to be successful in high school,” emphasized Perry. “Literacy, and being literate, is the most important thing you can do to raise your odds of success in life. My goal is to get people excited about reading again, and the book bus provides a unique experience for people to climb in, buy a book and get back into reading.”
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah GA bookstores: The Book Bus mobile, pop-up library