Rita Collins (A78) and Patrick Mahoney (SF93) Have Books—And Will Travel
January 9, 2023 | By Eve Tolpa
“A charmed life” is how Rita Collins (A78) characterizes being a mobile bookseller.
Collins, a former teacher, had once hoped to open a brick-and-mortar bookstore in the small Montana town where she lives. After concluding that the idea wasn’t financially viable, she hatched a new plan with a smaller overhead: St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore and Textual Apothecary.
“I really didn’t know a whole lot about running a bookstore,” she says, noting that St. Rita, the Italian patron saint of impossible circumstances, was not far from her mind in those early business days. Now, 10 years and 40 states later, Collins has learned that running a business on wheels is not only possible but easier than she had ever imagined.
Collins typically completes a long-distance six-week trip during the spring and fall while staying closer to home in summer. So far, she’s driven her tome-laden van, emblazoned with its signature “old-timey medicine show-type logo,” to book festivals from Baltimore to Brooklyn and beyond. “I’ve taken it down to Kentucky,” she says. “I’ve set up in northern Mississippi, Arkansas, [and] down the West Coast.”
Before hitting the road, she researches possible locations for setting up shop, which often include parking lots near cafes, breweries, and bookstores. “I’ll write to [these businesses] and say, ‘This is who I am. Would you be willing to host me?’” she says. Along the way, she finds locals willing to put her up for a night or two—a fact that sometimes still surprises her upon reflection. “Financially I could not be living out of motels,” she says. “If somebody had said to me, ‘Can you imagine finding housing with people you don’t know while traveling across the U.S.?’ I’d be like, ‘That’s not possible.’ And it is possible.”
Another element of her work that’s surprisingly possible is replenishing stock while on the road. The van’s shelves, sloped at a 15-degree angle, can hold about 700 volumes—a third of which are usually fiction. (True to Johnnie form, Collins also carries many classics.)
How does she procure them all? “It’s a weird business model where people give me books,” she says, recalling one time when a book club in Raleigh, North Carolina, donated more titles than she could transport. “And yesterday,” she adds, “somebody from Pocatello, Idaho, called me to say, ‘I’m downsizing, and I have a ton of books. Can I send them to you?’”
A lifelong love of reading keeps Collins energized, as does an appreciation for literary chats with customers—not to mention all the serendipitous encounters along the way. “I really feel like a conduit, getting books from people to other people and getting money along the way,” she says. “I’ll tell you: I don’t understand why more people don’t do this.”
Patrick Mahoney (SF93) doesn’t need convincing. As the co-founder with sister Shannon Porthault of the nonprofit Rwanda Bookmobile, he’s been following a path similar to Collins since 2019, albeit halfway across the world. “Our focus in the beginning was to drive around and provide books to people,” says Mahoney, who spends six to eight weeks of each year in Rwanda and the remaining months with his family in New York, Massachusetts, and California.
Mahoney first traveled to Rwanda in 2018 to visit Porthault, who lives there full-time, and his 50th birthday was the impetus for the creation of their shared passion project. An ongoing career in tech and finance provided him with logistical reference points. “I had fun doing startups, and I had fun doing investments, and I wanted to shift and have fun doing a nonprofit,” he says.
The public response to Rwanda Bookmobile was overwhelming. Mahoney recalls that he and his sister couldn’t secure enough vehicles or books to meet individual reader demand, so “we started to collaborate and build a network,” he explains, “connecting with people who are already doing similar things.” Partly inspired by Sesame Street, the two expanded the organization’s offerings to include kid-friendly elements like read-aloud events, video and radio content, and even a theme song.
“It’s like the ice cream man rolling into town,” Mahoney says of his bookmobile van. “We blast the music, and all of a sudden there’s a swarm of kids.” Inside that van are huge boxes containing suitcases filled with books and other educational materials, which are lent to a network of libraries. “Pop-ups, we call them,” says Mahoney. “Each one had a distinct theme—astronomy, sports, cooking, different things—and we ended up making YouTube shows about each of the themes.”
The van also transports team members who, modeled on the human cast of Sesame Street, inhabit characters and collaborate at each stop with local performers, reading aloud for groups of children. “So instead of one-to-one with each reader, we’re one-to-many,” Mahoney explains. “If there’s one thing we are now, it’s a group of storytellers.”
Rwanda Bookmobile continues to grow organically and creatively, fueled by necessity and leveraging unlikely opportunities. Case in point: A couple of years back, Mahoney got a phone call from someone who asked him what he’d do with 500 donated bicycles. He had no idea but gratefully accepted the offer and vowed to figure it out. “We serviced all the bikes and drove all around the country to drop 10 bikes here and 20 bikes there,” he says. “Now there are librarians who ride around in their communities and go into school classrooms to read.”
No matter what shape the organization’s day-to-day operations take, however, Mahoney’s perspective on its mission remains constant. “I have on my dining room table the old brown set of Great Books, so my own kids have grown up in a house with stacks and stacks of books,” he says. “I don’t care what they read; I just care that they read.” He feels the same about the kids in Rwanda, who devour books in French, English, and the country’s native language, Kinyarwanda. They also inundate phone lines during the call-in portions of the weekly storytelling radio shows that have come to constitute the core of Rwanda Bookmobile’s offerings.
“The voices are going 100 miles an hour in Kinyarwanda, and I can’t understand them, but I know what they’re saying,” says Mahoney. “Because it’s just joy.”