After 25 years of teaching, Melanie Moore understands the importance of childhood literacy. And she has always been the kind of friend you’d ask for a book recommendation. So when she retired from teaching to pursue her dream of opening an independent bookstore, it could never have been just a bookstore.
Cincy Book Bus is only two years old, but has garnished plenty of attention in Cincinnati and beyond. Owner Melanie Moore says it’s mostly the bus — an adorable vintage 1962 Volkswagen pickup truck — that draws people in.
“The bus is so cute and she photographs well. She’s the real star of the show,” Moore jokes. “Then you find out it’s actually a bookstore.”
A career gives way to a dream
Melanie Moore worked as a school teacher for 25 years. The majority of her career was spent in urban schools, first in St Louis, then Los Angeles (North Hollywood), and eventually Madisonville. She taught middle school in “everything but science.”
Those years were formative for shaping the plan that, eventually, morphed into Cincy Book Bus. But it took a long time for that plan to come together.
While her two children were young, after 19 years of teaching, Moore took a break and tried something new. She opened Pea Pod Café, a “healthy fast food” restaurant along Montgomery Road in Pleasant Ridge.
The café was open for about 18 months. Then, she got the sense she was at a crossroads.
“It was time to go big or go home,” she says. Things were going well but, rather than dig in and grow the business, she decided to sell it.
At that time, her daughters were enrolled at Leaves of Learning, a private school that offers a university-style program for families to design their own schedule, picking and choosing from the classes offered.
Sensing a need there, she proposed a new class focused on practical life skills like handling finances and economics. Moore wrote the curriculum herself and then jumped back into teaching. She taught the class to high school juniors and seniors for the next six years.
She had now spent 25 years in her teaching career and thought that it might be a good time to retire and move on to something different. She was ready to pursue her dream of owning a bookstore.
The original plan was to open a brick-and-mortar store. She did a year of research on the ins and outs of operating an independent shop. She even had a location picked out. But memories of her experience with Pea Pod Café were a reminder that “it’s not so romantic” to operate a small business.
What she wanted most was to be able to speak personally with her customers, to hand them the perfect book, face-to-face. As the owner of a brick-and-mortar shop, she was more likely to spend her time in a back office, ordering books and paying bills.
She and her husband had just become empty-nesters and they were ready for something fun and freeing. The bookstore plan was put on hold for a while.
In apropos fashion, reading a book brought the vision back in focus.
Parnassus on Wheels is an early 20th century novella by Christopher Morley about a traveling book wagon. Upon finishing the book, Moore spotted her husband’s vintage pickup in the driveway and a new idea clicked — she would open a mobile bookstore.
The family pickup had, mostly, been used for fun and for trips to the hardware store. But it could be the perfect vehicle for transporting and displaying books. They worked on refurbishing the truck while a friend designed the store logo and another friend fabricated the storage and display boxes.
She opened Cincy Book Bus in November of 2018 and spent much of that first year selling in-person at public events and street fairs. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 changed the nature of her business and forced it almost completely online.
Curating an independent bookstore
The virtual book club includes extras for members.
When she opened Cincy Book Bus, Moore’s inventory was pulled from her own home library. She was excited to offer her personal favorites to her customers. As time went on and her inventory dwindled, she began building an inventory of new books.
“All independent bookstores curate their collections,” she explains. “I work really hard to try and find books that are off people’s radar. I get so excited when I find a book that people don’t know about.”
Moore’s specialty is adult fiction. And, while she doesn’t stock a ton of popular best-sellers, she tries to carry a little bit of everything so no customer walks away empty-handed.
Some of her inventory comes from abroad or from small, independent publishing houses. Moore’s husband travels a lot for work and, when she goes with him, she brings a few empty suitcases so she can bring back books to share with her customers.
Cincy Book Bus is one of the only US booksellers to carry titles by Persephone Books, a publishing house in London that reprints “neglected fiction and non-fiction by (mostly) mid-20th century women writers.” With Persephone’s unique and elegant design, these books fit perfectly in her inventory.
She also orders many of her books through a book warehouse like other booksellers would. Then, she ships the parcels herself, daily, from the local post office.
In addition to her online store, Cincy Book Bus has an active web presence where Moore shares her current reads on social media, along with recommendations for readers. She also offers a monthly book club where more than 100 members pay a fee to receive the hand-picked book, a custom bookmark, themed tea, and access to a private Facebook group where they discuss the monthly read.
In the absence of the face-to-face interaction she’d be having in a normal (non-pandemic) year, this is a great ways for a bookseller to engage with her customers.
A dream that’s bigger than a bookstore
Even during a pandemic when she hasn’t been able to appear at public events to promote the business, Melanie Moore’s mobile bookstore is thriving. She credits some of this success to a rise in reading while people are in quarantine. Also, her customers feel good spending money to support a local, independent bookstore that, in turn, supports local childhood literacy efforts.
Though officially retired from teaching, Moore says she isn’t finished “giving back” to local students. And her business plan reflects this commitment.
“I never worked in a school that had its own library … I would fill in the gaps a lot,” she remembers. “I wish, over 25 years, I would have kept track of how much of my own money I’d spent in my classrooms.”
With the profits from her new bookstore, Moore wanted to be able to help teachers — especially new teachers — build their classroom libraries. That was how the idea for the book donations started, at least. Now she says she’ll help “pretty much anyone” she can.
She donates thousands of books throughout the year. Many of her book donations in 2020 went directly to kids. Some were given through the Cincinnati Public Schools’ meal program. Others were given to teachers or school librarians who reached out with their needs.
“I don’t want to just give them junk,” she explains. “People have specific needs and I trust the teachers.”
“I might buy a classroom set — 25 of the same book — for one teacher, bi-lingual or Spanish books for another, and a themed collection for another teacher.”
Sometimes she orders the books directly. Other times, she might partner with a different local bookseller like Blue Manatee to put together a special collection for a donation.
The Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC) is one recipient of donations, receiving over $11,000 worth of books from Cincy Book Bus in 2020.
Jincey Yemaya is the service area coordinator for the CRC at the Westwood Town Hall. Moore worked with Yemaya to funnel the donations to other rec centers across the city. The books were distributed through 23 different locations over the summer and then a few times throughout the year.
“Melanie and Cincy Book Bus have really stepped up to help children and teens have books despite COVID-19,” Yemaya says.
“Here at CRC Westwood Town Hall recreation center, we got to see the joy on a child's face when they were picking up daily meals, because they were also able to pick out a book of their very own and exclaim to their parent, ‘Look mom, I can read now!’”
She adds that the teens in the United Youth Council received books of their own as holiday gifts and many of the local Little Free Libraries have also benefited from the donations.
“Now every time I have extra books,” Moore says, “I call Jincey up because I know she’ll get them in the kids’ hands.”
The sum of these donations is significant. In 2019, Cincy Book Bus donated $3,000 worth of books. In 2020, Moore donated 7,740 books worth $30,000. She gave away her entire profit for the year.
Moore does not pay herself a salary, even though she works nearly around the clock. Instead, she balances the business budget each month, makes sure all the bills are paid, and then donates what is leftover. Her goal is to end every month at zero.
“It’s always an act of faith to give away everything,” Moore explains.
But as long as the orders keep coming in, she’ll keep buying books to give away.