10/21/2013 03:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 21, 2013

Going Where Gearheads Gather

There is no shortage of commentators ready to cast the printed book upon the outmoded-technology pile, where its highly combustible nature will no doubt prove useful in burning the entire heap to the ground so we can all get on with our virtual lives. But as an illustrated book publisher, we at Motorbooks beg to differ. We traffic (pun intended) in books for gearheads -- folks who love cars, trucks, motorcycles, and anything else with an internal combustion engine. Our customers are firmly rooted in the real world where a wrench in hand, the roar of a well-tuned engine, and the lunge of acceleration will always trump another round of Need for Speed. Well, nearly always.

In light of all this, it seemed perfectly logical to Quayside Publishing Group's marketing director that Motorbooks should buy a bookmobile (in this case a "Motorbooksmobile") and simply show up wherever gearheads gather.



Now, I like a twenty-eight-foot Bluebird bus as much as the next guy, but this seemed a pretty far-out idea. CEO Ken Fund nodded politely as the marketing maven revealed her plan, much the way one might when cornered by a sweet but slightly deranged relative. Still, on reflection, it was hard to deny the logic. Every year we have more books tailor-made for car guys and gals, but the diminishing book retail market meant ever-fewer places where the books could be discovered. We knew there was an audience; the challenge was getting the books in front of them. The solution: a mobile bookstore driven to car shows and concours events around the United States. Like a lunch truck serving hungry diners, we'd park ourselves at key shows and offer gearheads the opportunity to browse hundreds of transportation titles firsthand, an experience they would otherwise be unable to replicate.

There are nine hundred library-system bookmobiles serving communities in the United States, but there are no Big Stan's Used Bookmobile lots. With some searching, we managed to find six used bookmobiles for sale and purchased the twenty-eight-foot Bluebird mentioned earlier. It holds 2,500 books. The bus is of nearly as much fascination to show attendees as the books inside. It is an object of nostalgia to adults and of wonder to children, many of whom have never seen a bookstore masquerading as a bus. If we published a history of Bluebird buses, it might be our best-selling title, at least at car events.

Beginning in July we hit the road on a car-show trail winding its way through the eastern half of the United States. We've run our bookstore from the Corvette Funfest in Illinois to the Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit to the Street Rod Nationals in Kentucky to the Saratoga Concours in New York and numerous shows in between. And we don't plan to stop. The car hobby has become so popular that there really is no "car-show season"; there are shows nearly every month all around the country.

Going to this much trouble to showcase our books may seem counter-intuitive in an age where everything is available online, but car people are hands-on people. Whether they're restoring a collector car or hanging at a car show with tens of thousands of fellow enthusiasts, they want direct involvement with the object of their passion. They want to hold the parts in their hands, and a book is no exception.

Reaction to the Motorbooksmobile has been overwhelmingly positive. It reminds people that Motorbooks exists, that we continue to offer books just for them, and that we are happy to meet them where they live. They are surprised to see us and delighted to find so many titles on board. "This is so cool" is a common remark. The bus and all the titles inside invite conversation, not only about cars and motorcycles but also about lost book stores, politics, technology-driven change, and times past. Our bookmobile offers the same sort of gathering place for like-minded souls as a small, independent bookstore or a neighborhood garage. But in our case, we drive to a new neighborhood every week.

In October we'll be in Charlotte, N.C., at the Goodguys hot rod show. In November we'll be at the Hilton Head Island Motoring Festival, then the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals in Chicago. And we'll just keep rolling from there. Next year we'll hit even more shows, including some west of the Mississippi.

Customers ask at every show if we'll be back next year; they suggest ideas for new books and highlight additional shows that they think we should attend. It's fantastic to speak directly with our audience, and they love browsing and discovering new titles. We all win.

Sometimes the best road forward veers through the past and is traveled in a Bluebird bus.

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