TAMPA — The Bluebird Book Bus goes chuga-chuga-chuga-chuga. It feels like you're on the curb again waiting to get shuttled to school.
It's short. It looks like a blue jelly bean. The seats are ripped out except for one reupholstered in smart purple tweed.
"I thought it would be bookish," said Mitzi Gordon.
Gordon hunkered over bookshelves, readying Bluebird Books for its launch next week. She balanced on cowboy boot heels and stocked books via rainbow color. There's the French comic Persepolis, an old handbook for Girl Scouts, works of Hubert Selby Jr. and Susan Orlean and Dorothy Parker. There's The Meaning of Dreams and Dreaming.
The concept is half used bookstore on wheels, half nonprofit cultural center. She wants to spread reading, creativity and critical thinking to people wherever they are — schools, art festivals, food truck rallies. Book sales, she hopes, will fund the nonprofit side.
In an era when large corporate bookstores are shuttering en masse, Gordon hopes to create a "mobile station of inspiration."
"It was always about bringing a love of books to people," said Gordon, 35. "The bus turned out to be exactly the right vehicle for my idea. It enables me to go where I want to go."
Gordon always found glee in books. As a child, she took construction paper, filled it with notebook paper, folded it and stapled the center. She was fascinated.
"I had this thing and I could put a story in it and it could go out into the world," she said.
She disappeared inside Piers Anthony fantasies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lolita, Charles Bukowski poems. She was so shy, she'd hold the books in front of her face.
Gordon blossomed while getting her journalism degree at New York University. She went on to work for the Tampa Tribune, editing its alternative paper, Orange. She let a taboo word for female anatomy into print. Soon, she was fired.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," she said.
She got a job as membership manager at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg and explored her own art and photography. A year ago, she started thinking more about her bookstore dream. She'd sell used and vintage books — contemporary fiction, exotic cookbooks, poetry collections, ruminations on feminism and counterculture. She'd host art exhibits and sell locally made paper products and zines.
But opening a store is expensive. Gordon had a tiny savings.
She pondered the current food truck craze. She remembered a 2008 Airstream bookmobile at the University of South Florida called Moving Thought. She researched used buses online and found a guy in Valrico who had four on his lot.
When she walked up, she saw it. A 1998 Wolfington short bus from New Jersey. It cost $4,500.
"Oh, my God," she thought. "This is it. I'm going to buy a bus."
Friends and artists helped her renovate the bus near her home in Tampa's Forest Lakes, and at the Trolley Barn along the Hillsborough River. Gordon talked to Jennifer Frances, founder of Tampa's longtime book staple, Bess the Book Bus. Their buses complemented each other. They could team up.
"If I'm driven out of business because children have all the books they ever need, I will not be unhappy," Frances said. "I love the idea. The visibility aspect is huge. With the bus, we can get into neighborhoods where we're needed most. Part of what we do, and the thing that's going to be true for Mitzi, is generating enthusiasm."
Gordon is fundraising online through Kickstarter and applying for nonprofit status. She has a series of events planned to get the word out.
She envisions pulling up to night events and with the grownup, counterculture books. Switching out the stock and pulling up to schools, teaching origami and storytelling, hosting play readings.
And, she'll teach kids to staple construction paper together and make a book.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.