Behind a small wooden counter inside her bookstore on wheels, Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen stands in a black T-shirt embellished with the words The Story House in gold cursive.
That’s the name the Rockville children’s book author picked for her new business — a bookmobile that looks like an old-fashioned trolley car.
Cohen is parked at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. A dozen people are inside, inspecting the shelves and elbowing their way over to Cohen to pay.
Cohen, 49, has been a rabbi in synagogues both in Washington and other East Coast locales. That includes her current stint as a part-time rabbi at Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk, Va., although she will soon end that job and begin working at a Bethesda synagogue. In addition to her pulpit duties, she knows a thing or two about children’s books, having written eight of them herself including the “Engineer Ari Series.”
Cohen came up with the mobile bookstore idea in 2015 when she and her friend Heather Carvell, an English teacher at the McLean School in Potomac, saw an empty storefront and imagined opening a children’s bookstore.
She and Carvell investigated what it would cost to open a bookstore in Montgomery County and realized that the rent would be unaffordable. Then Cohen hit on the idea of a mobile, nonprofit bookstore that would cater to preschool through high school students. When she pulled up in her trolley, the message would be clear: Reading is fun.
That, and she can make deliveries.
“We [educators] think about doing book fairs and events and things like that,” she said. “If we have to move books around, we might as well do things that are fun.”
The duo decided that Cohen would be in charge of the bookmobile while Carvell would serve as a consultant, teacher and program facilitator. according to their website storyhouseonline.com.
Cohen spent the next two years raising $20,000 from a Kickstarter campaign to cover the purchase of the truck and converting it into her trolley-look-alike bookmobile. This amount, combined with Cohen’s personal funds and a loan she took out amounted to more than $70,000, according to her campaign page.
The base of her rolling book store is a 1995 Chevrolet step-van — a delivery truck. “Then it was basically a matter of taking out all of the benches and rebuilding the inside with bookshelves,” she said.
To learn to drive the vehicle, Cohen took lessons from a commercial driving instructor who came from York, Pa. She said the key to successful driving is to keep enough distance between her vehicle and the others around her so she has time and space to stop.
When Cohen stopped at Temple Beth Ami, the bookmobile was stocked with Harry Potter books, the lighthearted “Aliens Love Underpants” and a new picture book about January’s Women’s March, titled “Why We March.”
“What I do is target the group I’m going to,” she said. “Today I have a lot of the preschool stuff out.”
The dozens of adults who were there with their children were taken by the unconventional vehicle in the parking lot.
“I thought that it was different. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Gaithersburg resident Katie Goldberg who was with her son.
Potomac resident Catherine Miller felt the same way. “I just love it,” she said.
Cohen has taken her bookmobile to other synagogues and schools in the area, She plans to drive it through the streets of Rockville on May 29, during the city’s Memorial Day parade.
She doesn’t know if her business will be a moneymaker. “I’m hoping that’s going to be the case, but it’s really too early to tell how everything is going to work itself out,” she said.
Asked if she will drive the bookmobile to Norfolk, Va., for her weekend pulpit job, Cohen laughed.
“No, it’s staying here.”