The Bookmobile

In 1920 Chase Bibble, the owner of Castaway Books, bought a milk wagon and paid Huddleston Drayson to convert it to a bookmobile. Bibble took to the roads of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio the next spring, leaving his sister, Dorothy Swain, to run the bookstore. At a time when farmers seldom traveled beyond the pig barn, books were an escape to the world beyond the oinks. Seeing a dust cloud in the distance, a farmer knew that a visitor was coming. With luck, it would be Chase Bibble.

Each summer for twelve years Chase Bibble traveled, selling books, making friends, and seeing the country.

“You sell a man a shovel or a sack of seed,” I remember him saying, “and you know his vocation. Offer a man books, watch his eyes searching the titles, looking for one that interests him, notice the way he takes it from the shelf, see the way he holds it in his rough hands, how he opens it, see the smile on his face, do that and you’ve looked into his soul.”

They were happy times. Late afternoons Chase would stop at a farm. He knew where the best cooks lived; most often, they’d invite him to eat. After dinner he’d thrill them with tales and stories, leaving them eager for more when he retired for the night. If he’d done his job well, and he always did, they’d come knocking on the wagon early in the morning, begging to buy the stories he’d told the night before. To Chase, there was nothing like the face of the children when he lowered the sides of the wagon and they saw the rows full of treasures in different sizes and colors.

“Who knows,” he often said, “Some of those kids may have done big things.”

When cars came and folks began moving beyond the pig barn, Chase Bibble’s dust cloud was only one of many. Now, families would spend the evening around the radio, only nodding politely when Chase mentioned a tale from a book. Accepting the change, he parked the wagon behind the bookstore in 1932. It never moved again. I remember a pile of wood and wheels when I was young, and then there was nothing.

I talked to Chase, still operating the bookstore, several days before he passed in October 1985.

“I haven’t left town since I parked the wagon,” he said. “Why would I? Folks in Sycamore Shadows still read. When I watch a customer feel the cover of a book, put their nose in the gutter to smell it, or see their excitement at finding a special title, I still have hope. Things are bad, but maybe things aren’t as bad as they could be.”

One morning the next spring, I noticed a wooden wheel in the burying ground. No one knows who had saved it, only why they placed it there. Thirty years later, it has been repainted and repaired, but the wheel from Chase Bibble’s bookmobile still leans against his headstone.

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