One for the Books

A Rockville rabbi shifts gears with a trolley for young readers

Photo by Skip Brown

In front of Chevy Chase Elementary School, nine third-graders are poring over books inside a parked, light-filled trolley. Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, Hidden Figures and the Wimpy Kid are coming to life in their heads. “This place is soooo cool,” one after another says, pulling titles from the shelves. Proprietor Debbie Bodin Cohen smiles from the register. 

Cohen, 49, maneuvers the 26-foot Story House, which debuted this spring, into and out of her Rockville driveway and around the county. The rolling bookstore’s nearly 1,500 volumes for children and young adults are rearranged depending on where the trolley’s making an appearance: science fairs, synagogues, birthday parties, book festivals. Cohen talks of one day pairing with a food truck or one that sells coffee and rigging a canopy over a “patio” where customers could hang out. Like at a “real” bookstore.

An author of children’s books, Cohen grew up mainly in Columbia, Maryland, with her head in the pages—the Little House series and A Wrinkle in Time were “huge influences.” It’s no surprise that owning a brick-and-mortar bookstore was her first idea. Having left full-time work as a rabbi “to do something different” (she has an interim stint leading Bethesda’s Congregation Beth Chai this year), Cohen looked around at area storefronts. Rents were too high, so someone suggested selling at book fairs instead. That would require a large vehicle, she thought. 

Cohen wanted something with windows, smaller than a recreational vehicle. In June and July 2016, she raised $20,000 through Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects. She turned to Craigslist and found a trolley that had made its way from the Eastern Shore to New York to Mississippi over two decades. Soon it was on a car transporter heading north again. 

To become a mobile bookstore, the trolley needed a lot of work—from air conditioning and a new steering column to new lighting and bookshelves. Daughter Arianna, 15, stained the bookshelves, and brothers Jesse, 9, and Ezra, 6, helped organize decorative tiles and accompanied Mom on frequent Home Depot runs. The kids offered ideas on everything from the spools of colorful ribbon over the cashier stand (for gift wrapping) to the cozy back bench (which seats three or four when not covered in book displays).

Cohen bought insurance, which allows for a 50-mile driving radius, and did two days of large-vehicle driver training. She got Rockville and county business licenses. Then she started ordering books, with recommendations from her sons. Jesse suggested the Amulet series—“the big buzz in my classroom right now,” he says—plus Dork Diaries and the Magic Tree House series. 

It’s strange having a trolley parked in the family driveway, Jesse says. Passersby tend to stare and point. But he’s looking forward to a time when it will visit nearby Beall Elementary. “The kids at my school have a lot of cool things,” Jesse says. “Now I can show a cool thing, too. I’ll have the biggest show-and-tell.”

At home, “my kids and I hang out in [the trolley] some evenings,” adds Cohen, a former director of congregational learning at Potomac’s Har Shalom. “Arianna likes to do her homework in here. They say it’s like a clubhouse.”

The Cohens have long been surrounded by books. Husband David, an author, is an editor at Politico. Debbie’s ninth young-readers book is scheduled to be released in August (her books are occasionally for sale in The Story House), and she’s already talking about her next book idea. “The trolley doesn’t know it, but it’s had a lot of adventures,” she muses. Can a book-trolley book be far behind? 

Debbie Bodin Cohen’s Story House at Chevy Chase Elementary School. Photo by Skip Brown
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