- Lisa Jevens
UMW student rolls out repurposed bookmobile in Fredericksburg, Va.
It’s almost magical when a person is able to harness his unique skills, resources and drive to make something special out of nothing, then share it with others.
That’s exactly what happened in August with the debut of the Bookmobile Fredericksburg. The brainchild of University of Mary Washington junior Hollis Cobb, the Bookmobile delivered an early Christmas to readers of all ages with free books for the community. And it has been cruising around doing good ever since.
From classic cars to the Bookmobile
Cobb is an English major who hopes to become a high school English teacher. He says he never intended to be an entrepreneur — nor the leader of a successful nonprofit. But that is exactly where the ride has taken him.
Cobb’s hobby was buying and selling classic cars. In the spring of 2021, he had just sold an antique MGB and was considering buying another car to work on when a 1989 Ford ambulance caught his eye. That’s when the wheels started to turn. Why not do a fun rehab project and give something back to the community at the same time?
An avid reader and book lover since childhood, Cobb simply couldn’t wait for his first day of teaching to pass on that gift to others. The old ambulance seemed to be begging for a retool. So he bought it in May, cleaned it up, rebuilt the interior and solicited donated books to stock it.
Growing up in the Fredericksburg area, Cobb knew that the city and university were closely linked. “After being here during the pandemic, I had really fallen in love with the community and I wanted to give back to the community I’ve been a part of,” he says.
By Aug. 21 — the week before school started — the Bookmobile Fredericksburg was ready to roll, stocked with donated books and student volunteers. “It was an instant success and grew insanely quickly,” Cobb says.
Savings, sweat equity and donations
Prior to launching the Bookmobile, the 20-year-old Cobb had taken no business classes. He started the project with his own savings, sweat equity and donations. To get up to speed, he enrolled in StartUpUMW, a student entrepreneur education program, where he learned the nuts and bolts of managing a business.
He now has a shiny new business plan for the Bookmobile, a volunteer staff of three, incorporation papers and an application for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. He is learning to manage monthly expenses, fundraising and book donations that number in the thousands.
Though Cobb says he works on the project about 20 hours a week, he “thinks about it probably 100 hours a week.” It takes a lot of coordination to plan where the bookmobile will turn up next around town. He has developed relationships with the city, the local schools and members of the public, who can request the bookmobile for private events.
University of Mary Washington gave full support
The Bookmobile project immediately took off around campus, too. “One of the most impressive parts of this project is how the campus community has supported us through the Center for Community Engagement. They had our volunteer slots filled every week,” Cobb says.
In retrospect, Cobb says he wouldn’t have been able to create and run the Bookmobile if he hadn’t chosen to attend a school with the values, resources and support he found at UMW. That includes the most valuable gift of all — a free parking space on campus for the bookmobile.
Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 23, 2021.