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Independent Bookshop Week: ‘We dropped off groceries and grieved with people’

For Independent Bookshop Week, we visit a few of those that stepped up through lockdown when they were needed most. Hunting Raven in Frome, Somerset has been a source of support in the community, providing more than books.

When the pandemic forced people had to stay closer to home, the escapism they found in reading became more important than ever.

But high streets have been hammered and libraries – already decimated by pre-Covid cuts – continue to be threatened. Luckily a new kind of hero has risen: the humble local bookshop.

Despite everything that’s happened, the number of independent bookshops has increased for the fourth year in a row, following two decades of decline. There now are close to 1,000 across the UK – the highest number since 2013 – breathing life into shuttered town centres, and serving as vital hubs for communities.

As we celebrate Independent Bookshop Week, we visit just a few of the people and places that stepped up through lockdown when they were needed most. 

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When we went into lockdown my first thought was for those customers for whom we are a lifeline. One customer, for example, who we see daily has mental health issues and learning difficulties, also cares for his elderly mother. I made a point of reaching out to let him know that we were still here for him if he needed us – and not just for books!

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One of our customers travelled north to care for her elderly mother, not knowing how long she would be away and how isolated that would make her feel. She’s still there now, over 100 miles away – but we’ve been regularly sending books, cards, and chatting on the phone. She said it’s helped keep her sane, retaining a sense of connection to home.

We’re feeling those strong bonds of loyalty now that we’re back open

Before coronavirus, we talked a lot as a business about loneliness, connection and the role good indie bookshops should play in the community. We won funding for a project in 2019 called Books Against Loneliness which sought to connect people over books, and during lockdown won a second prize for our work in the community.

Looking back, I suffered a fair bit of ‘imposter syndrome’ about the funding, worrying about whether I was overstating the role we play as a bookshop in our town. But lockdown made me realise that what I was writing was absolutely true – we are a lifeline for many people, books are a connecting force, and independent bookshops are where relationships flourish and where anyone, absolutely anyone, is welcome.

I have never felt closer to our customers. This past year has had the effect of breaking down some of the barriers that had kept conversations polite and transactional. We know about our customers’ lives, we’ve dropped off groceries, jars of honey, condolence gifts, and even grieved with them in the event of losses of the biggest kind. And we’re feeling those strong bonds of loyalty now that we’re back open. We’re greeting people and welcoming them back in, not just as customers but as friends.

wintstonebooks.co.uk/frome

Tina Gaisford-Waller is the manager of Hunting Raven Books in Frome, Somerset

Find out more about Independent Bookshop Week here.

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