Can the epidemic of loneliness be solved by bookshops?
By Amber Lee Dodd
You’re never alone in a bookshop. On every shelf is a thousand stories, a hundred different voices and bright glittering worlds waiting to be discovered. But the best bookshops know that books are just the beginning in the cure for modern loneliness.
One such place was Blackwell’s Portsmouth, a tiny bookshop tucked away on a busy cross road. It was not an attractive shop; plate glass window, old carpet, more than half filled with unattractive academic textbooks geared towards the local student audience. It was hardly the Pinterest perfect bookshop of my dreams. There was no coffee corner or Champaign bar (check out the The Battery Park Book Exchange in North Carolina). But for me it was perfect place to work, one where I could keep my promise.
In 2015 my grandma died after a long and difficult battle with Alzheimer’s. Towards the end, in one of her more lucid moments she had turned to me and said sipping from her tea cup, ‘Don’t bother getting old Amber,’ before signing deeply, ‘enjoy being young. Promise me your do something with it.’
After she died, I pulled out the book manuscript I had left in my drawer, stopped applying for jobs I hated and used the money she left me to enrol In an MA in Creative Writing. I was going to get back to doing something I loved, I thought, even if it was just for a year.
But to be able to afford to do the MA I needed a job with slightly flexible hours. I sent out dozens of emails and applications. It was Jo, the manager of Blackwell’s Portsmouth who replied. And shortly afterwards I was donning a blue Blackwell’s t-shirt. I had no idea what I was in for. Or how my life would change.
Bookselling is not what you might imagine. It’s not reading poetry over the counter. There are backbreaking days of unloading and shelving endless crates of heavy textbooks. Standing all day on a concrete shop floor serving lines of students, skipping breaks to stock count and working at popup bookstalls in all elements. But selling books is only the first part of being a good bookseller.
I learnt the second part at the counter, where I was dubbed with some suspicion by the locals ‘The New Girl’. Here I watched the same people come in day after day. Most the time it was for nothing more than chat. Sometimes a card would be brought, or a paper.
Sometimes I would put a new book by that would never be collected. Twice a week Ruby would visit. Ruby was a cantankerous old lady in an electric wheelchair. She would drive her chair into the shelfs, accuse me of looking shifty whilst secretly rearranging the display books, then leave the store with a wink and her customary parting,
‘You should all do some work’.
‘You can’t get too mad at her,’ my colleague Brain told me. ‘Sometimes I think we’re the only ones she talks to some days. You’ll get used to it.’
But Jo and Brian had gotten more than used to it. They embraced it. People rang ahead to have tea and biscuit’s with Jo and Brian knew nearly every customers name and back story. I thought of how every time I was on the register people would sigh at the sight of the ‘New Girl’ and ask for him. And how every Christmas Brian and Jo would be gifted with homemade biscuits and specially bound books.
It took me a while to learn our regulars’ quirks. How our entire break room was filled with books ordered by one man, who constantly added to them, but never came to pick them up. How a certain ex professor would need to be seated away from the drinks at events, how one woman liked to be shown all the new cards, never to buy them. Or simply to know that if someone came asking for some rare out of print thing, they probably just wanted a chat. This, I was taught by my colleagues, was part of the job.
It wasn’t just the locals who befitted from my colleague’s kindness and hospitality. I had gone from spending my days alone with my grandma, to reading aloud the new picture books in the office with Sam and Jo, stealing mini hotdogs to eat with bestselling authors and ballroom dancing across the shop floor with Brian.
When at the end of my MA my first book got published, I had my book launch in Blackwell’s. Some people came from far and wide, many came from the city, but for each new face there were dozens of local ones. Some who had just come to see what the ‘New Girl’ had done. Because Blackwell’s Portsmouth wasn’t just a bookshop, it was a community.
If you want to get involved in something new this year, why not check out the events your local bookshop has to offer.
Amber Lee Dodd is the author of Lightning Chase Me Home, published by Scholastic, out now.
A spellbinding, huge hearted, middle grade story of bravery and hope with an undercurrent of magic. The book was born from the authors love of stories of inspirational female explorers, unlikely heroines and Scottish myths.