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Independent Bookshop Week: ‘People often called for a chat as much as a book’

For Independent Bookshop Week, we visit a few of those that stepped up through lockdown when they were needed most. The Bookery in Crediton, Devon, is a community effort that’s reinvigorating the town

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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In 2013, faced with the prospect of losing the bookshop in the town, a group of locals took matters into their own hands, resulting in a not-for-profit bookshop owned by 300 shareholders.

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Sometimes people shop with us because they know that our surplus is reinvested into literacy projects and community wellbeing activities, but many just want brilliant books, friendly staff and great customer service.

During the first lockdown we set up a community distribution hub in the high street to create a link between local traders and those who were vulnerable or shielding. This grew rapidly, expanding into a network of local village hubs supported by volunteers who had been furloughed or were working from home.

At the start people were more worried about accessing food and medical supplies than books, but as the situation began to settle down we provided books as part of the delivery service and also created bundles of books for comfort, inspiration, and most importantly at that time – home education.

We evolved with the situation, offered ‘virtual browsing’ for people who were unable to come in, mainly those who were vulnerable or shielding.

We also did a lot of phone consultations with people who were often calling for a chat as much as a book. We partnered with Crediton Foodbank and Exeter City Community Trust to provide free books to those most in need too.

Community ownership can sometimes also be understood to mean everyone’s ideas should be front and centre of development priorities. You can imagine the challenges of navigating competing ideas as well as business aims! That said, at their core community businesses like ours are value-driven, striving to listen to the needs of our communities and find creative ways to meet them.

Crediton has a wide range of independent shops, cafes and other businesses and while there have been some closures we are really proud of the resilience of local businesses. We are all aware that this is just the beginning of reopening and rebuilding, and the precarious position of high streets everywhere will be in the hands of their communities.

We are working with the Booksellers Association to create a Community Booksellers Group to share resources and understanding of how this model might contribute to the fabric of bookselling in the UK. It’s not a simple quick fix, but in the right places with the right leadership it can be transformative.

thebookery.org.uk

Dee Lalljee is the manager of The Bookery in Crediton, Devon

Find out more about Independent Bookshop Week here.

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