IT’S not a single Twitter account that’s in the spotlight this week, but a small supportive group of independent booksellers doing their bit to brighten the lives of avid readers across the Chilterns.
Booksellers have faced a rollercoaster ride over the past 18 months, but there’s no hiding their delight at seeing eager customers browsing the shelves again.
From Wallingford to St Albans, Thame to Tring, small shops across the region did their bit to boost people’s spirits during the long weeks of lockdown.
And they were only too keen to welcome the explosion of interest that marked their reopening last June, with almost four million books being sold in the first six days.
After so long having to rely on online or click-and-collect services, retailers were clearly relishing the chance to meet customers face to face again, in spite of all the social distancing and hand sanitising.
While the amount of time people spent reading books almost doubled during lockdown, much of that custom was picked up by online retailing giant Amazon.
But independent bookshops have been flourishing in recent years and many took to Twitter to maintain that daily contact with customers during the darkest days of lockdown, including newcomers like Our Bookshop in Tring and Books On The Hill in St Albans.
The Tring bookshop opened in September 2019, initially as a way of supporting the town’s book festival in November, but becoming a permanent fixture, complete with online author interviews and even its own Youtube channel.
With more than 2,000 followers already on Twitter, the bookshop is also home to the Tring Comedy Festival and the town’s comedy club.
Another new arrival on the local bookshop scene is Books On The Hill in St Albans, a family-run shop which opened its doors in November 2019 with the dream of creating a “warm and inviting, old-fashioned bookshop” which would provide a haven for busy lives and a meeting place for readers, writers, poets, talkers, speakers, thinkers and dreamers.
Antonia Mason, who runs the shop with her mum, Clare Barrow, and saw the shop plunged into lockdown just months after opening, said they had been “overwhelmed with our community’s kind words and support”.
Antonia’s tweets have quickly won her more than 1,000 followers online, and the shop also hosts podcasts of author interviews, as well as recommendations and reviews.
Another local bookshop with a lively Twitter presence is Wallingford Bookshop, which has been active on social media since 2011 and boasts more than 6,800 followers.
First opened by Mary Ingrams in 1983 and now owned by Ali Jinks, the shop is an integral part of the the local community, with more than 6,000 books in stock and a website which claims: “The only thing we love more than helping you to find your perfect book is a challenge.
“So whether you’ve forgotten the name of a book, an author or both come and test us – we’ll do our darnedest to find the book for you!”
When bookshops reopened last year, books worth £33m were sold in England in the week to June 20, the best performance for that week of the year since the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back in 2003.
The Booksellers Association’s managing director Meryl Halls described the increase as “heartening” and predicted bookshops would roar back once the coronavirus pandemic had passed.
Speaker in a live Twitter chat hosted by The Bookseller, she said: “Book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open.”
The bookshop was even mentioned by author Claire Fuller in a Penguin Books feature celebrating independent bookshops.
She recalled: “I lived in Thame when I was teenager, and The Book House (or The Red House Bookshop as it was called then) was a favourite place to visit. For many years in a row, I won the art prize at school, and the prize was a book token. I can still remember the shop’s newly printed books smell, the little corners to sit in (it is a beautifully higgledy-piggledy bookshop), and the amazing crazy fact that any of the books on any of the shelves could be mine.”
The shop even boasts a small outside area where browsers can sit on a summer’s day.
Meryl Halls spoke of the profound emotional attachment which readers have for their local bookshops. Speaking about the impact of the pandemic, she responded: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties.”
Back in April on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Waterstones managing director James Daunt echoed Halls’ assertion about the importance of books and bookshops.
He said: “Books are important, they help people isolate, they help mental wellbeing and we are in fact experiencing huge numbers of sales, particularly of children’s books and educational books.”
Since then bookshops around the country have shared their delight that “lovely customers” have come back in their droves, despite initial concerns about reduced opening hours, social distancing challenges.
In the meantime, many of them have also learned how to use social media to great effect, adding podcasts, author interviews and online shopping to the delight of actually being able to sit in the corner of a bookshop and turn the pages of a freshly published volume.
In case you missed them, here are some other favourite “Tweets of the week”:
@TheBeyonderUK: Our Chilterns online magazine may be small, but we do aim to brighten our followers’ week with features, interviews and interesting places to explore on our doorstep.
Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.