We Sell Sanctuary
Updated: Jan 7
Much has been written on the magical powers of the written word, of bookshops, of libraries et cetera, that it seems beyond hackneyed to write a blog post on it in 2022. But while I’ve loved the written and spoken word since I was knee-high (picture: ‘Matilda’ is easily my favourite book of all time, relating to a library and bookshop among other things!) and have passed thousands of hours pleasurably ensconced in book-filled rooms, my appreciation for these environments intensified when I began volunteering at House of Hodge in April last year.
I’d never worked in a bookshop, or indeed any shop, before. Finally being in one in the role of “bookseller” as opposed to a customer or endless browser was a revelation. It’s a unique pleasure in itself to observe other people in bookshops or libraries. I’d done so idly before but was heavily focused on my own pursuit. Hodge shifts are typically delightfully busy; aside from the business of bookselling, they include having intriguing exchanges with locals and other visitors about all manner of topic - with many customers have long-standing personal relationships with the shop, and/or have family histories rooted in Highbury and its surroundings - including the next big Arsenal match (shifts on sunny home matchdays are my absolute favourite!) and which is the best café / other bookshop / pub in the area (in my humble opinion, the answers are Franks / BookBar / Bank of Friendship) - there is always time for a touch of people-watching.
Losing oneself in a book is being both wide awake and dreaming. Sometimes when I’m sitting in Hodge with multiple customers browsing contentedly, the shop feels like a haven for troubled souls and tired minds needing escape. Book-spaces are the personification of companionable silence (at least until the Franks vs Finks debate gets going - both are amazing eateries). Getting lost in a book when you most need to is an inherently singular occupation, yet the knowledge that someone (usually a stranger) is similarly absorbed a few feet away creates a fleeting, intangible synergy that momentarily nourishes its participants. Observing this as a Hodge volunteer is a joy in itself.
Perhaps particularly for those that live in hectic, bustling cities, being able to duck into a bookshop away from the hubbub, even for a few minutes, to thumb through a book which has caught the eye or been on a list of mental notes for too long, is a small and simple privilege. It can save you from the elements, relieve latent tensions, put off mundane tasks and be a gateway to untold worlds, knowledge and characters who may become as treasured as those in real life. And all the while knowing that in many other lands, near and far, there are people engaged in the same, as tiny, beautiful escapes from their daily lives.
If reading is therapy, then bookshops are surely sanctuaries for the soul, regardless of whether you’re buying or selling.
- Suran S, House of Hodge Volunteer