5 November 2015
This is all a bit random, but I am just going with the thoughts that come to me on different days. Having tackled the question of how I thought up the idea of the Tree House, I should tackle the next most frequently asked question – what is it for? This usually means where do the proceeds go, a reasonable question from those donating books – though many also think or assume it is a charity shop. Some even express open surprise when they walk in about the narrow selection of stock – ‘Oh…they only have books!’ – and then they leave.
But it is a question that deserves an answer – what is the Tree House for? It’s all a bit of a moot point, in a financial sense – we say we are non-profit and we give our profits to charity, but the truth is (as I often admit) that we are yet to make any profit. We do have some collecting boxes at the bookshop, and I put small change in there, as do customers – and we did help to fund the William Morris garden at Compton Verney designed by Dan Pearson. But we have yet to make regular donations.
The William Morris garden was something I felt I wanted to support, as it combines the arts with nature. Overall, my aim is to support charities that make it their aim to protect the natural world, and trees in particular. The Woodland Trust springs immediately to mind, but a customer has encouraged me to support the Sylva Foundation too, so I am looking forward to the day when we can start donating something. Beyond that, I would like to support local charities and fundraising events, depending on individual campaigns and needs. There is also a wonderful national charity called Nordoff Robbins, which provides music therapy to individuals, both adults and children, affected by serious conditions or illness. I was introduced to this charity by the wonderful Michael Burdett, who has twice come to the Tree House – once to the old premises, recently to the new – to give his fabulous talk on a lost Nick Drake recording that he has in his possession.
One things we are working on is changing the status of the bookshop to a social enterprise, or community interest company, which will bring certain financial benefits, and in turn speed up our ability to make some profit and support these charities.
But the Tree House is not just ‘for’ some external causes. It is essentially a community venture, and it is ‘for’ the community in more ways than financial ones. It is, as I’ve said before, a means of drawing people together through literature and the arts, and through providing a physical space in the town where people can meet – at events or during the day. One elderly lady said how wonderful it was that there was somewhere that she could just sit down for a few minutes when she was out. She comes in from time to time and we have lovely chats. There is now a great group of people who know each other through the Tree House and would call each other friends. My own circle of friends has grown enormously! I moved back to Kenilworth in 2009 after 27 years away, and hardly got to know anyone until started the bookshop, other than my work colleagues and my next door neighbour, having left some great friends behind in Bristol, so it’s been a great way for me to make contact with all sorts of people. I love it when one friend comes in and we have a cup of tea and a chat, then someone else joins us, sometimes one or two more – people drop in and spontaneous conversations develop, arrangements are made for further activities, people help each other and work together in support of the Tree House. These friendships wouldn’t exist without the bookshop – and the bookshop wouldn’t survive without them!
So what is the Tree House for? It aims to support various charitable causes, but it is also and more importantly to enhance, create, sustain, enrich a sense of community. It’s also to sell second-hand books, which I happen to think are important – making available things that might otherwise be thrown out or stuck in attics or be lost in the mists of time. I love second-hand bookshops because you find all sorts of things, sometimes while you are looking for something else. Literature on the high street – it’s fabulous. We have customers of all ages, from tiny babies to the elderly lady I mentioned above (who is in her 90s), and all types, looking for all sorts of different things. I mentioned in a previous day’s jottings that I want ultimately to specialise, but I realise something will be lost, which is part of the reason for dragging my heels on that! We really need a bigger shop…a floor of general books, a floor of more specialist subjects… One day, though it doesn’t look as though we are going to make our fortune any time soon. That’s OK, as we are not in the business of making fortunes!
We do need to make it more obvious what we are for – a window graphic or something on the fascia board or something public-facing that tells people why we are there. The fantastic generosity of people in giving financial donations at crucial times and donations of books on a virtually daily basis happens because we are ‘for’ something, but there is inevitably some confusion too. We had a wonderful poster in the old shop, but I had to ditch that as we put our running costs on it, and those have changed, and I haven’t got round to making a new one (someone else made the old one!).
Hopefully it will become increasingly apparent as to what the Tree House is for, by word of mouth and by experience, but I will work to make that more obvious. We do have some small posters in the window setting out the basics, alongside our boards of photographs of famous writers, but it’s all a bit busy and we need something clearer. But in a way – does something have to be ‘for’ something? We just are, and what we are has changed and continues to change organically through the involvement of different people, and no doubt will continue to develop in its own way.