23 March: one year today since the country went into the first national lockdown. It was a Monday, and I had decided to close my shop on the Saturday, having deliberated for several days about what to do for the best. I don’t think any of us realised that a year on we would still be in lockdown, albeit with breaks along the way. But the Tree House has been closed for over seven of the last twelve months. The government has given us grants so that the bills can still be paid, I have been furloughed so I can still take the few hundred pounds a month I earn from the shop, and I am grateful to a government I generally don’t like much for that. We would not have survived without it.
Ours is not a business that lends itself well to click and collect, nor even mail order, though I did send out some surprise books during one part of the crisis. So the decision to close and go on furlough was not a difficult one. I am actually proud of the tiny part we have played in helping to keep everyone safe, in not encouraging people to leave their homes, and I have stayed at home through much of lockdown. Not being able to walk has made that easier in one sense! Though an extremely generous friend offered me money to buy a mobility scooter just before the first lockdown, and my secondhand scooter has been a lifechanger and means I can get out much more easily. I still stay at home mostly though, sometimes venturing out somewhere people-free, and otherwise only going to the bakery or the library as necessary, once a week or less.
We are due to reopen on 12 April, as long as there are no further setbacks, and I am gearing up to that. But this year has changed me in all sorts of ways. It has taught me about the dangers of parochialism – a kind of nationalism writ small, and little repels me more than nationalism. There has of course been a wonderful pulling together in many ways in our community, with a quite brilliantly organised volunteer team which was set up quickly and has done amazing things – very well run and full of committed people. But there has also been a sharpening of a sense of individual rights being removed, which has led to people pushing the covid restrictions to the limits. Town has been busy, social distancing very hit and miss (more miss than hit), lots of shops open that I can’t see are essential, and discussions on social media that make me feel quite desperate. I am not interested in my own town beyond all others – I am lucky to live in a lovely place, but I find some of the attitudes very hard to take. Having lived in Bristol and London, and spent large amounts of time abroad, I find the introspection of small towns tricky. The lack of interest in wider issues, the shutting down of broader views, the focus on the small and close to home rather than the worldwide picture is disheartening.
The world is my community. I am sad we have left the EU, for all its problems, because I now feel less connected to that world. But the EU is a political institution, and I am still part of Europe, still part of the world, still free of national restrictions. The realisation of this over the last year – the year in which we left the EU as well as dealing with the pandemic and in which the world got rid of Trump as a person of power – has changed my thinking about the bookshop.
Alongside all the other things, my heart has been with musicians. We hosted a couple of gigs a month prior to the pandemic, and my heart is especially with those musicians – the independent touring artists who have always had to struggle to make a living but whose livelihood and identity was swept away overnight and who are still facing a deeply uncertain future. Not many locally have been interested in this, and yet it’s at the heart of what the Tree House is about.
I raised £2000 to pay those musicians whose gigs we had to cancel and then to give a small amount each to a number of other musicians. I give art talks via Zoom so that I have a little money to spend on buying music each month. I have been to lots of online gigs. I share whatever I see of musicians on social media, to try to keep their situation in people’s minds. Drops in the ocean, but something each of us can do. The musicians themselves have been amazing – continuing to find ways to make music, to make recordings even, to keep in touch with audiences and fans, to keep their world alive. And in fact out of it all has come some positivity – nothing replaces live music, but online access has opened up audiences a little, and surely streaming live gigs in future will be something to think about, to increase revenue as well as reach more people.
So when the shop reopens, it will have a slightly different focus. More outward-looking. I like to think we have been that anyway, but the focus will be on books and music – selling books in order to support the music industry as well as to keep books in circulation. The community hub aspect will be less of a priority – in terms of the events we host, for example, and getting involved in things at a local level. My heart is with the wider world. We will raise funds to support musicians – whether we do that via donations to Help Musicians UK or more directly has yet to be decided. Shop profits will go to this, as will events or initiatives through the year.
Ironically, I won’t be hosting much live music, to start with at least. We are very small, and there have always been problems with organising gigs, exhausting problems for me. I am rethinking that, but it is not in any case possible while social distancing is still in place. We have had INCREDIBLE gigs from so many amazing musicians over the last 7-8 years, and I am so proud of having brought so many fantastic musicians to Kenilworth. But it was always so hard to sell tickets and I was not the most dynamic host. So I will focus on books – my original dream was to run a secondhand bookshop, and I want to make it a better bookshop than it currently is. And that now has an extra aim, of raising funds to support the music industry. Our glorious patron Warren Ellis remains my daily inspiration; he has lost two years of touring, but remains a major creative force. (The title of the post is a quote from him, a word of encouragement to his great friend Nick Cave in the film One More Time With Feeling.) Warren reaches for the stars while staying completely grounded, and that’s how we should all be living. Exploring our creativity but staying focused on the world around us.
A long-winded post, I am sorry. It may annoy some people – that’s OK. None of us can please everyone. It’s been a tough year for every single one of us, in different ways, many of them unexpected ways. But as spring now starts and the clocks move forward this weekend, we at the Tree House will embrace the light and the warmth of each day as it comes, and work towards creating a wonderful bookshop that keeps the essential presence of the arts in full view and accessible, with standards of quality but aims of affordability, and we will do so by being creatively adventurous and being fully focused on the wider world. It will be great to see customers again and find ways to promote the joy of reading and of owning books, and through this to help to keep the world of live music afloat.