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Guest Blog for Mental Health Awareness Week by Michelle Ewen

Should bookshops be available on prescription? That’s the intriguing question posed by Write Blend owner Bob Stone this Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May).

The Waterloo-based author and bookseller believes that access to bookstores should fall under ‘social prescribing’ – an NHS England approach that connects people to activities, groups and services in their community to meet the practical, social and emotional needs that affect their health and wellbeing.

“Bookshops are safe spaces – peaceful, inclusive and non-judgemental… An oasis in what is sometimes a challenging world,” explains Bob, who trades at 124 South Road.   

“Reading is a solitary activity which, by definition, appeals to solitary people. If I can provide a space where those people can come and never be judged, or feel afraid or bothered, then that’s why I do this.”

According to the National Literacy Trust, reading promotes improved memory and concentration, increased feelings of relaxation, and reduced stress levels. Intriguingly, it also encourages escapism, as Bob affirms: “A book is like a TARDIS. You can travel anywhere in time and space. You can go on any adventure you like without leaving your armchair, which is helpful if opening the front door or being in public feels challenging. If making or keeping friends also proves difficult, then the characters in books are always there for you.

‘Reading for pleasure makes us feel better in so many ways, so I would love to encourage everyone to enjoy a book this Mental Health Awareness Week.”

In addition to the usual thrillers, biographies and children’s books, stores such as Write Blend are also a treasure trove of self-help books that promote good mental health, mindfulness and positivity. If you are in search of information, assistance, inspiration and encouragement, then independent bookstores are a one-stop shop. In return, you can enjoy the feelgood factor of supporting a bricks-and-mortar retail sector that continues to struggle post-pandemic.

Being sent into lockdown fuelled a 16% increase in fiction book sales in 2020 [Publishers Association] but, with physical bookstores closed, bored Brits turned to online sellers for their reading fix. The e-buying habit appears to have stuck and, with overall book sales falling by 10.5 million copies last year [Nielsen], market forces continue to prove challenging for booksellers – something Bob has experienced directly.

“Knowing what we know about books and their capacity to improve people’s mental health, I am surprised that bookstores weren’t classified as essential retail during lockdown,” he muses. “Post-pandemic, owning any business is a challenge to your mental wellbeing. It can be very stressful when trade is poor and very much hand to mouth; however, if we separate the nature of the business from being in business, then being a bookseller can be an absolute joy!”

A recent encounter with a junior shopper has reaffirmed Bob’s love for the book trade – and given him hope for the next generation of readers.

Eight-year-old Nancy was visiting Write Blend with her father to buy the first in the Skandar series of children’s books and was struck by a realisation: They were the only two customers in the store. Nancy was so troubled by how quiet the shop was, she went away and made posters to put up round Liverpool ONE – asking the city’s shoppers to help make sure Write Blend doesn’t shut down.

“When they came back in to buy the second book in the series, and Nancy’s dad told me what she had done, I was overcome,” admits Bob. “For an eight-year-old girl to understand the concept of ‘use it or lose it’ was just incredible. BBC Radio Merseyside came into the store to talk to Nancy about her posters. When they asked her why she made them, she said: “Because Bob deserves it.” I was absolutely choked up. That’s why I do this job – for people like Nancy.”

Bob has since presented Nancy with the third book in the series, with a very special addition: A signed bookplate he requested from the author, A.F. Steadman, as a surprise.

It is gestures such as these that show why booksellers and independent bookstores are so good for mental wellbeing. In what are often trying times, they promote kindness, creativity and community.

About the author: Former journalists turned PR pros, Michelle and Christian Ewen founded Write on Time Ltd in 2017. Together, they have helped more than 3,000 business owners across the UK to think of something newsworthy to say and take the first steps towards getting their story in newspapers and magazines, or on podcasts, the radio or TV.

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