Voices from Australia’s Covid frontline: the shop owner and the customer

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Leesa Lambert

The Little Bookroom owner, Fitzroy North, Melbourne

The Little Bookroom has jumped over many hurdles in the past. It’s the world’s oldest children’s bookshop, opened in 1960, and that gave us the confidence we would pass this Covid curveball.

When the pandemic began, we were really determined to do the best for the writers and illustrators behind us, to help serve the communities that have supported us. We wanted to keep our community connected.

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How do we do that with lockdown restrictions? Help people stay home in a constructive way. We’ve been offering free home delivery since March last year and that’s become something kids look forward to, they call my dad “book Santa” and know the sound of the book mobile engine.

We have always considered ourselves to be on the frontline of the literary arts community, and at the intersection with the community of readers. We think that’s pretty essential. We know what the benefits are of reading for young people in educational and behavioural ways, but there’s been mountains of research in the past few years that reading can help us de-stress and de-escalate anxiety. That has been very motivating for us as well.

Just last week we received an email to say thank you for delivering a book so quickly. The mother said her daughter was now in the lounge room playing the “book delivery game”. That was everything. They’re safe at home, there’s a mutual community support and the experience sparked creativity. We sent activity books to say thanks, and young Celeste (the daughter) made a book for us which she delivered.

It makes me teary, it just keeps going and it’s so nice to think we’ve been able to provide a little bit of joy. We’ve had kids come through during Book Week to show us their costumes, we’ve had young readers write reviews we can post on our website, we’ve tried to spread that good cheer as far and widely as we can.

We’ve all had at least had one immunisation which gives us confidence and we’re very fortunate to have a respectful customer base. But the suspense of not knowing what’s happening from day to day has been stressful – being responsible for a safe workplace for my colleagues, and the community as well has been a challenge.

But to walk down the street and bump into families and hear kids say how much they enjoyed an event we ran, or talk about a book they’re reading, makes me smile. I miss hearing children’s voices in the shop – the squealing and delight, and story time. That’s why I’ve taken to singing too much on Instagram – I’m in withdrawal. I miss being able to hang out with my little mates in real life but I’ve been able to meet them in online bookclubs, and meet their pets.

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I think [during the pandemic], people have learned to support local businesses. Talking to other local traders, we saw a huge surge when we reopened in November and December. I hope to see that repeated.

We are very fortunate our revenue has increased over the lockdown period, but it is a very expensive business model, processing online orders, packing them and delivering them. So we can only make the equation work thanks to partnerships with publishers and the extra volume. My parents say the whole point of supporting the business was to provide opportunities for passionate book lovers. Our biggest expense is wages and what better thing to be spending money on.

Elvira Ralston

The Little Bookroom customer, Fitzroy North, Melbourne

Elvira Ralston with Seija and Rufus. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

I’m at home with two preschoolers, so things get pretty crazy at the best of times, but lockdown has added to that. When it started in March last year, my oldest was three and my youngest was 18 months. That was intense. My husband was able to go into the office which was great, he could keep his job, but I had been working in the theatre. The pandemic meant I was suddenly at home alone five days a week, from 8.30am till 6pm with two children.

Because I’m such a book lover, we would get in contact with The Little Bookroom weekly and get them to deliver something based on our latest interest. Kids sad to be missing out on their ballet classes? The bookshop has the perfect book of ballet stories. Children suddenly obsessed with nautical history? Call the bookshop and get a book detailing the construction of a man o’ war, suitable for five-year-olds, hand-delivered by lunchtime.

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They were super helpful with the most ridiculous phone calls where I’d be like: “Have you got anything about pirates that dance that’s suitable for a three-year-old?” Of course I miss browsing. I still feel that amazing emotional connection with the bookshop but the children don’t get it as much, they just know these amazing books get dropped off at our house. But they were very impressed when they got to meet the real Leesa. We were walking past in between lockdowns and Leesa saw us and took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the shop, the kids were starstruck getting to see her in real life.

Sometimes when I get a message from a friend to say they are having a rough day, I’ll jump on The Little Bookroom website or get on the phone and have a magical, brown-paper-package-tied-up-with-string on their doorstep that afternoon. It could be a sticker book for $10, but they’ll happily gift wrap and hand deliver for free. It’s been a way to stay connected with friends, book love bombs to say we’re thinking about you. That’s held us together.

The kids have this amazing resilience and fantastic ability to ignore stuff they don’t want to know about but I think a lot of the parents have really been struggling and had to put on their brave face for the sake of the kids. At the same time, we’ve had so much time together we never would have had. My eldest is going to school next year, and we’ll never have that time again. Our family has been really lucky.

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I don’t want to sound awful and gloomy, and I hate the phrase the “new normal”, but I think we won’t go back to how it was before. When all this started, we said “one day we’ll tell our kids about this crazy thing that happened and they won’t remember it”, but the more it goes on the more we realise things have changed. My hope is people will look at their communities in a different way.

I would love it if businesses like The Little Bookroom thrived after this. If people thought “I want to give money to someone who lives near me and cares about my community and works with their whole heart, instead of not letting their employees go to the toilet”. The pandemic has really brought into sharp focus how much we rely on these little nuggets of gold strewn about our communities.

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