It may only be the beginning of November but February is filling my thoughts. 2020 is the year that London Bookshop Crawl turns five and I thought it was about time that I wrote about the effect the bookshop crawl has had on my life.
I think the story of how it all began is fairly well documented by now - a testament to the way that twitter can occasionally be brilliant, but I don't think I've talked about the place that I was in, mentally and physically, when it all started and the profound changes it's brought to my life.
Back in 2016 I had an almost four year old and an 18 month old, I was living far away from family and friends and struggling hugely with feeling very isolated. My anxiety was probably the worst it's been since I was a teenager - several days a week I wouldn't even leave the house because it was just easier not to. I had at this point already met a few long-time blogging friends in real life and been on a mini bookshop exploration with them, and it gave me the courage to give it a try in a bigger group, although the thought of having to talk to so many people made me extremely nervous.
I've always been braver online (aren't we all?) so it was easy to ask the question, but I remember feeling physically sick the night before the first bookshop crawl, not really having a clue what I was doing or how it would go, and I remember the absolute buzz of getting to the end of the day, seeing everyone's excitement, feeling the exhaustion of carrying way too many books around a lot of miles and then talking and talking about it on twitter for days afterwards.
The first bookshop crawl gave me a different way to be in the world. - a social situation that didn't require me to be overly social, where I was in control and could just be totally upfront with people about my social anxiety - something I'd never done before. I don't think I can overstate how amazingly freeing this felt and still feels. I think it's because bookshops are a safe place for so many of us that the London Bookshop Crawl continues to hold such appeal for so many people. Bookshops are often spaces outside of time, where you can just shut out anything happening in your life or in the wider world and concentrate on escape. As Jen Campbell puts it
London as a city is beautiful and can be really, really overwhelming. Going from bookshop to bookshop provides a way to explore that's a lot easier and bookshops are how I know the city now.
Running the bookshop crawl has made me so much more confident in the space that I inhabit. The fact that people keep coming back year after year and often travel to our roaming events in the summer gives me enough validation that it's easier to let the overwhelming anxiety go. People are always telling me I'm too loud to be shy whereas really I'm just talking to mask how much I want to run as far and as fast I can from the situation where I'm obviously making an idiot of myself. I talk a lot and then once I get home I worry about every single thing I've said that day, but the more I do the bookshop crawl - the more I talk to lovely people and share book recommendations and generally have a wonderful bookish time - the less anxious I feel and the easier it is not to get stuck in my head.
Looking at myself now vs the first bookshop crawl, I hardly recognise myself. It's not anything you'd be able to notice on the outside, but I notice that I no longer have the urge to run from social situations. I tell people that the bookshop crawl is a social event for people who don't like social events (as well as those who do!) and I really hope that's true. Because it's something I have such personal experience of, I do try my hardest to make all of our events spaces that are as safe as possible for anyone who struggles with anxiety, and I personally love how calming bookshops are - they're a balm for the soul.
Going forward I'm trying to make all of our events as accessible to as many people as possible. We've started this with our 2020 programme including our first family event (at Discover Children's Story Centre) as well as several events in children's bookshops. As usual, we'll be producing our accessible bookshop crawl list and route map designed for wheelchair users and those for whom stairs are difficult, but I am very aware that there are all sorts of barriers to access that I may be unaware of. It would be brilliant if you could let us know what we can do to make you feel more welcome at our events! Contact us on twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.