There are periods of your life that seem to exist in a perfect vacuum, so far removed from the world you normally inhabit that when you reflect on them, they feel almost unreal. My six months as the Barefoot Bookseller really were the ‘dream job’ as described in the press, a sun-dazed haven of books, sea, sand and self-discovery. And when I landed back in the UK, it was like I had woken from the most surreal and star-spangled reverie to find myself in the living nightmare that is this global pandemic.
Of course, to describe my entire experience of being the Barefoot Bookseller as a dream would undermine a role that challenged and changed me in ways I hadn’t expected: the lessons I learned about myself and the world we inhabit, the skills I developed – from scuba diving to yoga – and the friendships I made. And, the biggest and most important thing of all: the way my time as the Barefoot Bookseller has shaped my next steps, my career and the course of my life to come.
When I arrived home, I was bursting with creative energy and ideas for news ways to sell books. I’d long harboured the ambition of starting my own business. Ideally my own bookshop, where I could continue to utilise my ability to match-make the perfect book with its ideal reader.
Returning to bookselling after several years in publishing made me realise that so many people I met were desperate for reading suggestions, loved buying from independent businesses, but still didn’t shop in independent bookshops. They felt they weren’t scholarly enough, or feared being judged on their reading habits – a misconception that a conversation with a bookseller would quickly put to rest, but an impression that existed nonetheless. My time as the Barefoot Bookseller demonstrated that I could help bridge this gap, making reading accessible and fun.
Physical bookshops are competing with the biggest corporation in the history of the world. It’s a real challenge. But instead of bemoaning the admittedly rigged system, we have to rise to that challenge and tap into what sets physical bookshops apart. The first is our literary expertise. The second is the fact that we are people, with empathy and emotions. My bookshop was going to be about the social element of reading.
And so, following my experience as the Barefoot Bookseller, my own business was born.
BookBar is an independent book service, and soon to be physical bookshop, events space and wine bar (watch this space!). I’ve spent the last three months operating online, selling books like I do best, through personal recommendations based on my customers’ individual tastes. Part of this is BookBar’s Shelf Medicate service, which offers readers the cure for any literary ailment. Customers can browse my Shelf Medicate Prescriptions, from the Gin and Tonic for the Soul (the most comforting reads) to the Literary Fibber (those classics we’ve all lied about reading), and receive a bundle of books based on that theme, which I’ve hand selected for them.
For something even more personal, I offer Shelf Medicate Consultations. Over a coffee, or a glass of wine, we’ll discuss your reading habits, tastes and lifestyle and you’ll receive a personal reading list based on our conversation and a voucher to spend with BookBar. Often people use it to branch out of a reading rut or reconfigure their reading habits. Some people simply want to discover new books and authors that become favourites. BookBar offers this service to individuals as well as to book clubs and couples. I’ll come to one of your book club meetings and learn about what it is you want your book club to be – is it a structured discussion of the latest literary trends, or a chance to catch up over a glass of wine with your mates? – and from there I’ll choose your monthly book and have it delivered to your book club in advance of the next session. The couple consultations were a brainchild from my time at Soneva, which I began to test-drive in the Maldives. I was delighted to find that couples felt like they had experienced the most joyful form of therapy with their partner. Opening up about books increased their emotional intimacy with one another.
All of these initiatives are products of my experience as a bookseller, and make the most of my joy of connecting with people over books. Borne out of the belief that there really is a book out there for everyone, and that reading can be as addictive, inspiring, informative and entertaining as the latest Netflix binge, BookBar simplifies the reading experience. Once the physical space is open, I’ll be putting together events, exhibitions and in-house book clubs, as well as creating a warm, inviting and fun space to browse our curated selection and have a glass of wine with a friend.
And so, I’ve moved from one dream to another. One that connects my old city-based reality to the creativity and discovery of my island life. All the tools – emotional and practical – that I learned along my Barefoot Bookseller journey have their place in this new chapter. It turns out that the balance I discovered in the Maldives is fundamental to staying sane amid the anxiety and chaos of launching a start-up. The independence and agency required when running a bookshop on a remote island is also pretty useful when you don’t have a team with whom to brainstorm ideas, celebrate the successes and occasionally panic. Being the Barefoot Bookseller may now feel like a dream, but it had some rather wonderful real-world consequences.
For more information about Chrissy's new venture - follow @BookBarUK on Instagram!