If this year has proved anything, it’s that it’s more important than ever to shop local and support ourindependent stores.
Forum Books has been a stalwart of Corbridge’s independent scene since 1977. In 2011, at the height of a recession, Helen Stanton took charge of the shop, which has since gone from strength to strength.
This year, however, Helen describes as ‘a rollercoaster’. ‘We’ve realised how important teachers and hairdressers are – we can’t do everything well at home!’ she laughs. ‘I feel very lucky as I loved walking the dog and hanging with my kids and family [during lockdown], but the bigger picture stuff is just awful and stressful.’
As it happens, Forum Books’ online shop had launched just before lockdown, so, after the shop closed on 14th March, they were able to keep trading that way – until their suppliers were forced to close, too. When they could, they offered a click and collect service from the shop, and did some local deliveries. ‘As our supply chain froze we had to stop completely,’ Helen explains. ‘A bit of hibernation gave us time to regroup, read and try to take it all in.’
Although this was a hugely challenging time, Helen is keen to stress that some positives came out of it, including some brilliant collaborations. Forum Books was one of four independent bookshops banding together to run more than 100 online events, under the tagline At Home With 4 Indies. They’ve hosted events with authors as wide-ranging as Bryony Gordon, Matt Haig, Jeffrey Archer and Ann Cleeves.
This last event was in celebration of the launch of Ann’s latest Vera novel (The Darkest Evening) – and Helen feels she owes Ann a special thank you. ‘Ann Cleeves wrote an exclusive-to-us Vera short story,’ Helen explains. The story is called Frozen, and its roots go back to the time when Forum Books were moving into their current home. ‘While we were renovating The Chapel I gave Ann a tour, including showing her the baptismal font which is still there under the floor by the pulpit,’ Helen recalls. ‘It’s pretty huge and coffin shaped to the eye of a crime writer.’ Ann was inspired to write a short story about Vera visiting Corbridge after a walk at Hadrian’s Wall. Intending to get a coffee and pop into the bookshop, Vera enters the shop as a body is discovered in the font. Helen herself features in the book – ‘though I can’t say if I did it!’, she finishes.
Helen explains launching the pre-orders during Independent Bookshop week, soon after the shop reopened in June, really helped them to get back on their feet.
‘Things aren’t anywhere like back to normal,’ Helen says. ‘Corbridge is definitely a wee bit quieter. We have local and visiting shoppers, and we are trying hard to make sure shopping with us is entirely safe but still friendly and fun. I think we’ve been lucky that our customers have distinctly chosen to support us. It’s really heartening!
‘Independent shops enhance the ecology of the high street and its variety. They’re often run by people with a complete passion for what they do, with next-level customer service, expertise and friendly with it,’ Helen continues. ‘As more of us have to work from home, what’s on our doorstep in terms of shops and community is pretty vital and indispensable.’
When it comes to preparing for the future, Helen has embraced the maxim: ‘the only constant is change’. Online shopping allows them to deliver to customers who can’t make it to the shop, and they’ve recently launched ‘After Hours Browse’ – private, bookable slots on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, which will run into December. ‘The hope is this year we’ll all want to celebrate, gift thoughtfully and send cards,’ says Helen. ‘We are encouraging shopping early, as we just don’t know how things will go.’
Market Place, Corbridge
What other independents should we check out near you?
We love our neighbours Vintage at the Tower, but are pretty lucky in Corbridge and can always find perfect presents in The Cookshop, Corbridge Larder, Acanthus, 1883 and RE. Also, nearer to home, The Gun Inn at Risdale is now community run and needs support! Very easy to stop off on your way back from biking or walking around Kielder...
What’s your favourite Christmas carol or Christmas film?
O Come All Ye Faithful – rousing! And It’s A Wonderful Life.
Best place in the North East for a Boxing Day walk?
If I can’t get to the beach, a walk by Kielder is always a treat, or a wander through Sidwood Forest near Greenhaugh – either way a stop off at The Holly Bush on the way home for a cheeky wee red would be very lovely.