We partnered with Vintage Books to set up four ‘Happy to Chat’ pop-ups in bookshops and libraries across London to find out what you can learn when you listen more. In this blog, our Communications Officer, Lexy Matthews, talks about her experience of listening to locals in Wimbledon library.
Did you know the average Brit spends over £300 on chocolate every year?
Neither did I until John*, the security guard at Wimbledon library, told me. After a quick google on my way home, it turns out the UK really are chocoholics, and I learnt something new. Other than feeling particularly prepared for my next pub quiz, chatting to that security guard about chocolate was also a lovely way to start my day.
A welcoming space
On 23 and 30 January 2020, Vintage Books volunteers, along with myself and our Head of Communications, Daniel Pattison, spent the day in two Waterstones (Gower Street and Piccadilly), and two libraries (Woolwich and Wimbledon), listening to everyone and anyone who wanted to chat.
“Some were lonely and wanted to talk about it, others were just there for the free book (and chocolates) and some just wanted to have a chat.”
I didn’t know what to expect from spending an afternoon in a public library in Wimbledon listening to strangers. But it turns out that sharing some knowledge, and a milky way (we also had free chocolate), with my new friend, John* not only put a smile on my face, it also made me feel optimistic about all the interesting people I could meet, and how much more chocolate-based knowledge I might learn!
From embarrassing first email addresses (yes I did think firstname.lastname@example.org was cool once), to writing books on lucid dreaming, to the perks and perils of social media, I spoke to a wonderful cross-section of people about anything and everything in between. Some were lonely and wanted to talk about it, others were just there for the free book (and chocolates) and some just wanted to have a chat.
As one of the Vintage volunteers noted: “Libraries give people permission to talk to strangers. They’re more welcoming than most other public spaces. You’re so much more likely to have a chat with someone new in a library than in a train station.”
Listening to locals
In the age of austerity, libraries seem to have taken on a new life as more of a community centre. And Wimbledon library seems to have perfected this down to an art – which seems particularly appropriate given that they even have a performance space at the back which two people came and spoke to me about.
One was an actor, who hosts an acting class there every 2 weeks, and told me a wonderful story about a younger woman who had signed up to the class, but he’d noticed she hadn’t come along yet; with daughters a similar age to her, he realised that she might not be attending because she was intimidated to go by herself, so he reached out to her and reassured her that the class sizes were small, and that many people had initially joined solo.
“Loneliness doesn’t have a face. It doesn’t have an age, or a gender or a profession. It happens to anyone and everyone.”
The second story came from a former photographer-turned-native-American jewellery salesperson. He told me about his wife who used to work with domestic abuse victims in the police force, but since retiring has set up a theatre company who put on plays specifically about domestic abuse – and who use the library performance space to perform them, for free, for the local community.
Gong baths and going solo
I learnt so much about so many people, from a woman with learning disabilities who told us about the book her father had written as a gift to his grandchildren, to a Hungarian man who was homeless and uses the library to finish the book he’s writing about lucid dreaming.
I spoke to a local artist who often feels incredibly lonely, and who thanked us for listening to her and having a chat because she finds it so hard to leave the house sometimes that she once spent 14 days without going outside. I learnt that for her, she enjoys going along to the prayer group at her local church because it’s a welcoming space for her and she feels safe.
“We can all do something about loneliness. It starts with listening to those around us.”
I learnt what a gong bath is from a woman who is a carer, and who went along once by herself to the shock of her friends who couldn’t believe she was brave enough to go alone. She told us all about her sister, who is also a carer, and who feels incredibly lonely but finds it too intimidating to go along to a club or event by herself.
But the main lesson from my afternoon of listening to locals at Wimbledon library, is that loneliness doesn’t have a face. It doesn’t have an age, or a gender or a profession. It happens to anyone and everyone.
So next time you’re waiting for the bus, or walking to the shops, smile at that stranger, say hi to that neighbour, or even better, stop and have a chat if you have the time. We can all do something about loneliness. It starts with listening to those around us.
*Some names have been changed