Horseback book deliveries and dogs on Zoom: how a country bookshop kept a community together | Culture

A teenager rides her placid black horse through the countryside, dropping off bundles of books to the town’s children. It’s a wholesome scene reminiscent of a 19th century novel, except it’s 2020 and this book delivery service is helping a small bookstore stay in business during a pandemic.

Squishy Minnie is a much-loved children’s bookstore located in the Macedon Ranges town of Kyneton, Victoria. Using horsepower to deliver books was just one way the bookstore’s owners, local couple Kristen Proud and Lakshal “Lucky” Perera, kept the community entertained when it had to close its doors.

The store closed sooner than most: Proud, who has a masters in international health, watched the virus escalate around the world and concluded that the federal government wasn’t acting fast enough. She closed the bookshop in mid-March before lockdown restrictions were introduced.

“I was in the shop watching kids touch everything and I could feel my anxiety rising. Our space encourages touching and interaction. I thought to myself ‘if any one of these people has Covid, we’re screwed’,” says Proud.

But with that decision came a different kind of apprehension. Proud and Perera knew their bookshop was important to the families in the area, and they were concerned about the knock-on effects that closing might have.

“We didn’t want to lose our connection to the community because we had to close our doors,” says Proud.

So they set about a different way of operating.

The junior staff had lost their storefront shifts, so Proud came up with creative ways to keep them busy. Fifteen-year-old Sam delivered books on his pushbike, while 17-year-old Alice saddled up to complete book deliveries with her beloved horse, Argo.





A chocolate-coloured horse with a teenage girl in the saddle



Argo, saddled up with Alice, ready for book deliveries. Photograph: Lakshal Perera

“Kids loved it. People put in orders just so they could get a horseback delivery. It really brought joy to the community during a challenging time,” says Proud.

The store’s strong social media following resulted in online orders coming in from all over Australia, with staff adding further personal touches to deliveries by including handwritten notes and complimentary nasturtium seeds for home gardens.

When panic buying emptied supermarket shelves, a free roll of toilet paper was added to postal orders upon request, thanks to Proud fortuitously ordering a year’s supply before the pandemic.

This sense of community spirit had also led Proud and Perera to set up the town’s first street library for children’s books earlier in the year, built in collaboration with the Kyneton Men’s Shed. Its book clubs moved online. A grant from the local community house also enabled them to host additional online writing and illustration workshops for kids.

But no event was as important to maintain for Squishy Minnie as story time, a weekly institution looked forward to by adults and children alike.





A transparent fish is seen on the window of a bookstore, with books on display visible through it



Kristen Proud: ‘We didn’t want to lose our connection to the community because we had to close our doors.’ Photograph: Lakshal Perera

Before Covid-19, the store would heave with excited, fidgety little bodies all bursting to see resident storyteller and music-maker Perera in action.

Once closed, storytime was swiftly moved online, with special guests injecting some variety into the lives of families locked down during a long, cold (seemingly never-ending) Victorian winter.

A dog-themed story time recently featured the couple’s cute-as-a-button groodle, Helix, while Logie award-winning actor and writer Miranda Tapsell and Kyneton-based screenwriter Joshua Tyler celebrated the release of their co-written illustrated book Aunty’s Wedding with a special reading on Zoom.

“We opened Squishy Minnie because we wanted regional kids and young adults to have access to exceptional books and resources. We focus on books that reflect the society we live in, such as literature written by First Nations authors and books that have characters from a variety of cultural backgrounds,” says Proud, who adds that story-time sessions have also been held in Spanish and Auslan.

The store recently hosted Boonwurrung elder Aunty Fay Muir and co-author Sue Lawson in an online reading of their new book Respect, produced by Indigenous-owned and led publishing house, Magabala Books.

But it’s Perera who has become something of a local star in the community as a result of his regular story-time duties. “I absolutely love doing story time. It’s one of the highlights of my week. The happiness and excitement on the faces of the little folks each time I see them is joyous,” he says.





A man, smiling cheerfully, sits in front of a wall of children's books, holding a picture book, as if about to read



Lakshal ‘Lucky’ Perera: ‘I absolutely love doing story time. It’s one of the highlights of my week.’

As a Sri Lankan Australian living in a region that’s home to a predominantly white population, Perera believes his presence helps to encourage inclusivity.

“There is a real benefit for me doing story time and being a visible presence at Squishy Minnie. It’s helping to advance tolerance and understanding in our region’s young folks,” he says.

“I jokingly tell everyone that I’m a celebrity in the under-four demographic. It’s rare for me to be able to go out without a little person waving, smiling or saying hello to me.”

The store celebrated Love Your Bookshop Day on 3 October with an online story-time extravaganza over Zoom starring 13 authors including Briony Stewart, Zeno Sworder and Maree McCarthy Yoelu.

With restrictions recently easing in regional Victoria, Squishy Minnie has tentatively reopened to a limited number of masked, sanitised book browsers.

Despite the challenges of running an independent bookstore in a regional area during lockdown, Proud has seen many positives spring from what has been a diabolical year.

“The community has really rallied to show us support,” she says. “People have actively chosen to buy from us and send us uplifting messages on social media. Covid-19 has emphasised that the community is invested in our survival. I wouldn’t have necessarily known that otherwise. It’s pretty amazing.”

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