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  • Writer's pictureDavid Downs

Coffee and Bibliochor; Ingredients for Joy

Once, an old boy used to stand at the entrance of a rundown shop in Brighton, sipping from a mug of coffee, watching the world go by. He was frail, scruffy, and at first glance, you’d think he was just another homeless bum, having cadged a couple of quid off someone for a cuppa. You could see stacks and stacks of all sorts of old books, newspapers, drawings, and paintings through the dirty windows.

There were stacks of books. I mean vast towers of books that would make you have to move very gently in case they all came tumbling down. All sizes, conditions; some were novels, some were of general reference. I decided to have a closer look and politely asked the old boy to move so I could enter. He walked in with me and asked what I enjoyed reading as he made me a toasted cheese sandwich.

Yes, he was the owner of this curious establishment.

The smell of biblichor (yes, that old book smell has a word) was rich with knowledge, adventure, and wisdom and set my soul on fire for the next few hours I nosed around. What did I enjoy reading? I told him I’d know when I found it. To gaze upon such a collection of books, enjoying a long coffee seemed like my idea of heaven. How can a child select just one sweet when he is in the Chocolate Box? (The Chocolate Box was our local sweet shop, which just happened to be the home of one of my schoolmates when I was 5.)

Before food banks were a popular thing, I had a fantastic idea; I wanted a book shop. I also wanted a coffee shop. Somewhere that would be warm and inviting for people to stay and chat or peruse old books. I remembered the old man and came up with this plan.

If I could speak with local food stores, Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s et al., maybe they would be able to donate old food that was just getting thrown away. If I could encourage people to offer up a few tins of this or that as part of their weekly shop, we could have a central place for the hungry and homeless to come.

But not just to take home a few tins of beans. No, this was beyond that. We would have a small team of volunteers preparing and cooking the food. The poverty-stricken and marginalised could come in and sit in the warm, read a book, eat a hearty meal with a nice drink. They could feel part of a community again.

In Croydon, there are so many ‘beggars’ asking for money. I use the speech marks because we all know there are professionals out there. Or we know the ones who use it for drugs or booze. So we judge. What if we can give these people a voucher they can then redeem, free of charge, free of judgement, in my little bookshop/café?

Give these people back some dignity.

So I set up my little plan. I studied how to create a charity or CIC. I trained how to work with volunteers. I even went to local churches to help set up a helpers team and a food bank source. I then tried to get funding for this little establishment.

None came. Or not enough. Rents and rates are so high in Croydon that this was almost doomed to failure before it started. I created a website and paid for a freephone number. I spoke with my local vicar about using his church building as a base.

It was rejected. Insurance or some such nonsense.

More than ten years later, my heart is filled with joy that the church in question now has a community outreach café within the nave. At least something came from this idea.

A little old frail man set a passion in me to help, using coffee and books. The shop has gone now, as has the man. He was passed on to wherever we go after shuffling our earthbound shackles. The dream still remains, and one day, you might find me standing at the doorway of an old ramshackle bookshop, drinking my latte, and welcoming people in for a toasted cheese sandwich.


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