Can booksellers combat loneliness?

Before she was murdered last year, Labour MP Jo Cox had worked tirelessly to draw attention to the complex issue of loneliness. Last month, a new parliamentary commission in her name was launched to bring together politicians and policy makers to address the 'epidemic' of loneliness - which has real and significant impacts on the nations's health and prosperity.

The figures stark: 9 million people across all ages describe themselves as always or often lonely. We may think loneliness as something affecting older people, but feelings of loneliness can strike new mums, the unemployed, the bereaved, disabled and the young.

This won't come as a surprise to booksellers. We feel increasingly on the front-line with people marginalised or bewildered by our increasingly technology-focused, acquisition-obsessed, attention-deprived society. Bookshops have always been a 'third place' neither work nor home, but a place where individuals can gather, share knowledge, and where social capital is generated, but increasingly this role is becoming more pronounced.

Shopping in an independent bookshop is not an anonymous experience; we try to remember and use customer names, and take an active interest in their lives and their purchases (this has consequences good and bad: many customers become good friends, and we don't have much stolen. Conversely, we don't sell many diet books).

But bookshops are unique in the retail environment. People often come to a bookshop (or a library) when they in search of answers. Perhaps they have lost their job (or are fed up with the one they have). They might be getting married - or a marriage may be coming to an end. New mums look to us for books to give their children the best start in life, but grandparents also agonise over their own children's less-than-perfect parenting.

It's humbling what customers share with us, but there's an implicit understanding that it's 'in confidence'. Customers treat the shop as a safe space, and in the fevered days after the Brexit vote, the shop functioned like a psychiatrist's couch in this most pro-Remain part of the UK. It felt safe to discuss issues - and express genuine distress - away from the Twitter trolls.

It's a source of constant joy how many people start talking with complete strangers in the shop over a shared book or passion. People meet and start relationships during book events, and make lifelong friends with bookgroup members. We feel privileged to constantly bootstrap a community - one long-standing customer recently confessed, when she first moved to the area, our shop was the first place where she felt 'home'.

Social interaction is key. Sometimes we only find out the real reason for a visit after a few conversations. A harmless-sounding question about a seven year old who 'hasn't got the hang of reading' turns out - weeks later - to be a child traumatised by the death of a grandparent, and recommending Badger's Parting Gifts can work miracles.

Grief can be the most challenging topic. The bravery of someone coming to the counter to ask for 'books on grief' has to be met on our side with both stock knowledge and basic human concern to reach out and offer help. Over the years we have developed a small network of remarkable individuals who will offer to help build a temporary safety net, and it's one of things I'm most proud of that we've achieved in 10 years of bookselling. Many people tell us that they are terrified we might close, and I say this not to brag, but to confess that I, in turn, am terrified with the responsibilities we have in our community, especially when the margins at which we operate are so wafer thin.

If, as it turns out, loneliness has real and significant costs to our society, then perhaps it's time to look at incentives to allows bookshops to thrive once again on our high streets, even if financial support to grow them as viable businesses comes with caveats to set up bookshops, run events, and support literacy and social interaction in our wider community. A 'third-place' tax - or grant - might help to reboot some of our town centres. Let's face it, you can't walk up to an Amazon warehouse and talk to them about gut health.

Many good indies do all this stuff already, but honestly, we could do much more, with far bigger impact, with a few crumbs from the health budget. A 'mandate to reduce loneliness' might sound crazy to some, but we have to start thinking radically if we are to solve some of the wicked problems modern life increasingly throws up.

Loneliness is a growing problem. Bookshops can help dial it down. As the campaign says "we're happy to chat".

Mark Thornton is the founder and co-owner of Mostly Books bookshop, Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. For more on the Jo Cox Loneliness Campaign visit the website.