The New Normal: Bookshop owner Jenni Doherty on 'drive-by book buys' and making hand-deliveries during the pandemic

Bookshop owner Jenni Doherty had big plans for her business. Then lockdown happened. She spoke to Claire Simpson about her 'drive-by book buys' in Derry, deliveries to customers self-isolating in Donegal, and one elderly woman's emotional response to a free gift.

Jenni Doherty of Little Acorns Bookstore in Derry. Picture by Hugh Russell

“I’ve lost both my parents and to be honest I can hear them (saying) ‘keep going, keep going, don’t give up’.”

As the owner of the popular Little Acorns Bookstore in Derry, Jenni Doherty had built up a successful business over nine years of trading and had planned to move from premises on Society Street to a larger space on busy Foyle Street, near the city's bus station.

She closed the shop on March 7 and was getting ready to pack up when lockdown happened.

Although she’s used to upheaval - “I’ve moved about five times, always to larger premises” - the pandemic forced her to work differently.

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She set up ‘drive-by book buys’, allowing customers to pick up books from her at an agreed spot in the city centre. She also posted up to 30 books a day and hand-delivered many parcels to customers in Derry, clocking up thousands of extra steps according to the counter on her phone.

“A lot of my customers were elderly folk so within walking distance I was able to hand-deliver them,” she said.

Many customers drove across the border from Donegal to pick up orders and some helped deliver books to people who were self-isolating.

“You’re co-ordinating people who are coming up from Muff to take parcels to leave them in a shop near Buncrana and Moville,” she said.

“My brother was dropping things off at a wee shop in Muff to people who lived nearby."

Originally from Greencastle in Co Donegal, Ms Doherty has sold books online for 12 years, later opening up a shop nine years ago.

Jenni Doherty of Little Acorns Bookstore outside her new premises on Derry's Foyle Street. Picture by Hugh Russell

She said customers were particularly touched by small gestures, including complimentary coffee sachets she had included with each book order.

“I got a letter from an elderly lady in England who said ‘I’m living alone and self-isolating and that meant the world to get a cup of coffee’… I’m going to continue with the sachets. People do appreciate the wee personal things, now more than ever," she said.

“In lockdown we’ve changed our priorities. The material things have really lessened and we’ve become more aware of the little things.”

Ms Doherty said her online sales were the busiest they had ever been and she has sold books - mainly those of Irish interest - to people as far away as Spain, America and Australia.

“If it wasn’t for the postmen and delivery guys…they were my saviours,” she said.

She added: “It was a more intense working experience because you were no longer 10am to 6pm, you were 24/7.

“Someone could be sitting at their computer at 10 o’clock at night and dropping me an email saying ‘have you got this’ or ‘have you got books that would be suitable for a nine-year-old, a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old'.

“I would go over to the shop… pick out maybe 30 or 40 books, take photographs of them, open them up to show the print, copy the photos on to the computer and email them...Sometimes it would take two or three hours - but that’s customer service.”

She added: “I am working harder than ever - 10 to 14 hours a day. I get phone calls at midnight and emails at three in the morning. But then again that person might be a carer and that might be the only time they have to contact me.”

Ms Doherty said home-schooling and activity books had proved particularly popular since libraries had been forced to close.

Jenni Doherty of Little Acorns Bookstore, with two helpful removal men, as she moves into her new shop in Derry Picture by Hugh Russell

Despite a boom in online sales, she said money remains a concern.

"The online stuff doesn’t make a profit but I’m able to pay the bills,” she said.

She added: “The one positive that has come from coronavirus is that the rates have been frozen. That has given a little bit of financial freedom - not having to worry about that.”

Plans for her new premises on Foyle Street, including a museum to showcase her 100 typewriters, will have to be put on hold until at least Christmas.

But she's started moving into the building and plans to open at the start of next month.

The shop will be set up with a one-way system to facilitate social distancing, a pair of disposable gloves for every customer, a hand-sanitising station and a plastic screen at the till.

Jenni Doherty of Little Acorns Bookstore in Derry with one of her 100 typewriters. Picture by Hugh Russell

Ms Doherty said the pandemic has made her re-evaluate what her business means to customers.

“I’ve only just realised that (the shop) is a lot more than walking in and picking a book off a shelf,” she said.

“It’s about the customers, the elderly, the young kids, the chat and the craic, the camaraderie. The shop has been missed by so many for those very reasons. It’s made me more determined than ever to keep going.

She added: “Everybody has challenges, as an individual, as a community and as a businessperson.

“I’ve lost both my parents and to be honest I can hear them (saying) ‘keep going, keep going, don’t give up’.”

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