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Kristen Proud shares how her bookstore sheds warmth amidst the crisis

Words by Della Vreeland
Images supplied

Kristen Proud had just completed Grade 4 when she learned how to read.

‘I come from quite a tumultuous background, so I moved schools eight times in primary school,’ the bibliophile says. ‘That meant the schools and teachers couldn’t support my learning.’

While Kristen didn’t learn to read adequately until later in primary school, it didn’t wane her desire to open a bookstore when she grew older. But it wasn’t until four and a half years ago that her dream was finally fulfilled.

Driving along Kyneton’s High Street (while on maternity leave), she and her partner saw an empty shopfront and jokingly remarked that maybe it was time to open up shop. ‘We joke now that if I hadn’t been so sleep deprived it probably would never have happened,’ Kristen laughs.

And so it was, after the birth of her daughter Vega, that Squishy Minnie was also born. Located in the heart of Kyneton in the Macedon Ranges, the indie bookstore conjures up feelings of warmth, community, nostalgia and connection.

Kristen says one of her venture’s primary aims is to connect with individual hearts through the power of stories.

‘Stories connect us and reflect ourselves, but also they help us understand other people’s experiences,’ she says.

‘Regional people, in particular young people, don’t have as much access to literature to have that connection with books. So they might be coming to Squishy Minnie and going through the books like a library, or we might have authors come to the store because they want to share their love (of books).

I want for young people and kids to have access to literary events and leave here feeling nourished.

Kristen says she hopes young people will also be inspired by her own story, and realise you don’t need to be an advanced reader to lead an enriched life. Immersing herself in The Baby-Sitters Club and books from the likes of John Marsden at a young age, she says there were specific authors that particularly resonated with her and helped form her passion for books.

‘Life wasn’t easy as a teenager, so I found solace in John Marsden and other young adult novels. I felt like I was being heard and seen.’

Growing up under difficult circumstances, Kristen affirms her testing life imbued in her the capacity to overcome difficulties.

For this reason, she believes she was able to efficiently navigate through the trials of running a business during a global health pandemic. With a Masters in Public Health, Kristen made the decision to close Squishy Minnie early last year – before the effects of COVID were fully realised in Australia.

‘I was hearing things from our friends overseas and waiting for our government to do something and they didn’t,’ she recalls. ‘It was March during one of our Storytime sessions, which are always very busy, and I was watching the kids touch the books and thought, if anyone in this room had COVID, we would all contract it.

‘We made a decision to close early and I was sick to the stomach about it. I had this sense that people would think I was crazy and fear mongering.’

While the shop closed its doors to the public, Kristen swiftly implemented a number of tactics in order to maintain connection with community. Online shopping was further promoted, book clubs moved to an online platform, and Storytime was also hosted online by her much-loved partner Lucky – attracting up to 200 people every week.

‘I think if you are in the face of adversity, you just think, how do you move through that or around it,’ she says.

That being said, the COVID lockdowns still had a severe impact on business, especially since the shop’s main visitation was from regional Victoria.

‘This year has been particularly hard because people from regional Victoria haven’t been able to come and pick up their books, which has been particularly disastrous,’ she says. ‘We sold more online that I thought we would, but still made a huge loss.

‘The nature of our business is that it’s very tactile. We want people touching books and opening them up and looking at them, and we’ve spent years telling our customers that they can do that. So then to retract that is hard.’

Having lived in Kyneton for about eight years, Kristen firmly believes the town’s strong sense of community is one of its most alluring attributes.

Makes sense then, that her bookstore too strives to bring people together under the banner of community. COVID or not, this will always be the case.

‘People here care about their neighbours and it’s hard to quantify, but it makes life warm and rich,’ she says.

‘We are taking it one day at a time and thinking a lot about what young people are going to need moving forward and how stories or books might play a role in that.

‘For us it’s not really about selling books, but really about being a community space which celebrates literature.’


THE DETAILS

WHAT: Squishy Minnie Bookstore
WHERE: 6 High Street, Kyneton
FIND OUT MORE: squishyminnie.com.au

We wish to acknowledge the Taungurung people as traditional owners of this land and to pay our respects to their Elders, past and present.
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