Tucked away between Loulla’s clothing boutique and a medical lab in Polis Chrysochous, lies an unassuming gem-of-a-place, the Polis charity bookshop.

Operating from its current premises since 2005 (previously out of a stall in the municipal market flanked by a butcher and a veggie seller) the English language bookshop has been going strong for over 20 years.

Run under the Polis Charitable Foundation until 2023, the tiny shop over this time generated a whopping sum of €249,000, donated to local charities over the years.

The bookshop’s diminutive size, like Mary Poppin’s bag, belies its astonishing range of secondhand books, its colourful history, and the big hearts of its founders and volunteers.

It was originally the idea of three women, Sandra Westwood, Brenda Watson and Diane Sylvester. Seventy-seven-year-old Di, along with 81-year-old Jacqui Hollingsworth, are the two members from the early days who are at it still.

Jacqui, a Yorkshire lass who moved to the island 25 years ago, is measured and thorough in her ways, perhaps a remnant from years spent working as an office manager at a large school.

feature iole jacqui hollingsworth on far right, next to her diane sylvester

Jacqui Hollingsworth (far right), next to her Diane Sylvester, with other volunteers

What made the bookshop work so well? I ask her.

The bookshop volunteers–all female–like to run a tight ship, is Jacqui’s first response.

“Well, the shop is organised,” she says. “In other places, secondhand books might be piled up willy-nilly and you have to dig through them, but we try to keep things orderly,” she tells me, rather modestly.

Jacquie recalls how, upon its upgrade from the market to its current location, several husbands were roped-in to build shelving, still solid to this day.

While its spruceness is certainly part of the shop’s appeal, it doesn’t fully capture the magic of the place.

“What it is,” she says after another pause, “is that everyone who’s ever worked there loves books. And rescuing books.” As a sometime volunteer I feel she’s hit the nail on the head.

Most of the women are of a generation well before Google, when printed information – and indeed entertainment – was earned by trawling through physical pages and bearing their weight in one’s bag.

Despite the fact that anything now can be instantly had or discarded with a click, a reverence for books, today almost quaint, persists among the volunteers, and some are hard-pressed to send even outdated travel guides to the recycling bin.

However, to the recycling bin they (and other books agonised over) do go, because the shop premises are simply too tiny to warehouse every single donation, and smart ‘business’ choices must be made.

Over the years, the bookshop has donated towards causes as diverse as the purchase of equipment for Polis hospital, the food Solidarity fund, music lessons for children with Down’s syndrome, cancer support, and the heart foundation, to name but a few.

The shop is frequented by locals, mainly expats (not only from the UK), as well as the seasonal influx of tourists of all stripes. Patrons of the shop can buy books priced from 50c to €3.00 and can choose from an assortment of languages, including Greek, German, Hebrew, Dutch, Russian and Romanian, among others.

The top-selling books are crime novels, but regular patrons can and do request books on eclectic interests that just might make their way into the shop, as attested to by a low-tech notification system of sticky notes on a corkboard in the back room.

In 2021, following a change in legislation, Di and Jacqui woke up one day to find the charity’s funds frozen, and were shocked to be given the ultimatum to restructure or dissolve.

The bookshop managed to continue paying rent during this and the covid pandemic, despite having to close for several months.

In the stressful period which followed, volunteers faced the heartbreaking prospect of having to fold after so many years of service. In the end, this was averted with an eleventh-hour rescue, which saw the charity brought under the legal umbrella of the Friends’ Hospice.

I find myself in awe of their pluck which they themselves seem to take entirely for granted.

“What motivated you all? How did you know you would be successful?” I ask.

Jacqui, who worked from a young age at her parents’ pub and took night courses for six years after she had her children, responds rather stoically, “We just did things, didn’t we?”

“But you know,” she tells me as an afterthought, “the shop does give us a purpose, something worthwhile to do. Not just for us…people come in and they love to have a chat, it’s a community service, really.”

This seems to go partway to explaining the ethos of the place and its enduring charm, perhaps all the stronger for being an anachronism in a world enamoured of efficiency, where algorithms trump the whimsical asymmetries of personal interaction.

The newly re-named Friends’ Hospice bookshop is run entirely by volunteers and is open Mondays to Fridays 10am to 1pm. It stocks secondhand books, as well as jigsaws and greeting cards.