“We had to adapt quickly to help the community and it became devastatingly apparent that what the community needed was food.”
Based on a circular economy model, a Library of Things promotes the ethos that borrowing is better than buying. For a small membership fee and cost to borrow each item, people can borrow items such as a carpet cleaner, tent, vacuum cleaner, electric drill etc. for as long as they need them – and simply return the items when they are done, much like you would return a book to a conventional library. Beyond the obvious financial benefits for people who simply cannot afford to buy items up front, this model is kinder to the environment, meaning less items are purchased only to be used a handful of times, taking up room in the house, before potentially ending up in landfill. There are also social benefits – which are incredibly evident when Cornwall VSF met Jo Rusbridge, who runs Bugle Library of Things/ Community Share Shop.
On a spectacularly sunny Monday in February 2021, I meet Jo at the shop where it is instantly apparent that we are in the heart of the community of Bugle, a small village in mid-Cornwall. Located on a busy road, just yards away from a major intersection, there are cars and lorries whizzing past the shop throughout the day. Within a few minutes of opening the shop and placing crates of fresh fruit and vegetables outside the store window on tables, passers-by are already greeting Jo and swapping stories about their weekend. Jo shares the news with me that one of her pet ducks, Dave, has a poorly foot and that she was unable to sleep worrying about what to do about it.
Jo has lived in Cornwall her whole life. She grew up in Bugle and played in the local brass band. She is clearly loved and trusted by the community here.
Over the course of the morning a range of residents from the village and surrounding area visit the small shop with their bags for life in tow, to stock up on enough food to keep them going for a few meals. From young families with children, elderly members of the community to people in their thirties – Jo’s Community Fridge offers a lifeline to those in need. “We don’t ask too many questions,” Jo tells me. “If they want to open up about their situation – and they often do once the trust has been built, I’m here to listen not judge.”
Bugle Library of Things, the brainchild of Cultivate Cornwall in collaboration with Treverbyn Parish Community Fund, opened its doors to the local community on 2 March 2020 after months of planning. Within a few weeks, life as we knew it, would change completely due to the Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent national lockdowns. Almost overnight, businesses were forced to close, children stopped going to school and despite government furlough schemes and business loans, unemployment rose as positive cases of Covid soared across the country.
“We had to suspend the Library as it just wasn’t possible to operate due to the pandemic – for hygiene reasons, social restrictions and also because these items weren’t deemed as essential.” Jo explains. “We had to adapt quickly to help the community and it became devastatingly apparent that what the community needed was food.”
Unlike food banks that have been around long before the pandemic, small community larders or fridges, like the one Jo operates, received emergency funding from local councils as a temporary measure to help residents in need. Unfortunately, due to the stigma sometimes attached to using food banks, these measures provided a lifeline for struggling individuals and families who felt too ashamed to ask for help. With a no-questions-asked approach, people could get the essentials they needed without fear of judgement. Jo tells me that that to date they have handed out 14 tonnes of food which equates to £53k worth of food.
As well as providing a range of fresh food and dry cupboard supplies, which is supplied by FareShare – a national network of charitable food distribution, the shop also receives donations of a range of unwanted items that are made available to the local community. This includes toys, clothes, books, DVDs – things that have helped families through lockdowns and home schooling. The shop also offers a school uniform swap rail – offering free school uniforms that have been donated or swapped for a bigger size.
“During half-term, a neighbour donated craft-packs which couldn’t fly off the shelves quick enough.” Jo tells me after a lady pops in asking if there are any left (there aren’t). “We’re giving out wooden roses for people to gift on Mother’s Day with a personalised message attached and have already bought a hundred chocolate eggs for a community Easter egg hunt for the children on Easter – we did something similar last year and it created so much joy, during such uncertain times.”
As well as operating the Community Fridge from the shop, Jo visits the local traveller site on Minorca Lane three times a week to provide free food and other donated items to the residents. While down at the site, Jo relies on volunteers to stay at the shop and she tells me that the amount of people offering up their time has surprised her. “It shows just how important community has become to everyone. People are going through some really difficult personal circumstances, but they still want to help others. There really is an appetite for it – but there just isn’t the room in the shop to expand. We’re hoping to use the local chapel to run events, workshops as well as resuming our youth clubs, when the restrictions lift. Hopefully then all the people that want to volunteer and help will be able to.”
Among the heartbreaking stories shared with me from residents who pop into the shop or visit the pop-up site down at Minorca Lane – and those recounted to me by Jo, something that shines through from my visit along with the winter sunshine, is the sense of hope and community spirit that Jo and the Library of Things/ Community Share Shop has managed to harness. What happens when funding for these small community organisations runs out in March, remains unclear, but whatever happens, Jo Rusbridge will continue to be a wonderful pillar of support for this community.
And if you’re wondering about Dave the duck, a neighbour got wind of the situation and offered to provide some physio for the injured foot. A circular economy may well be on hold in Bugle, but the idea of an economy of kindness is definitely in the air.