The secret lives of a writerly town

January 18th, 2024The secret lives of a writerly town

A significant number of secret lives have been uncovered in Clunes.
Lois Nichols in Boom Clunes. Image: Eve Lamb

A significant number of secret lives have been uncovered in Clunes.

There was once a man, let’s call him Toddy, and he stumbled quite unawares into one of them.

It all happened one Saturday when Toddy, visiting Clunes from inner Melbourne sauntered into Boom Clunes, the main street community retail hub representing local makers and selling books new and pre-loved.

Inside the handsome double-storey 1800s building, Toddy had wandered past a diverse array of  handmade products created by local artisans, craftspeople and cooks, and took himself straight to the pre-loved books room. He wanted some good holiday reading.

Toddy selected a biography penned by a reputable writer and took it to the counter, delighted with his find and pleased to see that all of the pre-loved books cost only $5 each.

“A bargain,” he thought, as the biography he’d found on the life of a former notorious sporting personality was in top-shelf condition and, he knew, that if acquired brand new would have cost him that asking price many times over.

The friendly woman at the desk flipped the book over and told Toddy “Ah! That book has a secret life”.

“Sorry?” replied Toddy, unclear as to what she meant.

“Yes,” said the woman. “It has a secret  life which means it comes with this…”

She reached  beneath the counter, pulled out a cardboard box and from it extracted a neatly filed white envelope which she handed to Toddy. “That’s yours to keep,” she told him.

And that’s how Toddy ended up immensely enjoying a secret life.

He’d just discovered the Secret Lives of Books project happening at Clunes. It’s a unique project, where anyone who may be feeling writerly (and there are reputed to be quite a few in Clunes who regularly do) can volunteer to pen anywhere up to a page-long “secret life” for any of Boom’s pre-loved books that they choose.

When a customer then purchases a book that has had a secret life written for it (and is especially demarcated with an ‘S’ on its back cover as such), they receive not only the book but also it’s written secret life in an envelope to take away and delve into as well.

It’s a bit like getting a surprise gift, or participating in an exclusive book club where you get to receive a personal original response to the book in hand.

A creative initiative between Boom Clunes, the Clunes Neighbourhood House (that manages Boom) and the Western Victorian Primary Health Network, it all  started during Covid in 2021 and since then has produced all kinds of “secret lives” to go with numerous selected books.

“It’s taking the interaction with the book to another level,” says Lois Nichols, project manager at Boom Clunes. Lois is a keen amateur short story writer with a background in magazine publishing who has so far penned 15 secret lives for selected books through the project, and counting…

Locals feeling inclined to pen a secret life for one of Boom’s pre-loved books get to read the book themselves for free first, before handing it back along with the secret life they’ve written for it.

These secret lives range from imagined fantastical globe-trotting pasts people by characters whose hands and lives the book previously graced, to interesting factual aspects of its narrative teased-out for special focus, to genuine heartfelt personal responses to the book’s content.

“Everyone’s got a different take on it,” says Lois. “Some write about how they related to the book as they were reading it or, if they were struggling with something, how the book helped them.

“It’s a bit of fun. It gets people writing and encourages people to read and it’s a way of connecting people.”

 “We sell pre-loved books donated to us by local people and we have two book rescuers here, Rhonda and Patsy, one is a book lover and one is a professional librarian, and they clean, sort and beautifully file the books on the shelves so we have a fabulous range and just about every known genre.

“The idea was inspired by a book called The Secret Life of Dresses which is about a pre-loved dress shop owner who made up stories for her dresses.

“At the moment we have about 60 books in stock that have secret lives. The books with secret lives are marked with an ‘S’ on the back and each secret life is very different.

“The customers who pick up a secret life book are fascinated, thrilled, and want to know more. What started as a retail promotion has become a community activity.”

 The Secret Lives of Books project fits snugly with Clunes’ reputation as a Book Town.

“We get a lot of visitors here on weekends,” says Lois.

Clunes Neighbourhood House manager Lana de Kort says the Secret Lives project is reaching and appealing to a wider range of people than the usual suspects who put their hands up to get involved in community activities.

“It’s a project that really appeals to people who are perhaps a little more introspective and who wouldn’t necessarily connect or volunteer in other ways,” she says.

“A good book really captures your imagination and this project takes that further. It’s brought a lot of people together and it’s drawn people in from Clunes and surrounding areas as well.”

Many have heard that Clunes has an annual Book Town event and they expect to be able find and purchase books in the town. Open on weekends, Thursdays to Mondays, Boom Clunes is helping to meet that expectation, Lois says.

“We also have a really strong writers’ group in town and two book clubs which isn’t bad for a little town of this size,” says Lois, herself a member of the Clunes Book Club that meets at Attitude Clunes on the third Monday of the month at 7.30pm. Meanwhile, the Book Lovers book group meets at Boom once each month as well, she says.

With the project now set to continue throughout 2024 anyone interested in writing a secret life for any of the Boom books can simply roll up at the Boom Clunes counter in person to learn more, or can call the Neighbourhood House.

Words: Eve Lamb

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