“The idea was never to live on the boat or to travel with it,” says Henshaw, now 37. “The idea was just to have a bookshop.” But gradually it became apparent that a small indie bookshop was no match for online booksellers or ebooks. Despite business being quite brisk initially, and The Book Barge hosting many literary events, the sound of footsteps clattering down the gangplank became less frequent each day. By 2011, the business was in trouble. This, coupled with upheavals in Henshaw’s personal life, made her feel a bit at sea. “The business was failing, and I felt like I was failing as a person,” she recalls. “The desire to run away was part of why I moved onto the boat.”
One day in May 2011, Henshaw set off from Staffordshire in the Midlands, in Joseph, ostensibly to run away, but to also drum up business. The Book Barge had acquired a loyal following around the country, and Henshaw posted her location on social media as she cruised along. Wherever she docked, a stream of customers waited to come aboard and shop. They sometimes even bartered goods or services (groceries, home-cooked meals, haircuts, a couch for the night, or the use of a shower) in exchange for books. In some ways it was a hard life, although not without benefits.
“Having so much going on really focussed me. Because I had to think of really basic things like ‘Oh, where’s the next pub so I can use the bathroom. And where can I moor up for the night, also near a pub, so I can clean my teeth’, because I didn’t have a sink or anything.” Henshaw spent six months traversing the British canal system, covering 1,736 km, crossing through 700 locks, with only Joseph who by then she believed, had developed a personality of his own. Now, looking back, she laughs, “I felt really lonely and isolated at the time. Stories, and the boat, became a thing of comfort for me.”
The journey had a transformative effect on Henshaw. “I’ve never had much confidence, but I became quietly confident that I could survive and be happy all by myself, which was a nice thing.” She also learnt to accept help from others. “I realised that even if you’re a mess, there are other people who will support you and you’ll be alright.” But the most profound lesson was, “To expect the best in people. If you meet strangers with suspicion or reservations, they will react accordingly. That’s certainly been my experience.” The other highlight of Henshaw’s adventure was that her blog caught the attention of a publisher, and she landed a book deal: The Bookshop That Floated Away was published by Constable in 2014.
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