ALL ABOARD
Forbes India|January 29, 2021
Meet the intrepid people who have traded traditional living spaces for a life on water
Vaishali Dinakaran

In 2009, Sarah Henshaw, disenchanted with her job as an entertainment journalist in London, decided to change tracks and open a bookstore. She realised that if the bookstore was on a boat, she could trade a hefty rent for a comparatively nominal annual mooring fee. Within a month of first having the idea, she became the proud owner of a 57-foot narrowboat that she named Joseph. In June 2009, after onboard amenities like the kitchenette, shower, and toilet had been replaced with bookshelves, The Book Barge opened to the public.

“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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM FORBES INDIAView All

‘The Middle Class Buys Dreams. The Businessman Sells Unrealistic Ones'

Anand Kumar starts the interview by setting the context. “Let’s get the math right,” says the mathematician.

4 mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

The Home School of Thought

Concerns over a monotonous, formal education system coupled with edtech’s innovative approaches bolster the homeschooling proposition. But is India ready for it?

10+ mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

The Big Small Question

As Byju’s and Unacademy grow at breakneck speed, what will it take for smaller edtech players to survive?

10+ mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

Beating Bharat's Edtech Blues

On the other side of the billion-dollar edtech boom are children who have been unable to access the most basic forms of online education, and people who have been trying to bridge the digital divide

10+ mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

Handa's New Funda: From Academy to Unacademy

How IITian Ravi Handa scaled up his seven-year-old online venture for MBA preparation, and eventually sold it to an edtech major

5 mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

Six (and more) Degrees of Fakery

How inaction against the rash of fake universities across the country may be incentivising the mushrooming of more such institutions

6 mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

Meet The Headmasters

Sequoia Capital has bet big on edtech, with over a dozen investments, including in industry giants Byju’s and Unacademy

10+ mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

A Billion-Dollar Dream For Freshworks

Girish Mathrubootham is taking a cue from the rapid growth of Silicon Valley software startups to reach scale and velocity

10+ mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

Changing How Small-Town India Shops

CityMall founders Angad Kikla and Naisheel Verdhan are building a network of micro-entrepreneurs through their app in smaller cities

10 mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021

Liberal Arts: A Road Less Travelled

Colleges offering these courses in India have begun to gain ground, but for them to truly shine on the global map, they must be cognisant of the country’s culture and challenges

7 mins read
Forbes India
April 23, 2021