When a person takes their own life, it can shake their community to the core. When it happens in a small town – where everyone knows everyone else – it hits particularly hard.
When Gunning’s Irene Barrera heard someone had died by suicide in a nearby rural village, she knew she had to do something. She said in a village like Gunning when there’s a problem, everyone rallies around to help.
“That’s just what we do,” she said.
“I didn’t know what I could do, but … I spoke to a counsellor we have here and I said, surely there’s something?”
Books and education have always played a significant part in Irene’s life – from her time as a youngster growing up in her native Holland to her training as a teacher and the 10 years she spent running the Gunning newsagency.
A few weeks ago Irene opened The BookNook in the main street of Gunning. It’s a place where people can buy second-hand books for $5 each with every cent going to mental health organisation Beyond Blue – but where the chats, coffee, tea and biscuits are free.
“Sometimes people just need a place to go,” she said.
The BookNook is a warm, welcoming place, with jazz music playing in the background, scented candles and, of course, books lining shelves and counters and piled up on the floor.
The books are diverse. Visitors might expect to find classic children’s tales by Enid Blyton, Australian classics like Sally Morgan’s My Place, the Treasury of the Writings by Khalil Gibran or quirky books like Cooking for Cats. There are also regional books, like a 1996 recipe book compiled by the Parents and Friends Association of St Bede’s Primary School.
“I started with about 50 of my cookbooks, bringing them down here to sell and it just snowballed from there,” Irene said.
“The donations started coming in; I can’t believe how generous some people are.
“I was talking to a woman one day saying I didn’t have many gardening books – the next day she turned up with a pile of them.”
Despite having lived in Gunning for 23 years, Irene still describes herself as a “blow in”. She came to the small rural village by chance while looking for a new place to settle with her then husband.
The small village about an hour’s drive from Canberra proved to be the perfect permanent stop where Irene says she has enjoyed a “fascinating” life.
“When we got here, I said, ‘this is it’. This is the place I want to be,” she said.
“I’ve done a lot of things, including spending 15 years making wooden toys. My kids were born in the 70s and there weren’t those sort of toys around then, so I started making them.”
Irene also runs a collectibles shop in the main street, just up the road from The BookNook. If she can’t be in two places at one time, she’ll call on one of her friends to serve at whichever counter needs it. “People in Gunning are good like that,” she said.
Both businesses are about a two-minute drive from her home up the hill, the old undertaker’s slab hut.
“People ask me how I can live in the undertaker’s place but I tell them the bodies were shipped in and then out again so it’s not like anyone died here,” she laughed.
The BookNook has been open only a few weeks but Irene has already sold more than 100 books – and given $500 to Beyond Blue as a result.
She plans to open The BookNook from 2 pm to 4 pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays but at other times if the demand is there.
If you or anyone you know needs help, you can visit Beyond Blue or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support.