This week our volunteer Chiara tells us the story of the Christian Science Church and Bookshop, which has been in Egham High Street for over 20 years.
I arrived at our meeting at the Christian Science Church and Bookshop, and Judy, the Librarian welcomed me with a warm smile. She showed me around the premises, their office, the church for their celebrations, the bookshop. Then we sit in a cosy and warm small reading room, on two comfortable armchairs surrounded by many shelves full of books. She started telling me the history of the church founder Mary Baker Eddy, and when and how she founded this church in 1879 in Boston. Then we start to talk about their presence in Egham:
“The church is the owner of this place. My official title here is Librarian, sometimes I also take the services. I’m also the manager of the library but I don’t work here every day, there are other people who work here too. We all take turn in taking church services. We take 3 months at the time, we vote democratically for it, we have 2 readers and I read Mrs Eddie’s book and we have another girl who reads the bible. The services are given to us from Boston, our mother church. We study during the week and then we read them during our sermons on Sundays. But we also choose the hymns, then we read from the Bible and then we have a blessing at the end. We have a Wednesday meeting when we read our own sermon, but a part from that during the week, this place is used mainly for the bookshop. People come to pray or sometimes they come because they have problems and they want to talk about it. In fact we are here for the community. We are very open to everyone, for example, a woman phoned me a few weeks ago, I could hear that she was very drunk and very upset because her mother had died. After a few days she came here, she was very upset, and I talked to her for maybe an hour and at the end she was much calmer and she was ok. Then I didn’t hear anything from her. But about 2 days later, a bunch of flowers arrived for me and I phoned her to say “you’ve been so kind. What was that for? I didn’t do anything…” and she said “I was going to kill myself. But then I talked to you and you just lifted the all thing off me. I’ve decided to give up with alcohol”. So, this is why we are here.
The church bought this building I think in 1995. We know that before us, this building was a cooperative groceries (a food store), but with a counter, so had to go to the counter and ask for what you wanted. Then, I think that in the 1960s it became a records shop, and outside it was pink because there was pink marble, it still looks a bit like this. Maybe they wanted to make it look modern. And then it became an insurance and financial services business, it was split in the middle so that they had 2 offices. Then it was up for sale and we bought it in 1995. At that time I was a member of a small church in Eaton, it was hid in the back and no one knew it existed, and there was another church in Staines, and neither there, nobody knew we were there. But we wanted a more visible place to be in the middle of the community because this is why we are here for, for the community. It’s no good to be hidden. So, we were looking for a place that was in between the two, and Egham was in the middle, and had a railway station too, so Egham seemed to be the ideal place.
We had to do lots of renovations. It was split in the middle and so we had to move that wall over so that we have just that corridor at the side with a toilet and a little kitchen. We certainly had to reconfigure the auditorium because it wasn’t a big room then, it was divided in two. It was such a mess before, I didn’t take any photos, and I wish I had, to make a comparison. It was horrible.
I think it was a good choice to come to Egham, I really do. I think Egham is a very vibrant town especially with all the university kids here, it’s very alive. We embrace students… I remember one year there were a couple of students and they used to love coming here and talking, they used to bring their friends and I even got floor cushions and they used to bring cookies and teas. We all used to sit on the floor in a circle and have really good talks. It’s been funny.
Before I had another job and we realised that we couldn’t have a shop to be closed all the time, so we advertised the job, and we’ve got a young man who was a Physics graduated from Cambridge came and worked here as our first librarian. And also one of his friends, they shared the job. They were really good, they had so much energy. We are members of the Egham Chamber of Commerce so we got to know other shops keepers, and we play quite a big part. Runnymede Council wanted to change all these parking spaces to a taxi stand and we played quite a big part in getting people to sign a petition, and giving them information because nobody knew about it, so that got over-turned. With all of these renovations parking is a worry. I spoke to the architects and they are just interested in the Theatre. I mean, that is fantastic, it’s great, 700 seats. But they were only interested at night and how people get into town at night. At night there are plenty of parking in Egham, and I suggested “What about at lunch time, when it’s full?”, and you are taking the whole road.
When we arrived here this was a very busy town and there were lots of independent shops, and now there are lots of charity shops and even chains, not only because people cannot pay the high rates, but also the biggest thing that affected Egham was Staines’ shopping centre. When that was built people stopped coming here and we said to the Council “the parking charge is very high in Egham and people come for just half an hour, but that’s not enough. It’s enough just to go to the bank, or grab a coffee, but not to stay”. If people would have 1 hour at least they would come to shopping more often and event to visit the museum. Of course in Egham there are also many residents, and they are happy without cars, they like it quiet. They don’t realise that shop keepers need cars to come in to bring people in. It’s slightly different how the residents see the town and the shop keepers see the town. Everyone go to Staines now for shopping. That’s why so many shops closed. This is why we suggested the Council to leave 1 hour free parking, we do this all the time. All the Egham Chamber of Commerce ask it. Apart from this, everything else in Egham is ok, maybe street cleaning should be better. I think Strode’s College and Holloway University should instruct people not to drop litter because this mainly comes from them, and the schools as well. I think the litter comes mainly from students, but there are also people drinking at night who are not necessarily students, leaving bottles on the pavement and throwing cigatteres around. Maybe the Council doesn’t clean the streets every day, I’m not sure but I think so, and they should be cleaned every day, 2 times, morning and evening.
In terms of community….I think that 20 years ago there was a much bigger sense of community. People are always in a hurry these days. People come here, park for 20 minutes and drive off. We certainly are friendly with each other. I don’t know all the owners, there are many chains so we don’t know their owners.
When I was a teenager, my mum used to love Egham, so we used to come here often. There were lots of independent shops and I remember a beautiful shop of decorative stuff like vases and pictures, high quality stuff. And there was also an ironmongery shop. I used to have a feeling about Egham and think “I’m going to live in Egham one day”. Sometimes I’m still here till late to do some administration work and my friends say to me “you should bring your bed and just live there”. I had a feeling that Egham would have become something for me. It was a proper little English town. It was different”.
Follow us next week for the next story from Egham High Street….
(Header photograph: aerial view of the High Street, with thanks to the late local photographer, Fred Parkin)