During a pandemic, West Footscray resident Reem Sweid built a beautiful bookshop in her community, for her community.
“I have lived in the neighbourhood with my husband for more than a decade, and I love strolling through the eclectic shops of Barkly Village.
“But I always thought the place was missing a bookshop. And that became really stark during lockdown – the lack of bookshops within five kilometres that you could just walk to and collect a book.
“So when the opportunity came up, I thought I’d take the leap and open my own.”
Reem has always had an interest in books and learning. As a social policy researcher and writer, she views bookselling and academia as very similar professions; both involving a search for information and the delivery of knowledge.
“After receiving my PhD, and with the tertiary education sector being so hard hit with funding cuts, I reconsidered diving into a full-blown academic career.
“Instead, I thought that this was an opportune time to try something new. Then when this light-filled corner site came up for lease on my doorstep, I felt like the stars were aligning for me to open The Chestnut Tree.”
As well as stocking wall-to-ceiling shelves with books for all interests and all ages, Reem focuses on supporting hyperlocal suppliers in the cafe side of her business.
“I feel really passionate about supporting local living and considering the environmental impact of what you do. So if I’m asking my customers to buy from their local bookshop, instead of going to Amazon and buying it online, then I must practise what I preach. That’s why our coffee comes from Rumble Coffee in Kensington and our cocoa is from Mork Chocolate in North Melbourne.”
The Chestnut Tree fully opened in late 2021 after relying solely on providing local home deliveries and takeaway coffees during lockdowns. Now locals can also attend in-store book clubs and author events, carefully curated to amplify the voices of new writers, people of colour and female authors.
“I’m a Syrian immigrant to Australia and the publishing industry…let’s just say it’s still very male, very white. So I try to encourage people to read outside their comfort zone a little or to explore authors of different backgrounds. A lot of my academic work has been around multiculturalism in Australia, so it’s no-brainer that this is something that I want to focus on.
“In the twenty-first century, I see a bookshop’s role as having the same importance as a tea house had in the French Revolution. They are an important space for people who are interested in ideas to meet and share thoughts through reading, talking and listening. I believe that fiction and non-fiction books are one of the mediums we can use to engage in other people’s experiences.”
Despite being a relatively new business, Reem has an ambitious vision for The Chestnut Tree.
“My dream is that it becomes the heart of this tight-knit community. I want it to be a place that encourages conversation, exploration and access to knowledge. That our work inspires an awareness of what ideas are out there in the community, where we’re going as a society and where the future lies.”