Friday 21 June 2019

Let's go on a bookshop crawl

An Independent Bookshop Week adventure: two people, three days, four counties, 17 bookshops, 28 books, 471 miles.

Bookshops are magical places. I’m generally a bit of a sceptic, but I really do believe that stepping inside a bookshop – especially one of the independent variety – can have a transformative effect.

There’s the calming influence of being surrounded by so many books; the excitement of so much potential inside those books; the distraction of all those titles and spines and covers; the little individual details that make each bookshop unique; the other browsers interacting with your personal most loved or most hated books; and there are the booksellers themselves, the bookshop heroes who curated the little piece of heaven you find yourself standing in.

Independent Bookshop Week is the perfect opportunity to explore, engage with and celebrate everything about those individual havens, and having been running for 13 years the celebrations are clearly going well. In the past year the number of indie bookshops who are members of the Booksellers Association has also increased, up to 883, so I like to think that’s a sign lots of us browsers and readers are also doing our bit to celebrate and support our local – and not so local – indies. You can search for indie bookshops near you here.

Following the success of my IBW bookshop crawl last year (and countless before then, bookshop crawls are great – try one!), Books Are My Bag, the campaign to support buying books from bookshops, invited me to go on another adventure to mark the start of Independent Bookshops Week 2019. I chose East Anglia as my destination, and while it was physically impossible for me to visit every bookshop in the area, my boyfriend and I did our best, taking in 17 bookshops spread across four counties – in three days. Almost 500 miles is a long way to travel to visit two people’s handfuls of bookshops, but as I’m hoping this blog will reveal, the rewards to be found in our many destinations were definitely worth the effort.

Our adventure began at The Book Warren & Café in Wilmingham, Cambridgeshire. Found just outside the village, this café-cum-secondhand-bookshop was the perfect cheery start to set us on our way. A handful of tables and chairs fill the room, with books around the edges and chatter and community spirit wafting around the room. We ordered breakfast (coffee and a sausage sandwich for me, tea, an egg sandwich and a cheese scone for him) and sat down at a table near the general fiction shelves.

Bookshop owner Lyndsay came over to say hello in between running the café, and made us feel very welcome as she talked about her endeavour and the part the venue plays in hosting events and gatherings for the community. The book offering is limited – I picked up Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier – but it’s interesting and varied and coupled with the café, Lyndsay’s enthusiasm and the warmth of the welcome on offer, it’s easy to see why this bookshop has been so well received.

Heading north we came to the two-bookshop city of Ely. First stop was Burrows Bookshop, a sweet little place dedicated to children. Set on a busy pedestrian street, several visitors popped in to say hello during our visit, creating a nice atmosphere. I took this stop as an opportunity to add to my Michael Morpurgo collection with Escape from Shangri-La.

Topping & Company is one of the more famous names in the indie bookshop world, and the people of Ely clearly appreciate it because it was packed with Saturday morning shoppers.

Three floors of bookcases (accessed by ladder if necessary) mean this was probably the most voluminous bookshop of our destination. Recommendations tables fill every open space and spines call for attention from smart wooden shelves that make me think of an historic home library. Readers sit with cups of tea, and browse books or sit and chat. There’s a good atmosphere.

While we're exploring, the boy picks up an interesting book, The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi, which I promptly nab from him and claim as my purchase. So he returns to the shelves and comes back with a British Museum book about Manga, and Vivian Maier Street Photography.

Ceres Bookshop in Swaffham, Norfolk, came next. A new and secondhand bookshop with a tea room and garden, we’d just missed the lunchtime rush on what looked to have been a very impressive selection of cakes.

Bad timing in relation to cake aside, this destination is a good size and the tables next to some of the secondhand books get a big thumbs up from this bibliophile. The whole setting conjured up visions of a community space to read, eat and congregate.

Time was tight so we had to move on without cake, but not before I got my hands on Adam Rutherford’s A brief history of everyone who has ever lived.

Hidden away in an interesting-looking arcade in the market town of Holt, The Holt Bookshop turned out to be surprisingly large stopping point. I said hello and the nice gentleman behind the counter apologetically commented he’d not decorated for IBW. As much as I like a good bit of bunting I’m not going to hold a lack of it against anyone, especially if that anyone is a beautifully stocked bookshop.

We both gravitated towards the classics section here, which contained a number of previously unknown to us titles. I was drawn to Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns, while it was the boy’s turn to pick up a book I’d been interested in first: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories. We also ended up with an audio book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and a classical CD of The Tippet Quartet, respectively.

The last Saturday stop was Jarrold & Sons in Cromer. We arrived just 15 minutes before closing, so our exploration was limited to establishing it was half stationery shop, half bookshop, and the buyers had the good sense to stock the latest publication by my favourite cookery guru: The Quick Roasting Tim by Rukmini Iyer.

End of day one: 6 bookshops, 2 counties, 9 books + 2 CDs

Sunday trading meant day two was a more leisurely one, starting at 10.45am, the opening time of City Bookshop in Norwich. We were welcomed by an obviously very knowledgeable bookseller, who we enjoyed chatting to as we explored the varied selection of remainder, secondhand and antiquarian books.

The two floors were well laid out with much to appeal to all tastes but I jumped at the opportunity to buy Patrick Rothfuss’ The slow regard of silent things, because it’s a book I’ve long kept a look out for. The boy chose Modernism, An Anthology, and the size of it meant we were both pleased to be traveling by car!

The Book Hive opened next. Upon entering there’s a smallish lobby with a menu advertising the week’s specials, but the really special thing is walking up the stairs into the bookshop proper, which somehow feels like you’ve been invited into a person’s home – in a good way.

Individual books are placed flat on tables, allowing the browser to sweep their eyes over a mass of covers, spotting new titles and generally being inspired to read X, Y or Z.

That said, bookseller Megan also did a superb job with her recommendations (for us and others, conversation in the bookshop embraced many browsers). Based on her suggestion, I bought Olivia Lang’s To the river. I have a lot of respect for anyone who is willing to discuss taste in books and then say “read this, I think you’ll like it” and based on the fact some of her recommendations were titles one or both of us had already read and loved I was even more impressed. The boy also did some buying: Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield, and A World of Three Zeroes by Muhammad Yunus.

My next bookshop conversation was when I was paying for my purchase in the bookshop in Jarrolds, also in Norwich. I have to admit I’d been a little uncertain about visiting a bookshop in a department store, even if it was an indie. My imagination had been of books lost among clothes or crockery. Instead this was a big, well-stocked space with an excellent range.

The book talk came from Annie at the till, who proudly shared the bookshop’s history, dedication to books and – because everyone loves a freebie – made sure I didn’t leave until I had the bookmark and badges created to accompany my chosen book: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.

Leaving the city, we headed for the coast and another indie offering Sunday opening hours: Aldeburgh Bookshop in Suffolk.

Another surprisingly big bookshop, we entered through a door to the side and were met with a great mix of non-fiction, which is pretty much where I lost the boy. He quickly selected Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream by Sue Prideaux, and The Brain: A User’s Manual by Marco Magrini. Moving into the bigger room I found a good selection of fiction to tempt me, dawdling by the recommendations and enjoying a selection of books displayed at my head height. As well as Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, I also bought a book of postcards, The Snooty Bookshop by Tom Gauld. No prizes for guessing the type of post my friends are going to start receiving...

End of day two: 4 bookshops, 2 counties, 9 books + 1 postcard book

A little last-minute route re-arranging meant the third day of our bookshop crawl began very early, to see us loitering on the doorstep of Woodbridge Emporium in Suffolk ready for opening time. A small bookshop with a definite leaning towards both historical fiction and science fiction and fantasy, the shop was as characterful as Jules the bookseller. We enjoyed a good chat and I came away with The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

Walking a short distance down the street we came to Browsers Books, which had a particularly appealing display of non-fiction almost as soon as we entered through the door. I liked the variety here and was pleased to pick up Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams, which prompted a brief bookshop chat about the author’s excellent writing.

Heading north again, we arrived at the beautiful Halesworth Bookshop, which is clearly investing a lot of energy into making itself a place for the community. I lost track of the number of book-related events taking place thanks to the energy of Abbie the bookseller. Her bubbly enthusiasm was infectious and it was great to see the steady stream of customers visiting her shop early on a Monday morning.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim caught my attention here, as did a beautiful mural in the children’s department (the whole bookshop was really rather lovely) but I could only take one of those two things home.

Hurrying to make up time we could only manage a brief pitstop in Beccles Bookshop, which was spacious and simply organised with a buzz of shoppers and friendly booksellers. The children's area at the back caught my attention but in the end I picked up A closed and common orbit by Becky Chambers. Then there was a quick chat with the bookseller before returning to the road.

The first thing I noticed inside Diss Publishing Bookshop was the woman walking towards me wearing the same Book Shop Heroes t-shirt as me. As icebreakers go it was a good one and we were soon joined by a second bookseller for a group photo. There was a lovely, smiley welcome to this huge bookshop by the lake which also offers art supplies, gifts and a cafe, making it the perfect stop for lunch too.

I interspersed ordering and eating with browsing and chatting, while the boy relaxed at our table on the decking by the lake. It’s an idyllic setting. Tea and toasties revived us nicely but I missed out on trying the homemade jam Swiss roll because one of us ate that all to himself (I’m told he was too busy enjoying it to remember to leave some for me – he's still in the dog house).

Local books were top of the bestsellers here and were certainly very tempting, but I was eventually drawn to Wonders beyond numbers: A brief history of all things mathematical by Johnny Ball.

Winding roads brought us to Clare, near Sudbury, where Harris & Harris Books is to be found. I’ve long wanted to visit this bookshop and the welcome as we arrived at the door confirmed I’d not been wrong in my wish.

Kate the bookseller had the biggest of smiles and the happiest of chatter as she greeted us and showed us around her beautiful boutique bookshop. I’ll be honest, we were beginning to flag a little at this point so the welcome and wonder of this bookshop was exactly what we needed to revive us.

It may be small, but what Harris & Harris lacks in space it makes up for in quality and content. There are eye-catching details everywhere and the books have clearly been lovingly and carefully selected and despite being almost at the end of a bookshop crawl the majority of titles were ones I didn’t recognise. Which is a remarkable achievement for a small bookshop.

I was only sorry I didn’t have more time to appreciate all the details interspersed between the two floors of new and secondhand books. That sorrow was balanced by the joy of finding a new-to-me-title by Edith Wharton, The Touchstone. As the author of my favourite book I’m always thrilled to find more of her writing (all bookshops please take note!). The boy chose A history of the American people by Paul Johnson from the secondhand section.

We arrived at Between The Lines in Great Bardfield, Essex, just 15 minutes before closing but the reaction of the booksellers was so great that I was again reminded why indie bookshops are the best. There were four or five people gathered on their way to celebrate a birthday but rather than tapping their watches and rushing us out, they opened a bottle, settled in for a chat and entertained us with bookshop stories for almost an hour!

Another example of the care and consideration that goes into stocking a bookshop, we were again impressed by the unexpected and largely new to us selection on offer. I greedily grabbed another Wharton, Twilight Sleep, then ended up buying a second book when one of the booksellers saw me looking at Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, which she praised so highly I had to find out more. Annie Ernaux’s Les annees, from the French language corner, was the the boy’s choice.

The bookshelf discoveries and the cheery, celebratory atmosphere generated by the gathered ladies (see them behind us in the photo above) were the perfect ending to our Independent Bookshop Week Bookshop Crawl.

End of day three: 7 bookshops, 3 counties, 10 books

Total: 17 bookshops, 4 counties, 28 books

To find out more about all of these bookshops, come back soon as I focus on them individually.

The Book Warren and Cafe,
Over Road, Willingham, Over, Cambridgeshire, CB24 5EU
Tel: 01954 260762 @TheBookWarren19

Burrows Bookshop,
9 High Street Passage, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7  4NB
Tel: 01353 669 759

Toppings & Company Booksellers,
9 High Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4LJ
Tel: 01353 645005 @ToppingsEly

Ceres Bookshop,
20 London Street, Swaffham, Norfolk, PE37 7DG
Tel: 01760 722504

The Holt Bookshop,
10 Appleyard, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 6AR
Tel: 01263 715858 @TheHoltBookshop

Jarrold Books,
33 Church Street, Cromer, Norfolk, NR27 9ES
Tel: 01263 512190 @JarroldBooks

City Bookshop,
12-14 Davey Place, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1PQ
Tel: 01603 626113 @CityBookshop

The Book Hive,
53 London Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1HL
Tel: 01603 219268 @bookhive

Jarrold Books,
1-11 London Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 1JF
Tel: 01603 660661 @JarroldBooks

The Aldeburgh Bookshop,
42 High Street, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, IP15 5AB
Tel: 01728 452389 @AldeBooks

Woodbridge Emporium,
66 Thoroughfare, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 1AL
Tel: 01394 382382 @WoodbridgeEmpor

Browsers Books,
60 Thoroughfare, Woodbridge, Suffolk, IP12 1AL
Tel: 01394 388890 @BrowsersBks

The Halesworth Bookshop,
42 Thoroughfare, Halesworth, Suffolk, IP19 8AR
Tel: 01986 873840 @abbieyvette

Beccles Bookshop,
Exchange Square, Beccles NR34 9HH
Tel: 01502 716806

Diss Publishing Bookshop,
40 Mere Street, Diss, Suffolk, IP22 4AH
Tel: 01379 644612 @DissPublishShop

Harris & Harris Books,
7B High Street, Clare, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 8NY
Tel: 01787 277267 @HandHbookshop

Between the Lines,
Vine Street, Great Bardfield, Braintree, Essex, CM7 4SR
Tel: 01371 810087 @BTLBardfield


  1. FANTASTIC description of what was obviously a great weekend!Well done you, what a fabulous thing to be part of. I know the big Ely bookshop, is lovely.

    1. Thank you! It was a brilliant three days and I'm so glad we set ourselves the challenge of visiting so many bookshops. Now I just need to finish writing up all their individual posts!

  2. I read this today after reading about the London Bookshop crawl which is a bit far away from Norwich. I think I might have to do this though.... thank you for the info


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