Just about as far from a motorway as anywhere in England, certainly any major city – but a relatively easy railway journey, so off to Norwich for the first time in many years. Lured of course by the fact that it would appear to have more second-hand bookshops than either Oxford or Cambridge (let alone anywhere else) – no ABA members, but that may change.
I’d forgotten how striking and how individual a place it is. Once upon a time the second city of the kingdom – Norman castle, Norman cathedral, and more mediæval churches (thirty or more?) than anywhere else I can think of. We remember that the earliest extant town-plan of any English city is of Norwich, not London. Much knapped flint, that most rugged and self-possessed of building materials, and some quite superb Georgian and Victorian brick. The magnificent market – older itself than most of the buildings. Largest in England and strangely continental with its jaunty rows of more or less permanent stalls – at least three selling second-hand books. A neglected gem of a city – someone tells me that an improbably large number (thirty per cent was it?) of the students who come to study here decide to stay permanently.
The city centre largely pedestrianised. Generally a mistake – town-planning designed to suck out the soul, destroy local retail endeavour and leave it prey to outskirt superstores – but it seems to work tolerably well here. Very few empty shops, amazingly few. Patently a more prosperous place than when last I saw it. Marred only by the hurtling threat of brain-dead zombies on bicycles – they have even put up warning signs (if only they were just oncoming). It may be pedantic, but surely in a ‘pedestrian zone’ should it not be the cyclists who are being cautioned?
But here to look for books. First stop the Tombland Bookshop. Mildly deterring display of books on venereal diseases in the window – no doubt some rare enough pamphlets and tracts, but it’s a little early in the day and I’ve just had my breakfast. All amiable enough within. Neat, tidy and well-organised. Interesting and varied stock. Tempted by some uncommon E. F. Bensons, but settle on a few other things. A very good Victorian cricket book at ankle height tests the sinews and the dodgy back, but it does not escape me.
On to the City Bookshop and David Clarke. An interesting, bold and brave venture this. Set up just two or three years ago on the back of experience in the book trade going back to the eighties. A new shop, opened up right in the city centre, between the market and the castle. A carefully calculated mix of well-chosen remainders (some spectacularly cheap and very attractive new books), a first-rate stock of local history, both old and new, and a well-defined general stock of antiquarian and second-hand, with specialities in military, transport, art, etc. And it would appear to be going very well. Difficult to argue with a business plan which saw some 10,000 books sold in the final quarter of last year.
Brisk, busy and impressive, Norwich born and bred, David is himself an author and an authority on the local history. We adjourn for a pleasant lunch in what was (most suitably) the old public subscription library – one of the oldest in the country. This is a bookish town. The new public library is reckoned the busiest and most popular in the country. We talk of matters book-trade – the perennial question of the future of the trade, the success of some book-fairs, the terminal decline of others. But both optimistic, by and large.
David kindly takes me round to introduce me to The Bookman, just off Pottergate. The Bookwoman as it happened on this particular day. Extremely friendly. Very small shop – bit of a crowd when some regulars pop in. Thoughtfully selected and neatly organised second-hand. Prices just as friendly. Haul away a carrier bag – nothing spectacular, but all good things. Then back to the City Bookshop – too much time spent talking earlier to have had a proper look at the books. Nice couple of shelves of Hakluyt Society looking just arrived. A glass case opened upstairs – a few non-Norfolk books bought.
The day has somehow slipped away – but so very pleasantly. Not enough time to get to the little bookshop on Elm Hill or the one on St. Giles Street, let alone anywhere else. Apologies. Train to catch. Another time. A reviving experience – a lovely city that still believes in its bookshops.