‘A sweetshop for adults’ - Norwich bookshop owner celebrates ten years at The Book Hive
PUBLISHED: 15:11 27 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:11 27 September 2019
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
The owner of an award-winning Norwich bookshop celebrating ten years in the book industry has praised the city as the ideal environment for independent businesses.
Henry Layte, who founded The Book Hive in October 2009, described Norwich as "a fantastic city that wants to support independence", as he looked back at the last ten years of running the popular shop.
Mr Layte, now a father-of-two, recalled the opening of the London Street shop, hosted by Stephen Fry - which took place as the paint on the walls was still drying.
"My brother and I had renovated the shop and the paint was still wet when he came along to do the ceremony," he said.
"My wife and I found out we were having out first child the same day the shop opened. Since then I've been making it up day-by-day.
"We've moved four times, had another child and opened two publishing companies in that time.
"After a while you think as long as you can pay the mortgage that's all you can hope for."
Mr Layte, an ex-actor and writer who decided to open the business after thinking "the fact that there wasn't an indie bookshop in Norwich seemed mad" had previously worked at the National Theatre bookshop and hoped to bring a space "like a sweetshop for adults" to the Norfolk city.
"I was definite that a new shop here needed to be both central, and big enough to host events," he added. "This building, which was pretty iconic as Stevenson's florist and had been for 100 years, was perfect."
But over the years he's seen trade in the town change, with the summer season in the city now rivalling Christmas for the numbers of visitors it brings into the Lanes shops and restaurants.
"Tourism in Norwich has boomed in the last ten years," he said. "The summer trade has doubled to what it used to be.
"More people are discovering Norwich and Norfolk as a place to come and visit.
"Most cities are serviced by one bookshop, probably a Waterstones, but if you can't make a bookshop work in Norwich you're doing something wrong."
The book industry itself has also seen changes, with titles on nature writing and mindfulness growing in popularity, and book designs becoming more and more intricate - and important to their marketing.
Mr Layte said: "You can't now put books out that aren't beautifully designed.
"Books have become much better produced physically - children's books especially.
"And when you come into a bookshop now it looks fantastic."
And he added that he doesn't see the rise of technology - from online retail giant Amazon to the growing popularity of E-book readers, like Kindles - as a threat to his way of making a living.
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"Books are not just ways to make written words available to people," he said. "If they were people would have invented something long ago that would have replaced them."
But he added that smaller bookshops like The Book Hive, which has been named the UK and the East of England's best bookshop several times over the years, were more likely to be kept in line by publishers.
"If I had sold Margaret Atwood's book the day before it was put out, I would have been heavily fined, but Amazon do just get a slap on the wrist," he said, adding: "When JK Rowling's novel - The Casual Vacancy - came out I was sent a list of things I had to have.
"I needed steel cage with a lock on to keep the books safe in before sale."
The online retailer apologised for inadvertently sending out a small number of copies of the author's recent release The Testaments to US customers ahead of its release, which they said was as a result of a technical error.
And The Handmaid's Tale author, who recently praised Norwich as "an eccentric corner of the UK" - and The Book Hive as "a very good bookshop" - famously finished her 2015 novel The Heart Goes Last in one of the shop's upstairs writing booths, which Mr Layte has said "means a huge amount".
Other highlights over the years have included the two publishing companies - Galley Beggar Press and Propolis - founded from the shop, and Mr Layte's success in publishing a collection from the poet laureate Simon Armitage, and discovering the author Eimear McBride.
Her bestseller, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, "turned her into a literary superstar," Mr Layte said.
"I was given a manuscript of it in the shop, read it on holiday and then met Eimear for the first time when I got back.
"Galley Beggar then published it - it's the book I feel the strongest attachment to of the last ten years.
"An amazing journey after nine years of her being rejected by publishers everywhere."
But it's not been an experience without its challenges for the 42-year-old owner, who describes the day job as "never stable".
Mr Layte said: "It's knowing that it always comes good and you just have to keep going.
"There are peaks and troughs.
"The challenges all involve juggling a very young family with the time and lack of money involved in setting up not just one but three businesses under one roof."
While his average day now involves less restocking of shelves, and focuses on the publishing business, ordering stock, and running events in Norwich and north Norfolk, he still comes into the city from his Aylsham home most days.
His hopes for the shop's future?
"Maintaining the best and most interesting stock of books for adults and children in the region."
- The Book Hive is hosting a 10th birthday party event on Friday, November 8, at the Norwich Arts Centre, billed as a celebration of a "full decade against all the nay-sayers, e-book buyers and Amazons of the world", to thank "the readers of Norwich". For tickets, priced at £5, visit, The Book Hive website.
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