Remembering the glorious book shops that used to grace Norwich

Norman Peake outside the famous Scientific Anglian bookshop in St Benedicts, Norwich.
Photo: Bill S

Norman Peake outside the famous Scientific Anglian bookshop in St Benedicts Street, Norwich in 2001 - Credit: Archant

When I first came to work in Norfolk in 1977, that was after Anglia were kind enough to cast aside their doubts about my suitability to grace their screens, one of the first things I did was to pop down Opie Street to the city’s centre to see if the place was going to be suitable for me. 

One of the first tests it had to pass was the bookshop quota: how many would there be per yard of pavement? Quiet little murmurs of satisfaction accompanied my walk; there were enough to please the likes of me. How could I resist a place with a bookshop called Goose’s that not only sold books but gramophone records too?

There were smaller places as well, owned by the people who manned them, people who loved the merchandise so much it was a wonder they could bring themselves to part with a single volume. It was so long ago that I can’t actually recall all of them but a handful of names flicker in the memory. 

There was Gerald Gliddon in Bedford Street who was so immersed in books that he not only sold them but I seem to remember that he actually wrote them, well at least one. There was a biggish shop down by the cathedral owned by a bustling man in a chalk-striped suit and glittering glasses.

There were more than could ever come back to me now. I think many have gone. But I do have fond recollections of those enthusiastic chats about books and authors following an unhurried spot of browsing.

Browsing in a shop selling new books is a bit of a swizz really. The shop may not mind you turning a page or two so long as your hands are clean, but the serious book-buyer could reasonably be expected to know what’s on the shelves; newspapers and magazines will have been reviewing the things and they will have been mulled over by critics on radio and telly. (I worked on the BBC’s Book Programme but that’s worth a piece in its own right.)

If it’s browsability you’re after it’s the second-hand emporia you’ll be wanting. Mr Ellis still has his fine shop in Norwich's Upper St Giles; I’ve found many a long-wanted out of print treasure on his shelves. Strangest of all bookshops was The Scientific Anglian, a cavernous place of towering shelves some of which had lain unread, undusted for years.

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The name was misleading. You might find scientific works in there but its range was vast. For years I had made a point of mugging up on the history of popular music and was eager to find Rhythm on Record, by Hilton R. Schleman, published in 1936 at seven shillings and sixpence. There it was, calling to me from the Scientific Anglian’s cliff face of vintage volumes. Laid down heaven knows when it had decidedly matured with age and cost me £20. I have it to hand even now and any time I can pick it up and sense its warmth and weight.

Browsability. Now there’s a subject worth a page or two of its own. Blickling Hall had a bookshop that was always a pleasure to visit, managed by keen volunteers who were tirelessly tidying the shelves. They catered generously for the sport of browsing, even encouraging it by supplying chairs between the loaded shelves. I’ve bought an armful or two from there in my time, crowing over the spoils with coffee and a bun in the courtyard, batting the wasps away.

It was at Blickling that I came across a trophy title. It wasn’t a first edition or a rare copy but it did have a touch of added value for me: I was mentioned in it, and there was my name in the index.

It was The Bandsman’s Daughter by Irene Thomas and she spared a line or two recalling our time together on a radio quiz programme with Kenneth Williams, Sheridan Morley and Terry Wogan, brief moments of fame now fled and forgotten, but thanks to dear Irene there they are forever, in the book.

I do wonder if anybody’s bought it yet.