Melbourne City of Lit meets Norwich’s The Book Hive

20 October 2021 @booksandpublishing

In this series, run in partnership with the Melbourne City of Literature Office, we get to know some of the bookstores in the UNESCO Cities of Literature network. Today we visit Norwich’s The Book Hive, which is owned by the co-founder of Galley Beggar Press and is where Margaret Atwood finished her novel The Heart Goes Last (Virago).

For just over a decade, a striking building in the heart of Norwich has been home to The Book Hive. ‘The shop is in a big old three-storey building bang in the centre of the city,’ says owner Henry Layte. ‘I knew that if I was going to take the risk and open a shop it couldn’t be apologetic and hide down a back street. It had to make a statement—or don’t do it.’

Layte, who, prior to opening the bookstore worked in theatre as both a writer and actor, grew up in Norfolk, where Norwich is, and ‘after moving back from London thought that the city should definitely have its own indie bookshop, being such a famous literary city’. So, in 2009, he opened up The Book Hive.

Since then, things have grown, in quite a few different directions. Firstly, there’s the store itself, which has built up a large, loyal community since the doors opened. ‘The Book Hive has attracted curious readers and aspiring writers with its unique book collection, sunny reading nooks, and regular events and book launches since 2009,’ says Róisín Batty, communications assistant at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich UNESCO City of Literature. Batty points to The Book Hive’s carefully curated stock as a big highlight, as well as the store offering ‘hand-picked recommendations and the freshest stories in translation from all over the world’.

‘The whole stock is kind of a specialty as it is carefully curated and chosen to reflect us, the city and our customers and NOT what the bestseller lists dictate we should sell,’ explains Layte. Their shelves hold ‘the best of small publisher and indie presses, as well as the best in more commercial stuff. We avoid bestsellers, celebrity authors and any of that overly commercial crap—but can order anything in for next day delivery if needed!’

The Book Hive doesn’t just stock books, however—it helps create them. Since opening the store, Layte has set up two publishing imprints, starting with Galley Beggar Press, ‘which I then left to establish Propolis, the shop’s own press,’ he explains. ‘Publishing has been a strong part of my activity here for most of the time we’ve been open.’ 

His drive to start publishing came from the community. After opening the store, ‘Over the first year or so I met two customers with whom I lamented the fact that so many great books never got published,’ explains Layte. ‘We said we should do something about it! Out of that was born Galley Beggar Press.’

The Book Hive isn’t just about what books are on the shelves—it’s about the people who make the store what it is. There are places to both read and write: ‘You can hunker down in one of the private work booths, where Margaret Atwood famously finished her novel The Heart Goes Last,’ suggests Batty. There’s also Page Against the Machine, ‘a weekly event for quiet readers to switch off from the outside world and enjoy an hour of uninterrupted reading time, complete with a complimentary glass of wine’.  

When asked what his favourite aspect of the store is, for Layte, it comes back to community: ‘Choosing great books—or great authors and publishing them—and then selling them to people who come back and say that the reading of such and such has had a meaningful impact on their life.

‘It might be profound, it might just have made them happy, it might have given them a recipe that they will have forever. I have always said that the joy of buying books is in the choosing/browsing/discussing in the shop. If you love it when you get it home then that’s the icing on the cake, really. But it also makes us feel we’ve done a good job as well as being something that actually matters in the world.’


Tags: City of Lit bookshops

Category: Features

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