Norwich's book shop owner Henry Layte on his three-year-old Book Hive
PUBLISHED: 13:22 16 August 2012 | UPDATED: 14:13 16 August 2012
Henry Layte owns an independent book shop in Norwich’s city centre which has received praise from across the globe for its authentic atmosphere and perfectly picked books.
The Book Hive, on London Street, opened in October 2009 after Mr Layte, 35, returned to his home county after working in the theatre industry in London.
The building, which was unoccupied for years, is split into three levels and stocks hand-picked titles from fiction, poetry, art and design, children’s literature and cookery.
With each title carefully chosen and an avoidance of best-sellers, the store has a charm and authenticity about it which chain bookstores and online outlets lack.
Mr Layte, who now lives at Colby, near Cromer, went to school in north Norfolk and after graduating from Hull’s renowned drama department he went to London, living with his girlfriend Sian Davies, 32, for 10 years.
With his theatre background, jobs on Mr Layte’s CV range from working part-time at the National Theatre to doing long stints at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
But it was when Mr Layte’s mother died in 2009 that he took a look at how his future might play out.
And so he decided to return to Norwich and, with some inherited money from his late mother, decided to start up a book shop.
“I was in London and I thought to myself ‘something has got to change’. It felt like everything just seemed to happen at once that year.”
Mr Layte says that, in hindsight, taking on the Book Hive as a renovation and business project was perhaps a way of dealing with the death of his mother – keeping busy was almost a distraction.
And with the help of his brother, a builder and interior designer, the space was renovated into a cosy, welcoming and non-pretentious place, with chairs, coffee and cubby-holes to read in.
Mr Layte says: “Norwich is such a cultural city, with the UEA, the Arts School and the wonderful annual Norfolk and Norwich Festival, but I realised there were just no independent bookshops in such a great literary place.
“So my main aim with the shop was to make it a beautiful place to be, to browse and to read and buy books.
“It’s amazing still. Every day people come in and just can’t believe there are so many books they didn’t know about.”
And with one child Milo, 2, and another on the way, it has not been easy.
“Of course it has been hard. In the beginning I wrote to everyone I knew, from my London friends, to locals, telling them about the shop, as well as working closely with Bertram Books to slowly build a stock of hand-picked reads.” The top room on the third floor of the Book Hive HQ is Mr Layte’s favourite space, which hosts books on art.
Set at the top of two narrow staircases, the room is bright and overlooks vast areas of the city, as well as the cobbled streets of Norwich’s Lanes.
“There are such beautiful views up there which you don’t get from any other buildings. I like to go up for the quiet and the light, and often customers will explore the shop and think they are intruding, but of course its part of the shop, which adds to it’s charm.”
Now into its third year, the shop has won several awards including The Daily Telegraph’s Best Small Bookshop in Britain, regional finalist in The Bookseller Best Bookshop Award and first prize in the east in The Independent’s Top 50 Bookshops in the UK.
Tourists from overseas travel to Norwich to visit the shop, and Stephen Fry has praised it after visiting.
But for Mr Layte, the shop is a part of the wider, and thriving, cultural scene in Norwich, and in wider Norfolk. Again this year the Book Hive will be the offical bookshop at the Voewood Festival in Holt, a literary festival which transforms the historic house into a home to writers, artists and musicians, who are accommodated in its 14 bedrooms.
As well as that, Mr Layte has founded a Norwich-based publishing company, Galley Beggar Press, with journalist Sam Jordison and his wife, writer Eloise Millar.
But the move into literary retailing and publishing has prompted a considerable change in Mr Layte’s own diverse reading habits. “My background is theatre, so for years I would mostly read and work on plays and scripts,” he said. “Now, what I’m reading most is unpublished books by new writers, which is great, but I don’t get the chance to read much of what is coming out.
“I have never really done the classics, so I have bypassed the likes of Austin and Bronte.
“What I really like to read is beautiful children’s books. I’m quite a fetishist about them. I’m also a fanatical cookery book reader. I just like nice books, whatever they are. But when it comes to novels I think my taste is quite dark.
“I like a lot of contemporary American fiction and European writers but, having said that, the last novel I read was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, which is a really wonderful English story. It was sent to me by an agent months ago and is now long-listed for the Booker Prize.”