“The next morning Florence prepared herself a herring – there was not much point in living in East Suffolk if one didn’t know how to do this – two slices of bread and butter, and a pot of tea.”
Thus fortified she sets off to discuss her business idea with her bank manager, and shortly afterwards opens The Old House Bookshop in Hardborough. The story is set in 1959/60 and there are many difficulties with local bigwigs and Suffolk sensibilities, and some notable successes. She makes “a first order of two hundred and fifty copies of Lolita, a considerable risk” which produces a revenue of “£82 10s. 6d. in the first week of December” with the effect that for “the first time in her life, Florence had the alarming sensation of prosperity”.
East Suffolk is off the beaten path but “vans and estate cars began to appear in increased numbers over the brilliant horizon of the marches, sometimes getting bogged down at the crossings and always if they tried to turn round on the foreshore, bringing the publishers’ salesmen”. British Rail delivers book stocks to “Flintmarket station, twenty-five miles away” and they are brought the rest of the way by road.
The bookshop eventually succumbs to a contrived compulsory purchase order and to competition from a new bookshop in a nearby town run on more commercial lines – part of a new retail development near a pub on a major tourist route.
“Although she had no way of knowing this, Saxted Tye Books was not an enterprise like her own, but an investment on behalf of the simple-minded Lord Gosfield.”
Southwold, on which Hardborough is based, no longer has a bookshop, publishers’ reps don’t visit small towns or most other parts of Britain. Some small independent bookshops survive in larger towns, new bookshops are opened by enthusiasts, and people are still reading books of all sorts. Lolita would probably be a success if it were published today, even in Southwold.
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop, 2002