Suffolk is blessed with excellent local bookshops - we need to treasure them

"Put the light out, Janny!" my mum called up the stairs. It was the soundtrack of my childhood, as  I  snuggled  deeper under the blanket with a torch, engrossed in the latest Noel Streatfield.

As I started reading Ballet Shoes, I pictured myself in tutu and tiara, with perfect balance. But it soon became apparent that being 'sturdy, rather than sylph-like' (as I overheard my dance teacher telling my mother), was not an advantage for an aspiring ballerina. So I switched careers -  and book titles – and decided to become an ice skater instead.

White Boots was my new book at bedtime and Saturday mornings saw me on the 65 bus, with my ice skates dangling round my neck, heading for Richmond ice rink. After about a year, I managed a wobbly ‘tea pot’ across the ice, buzzed by speed skating teenage boys. I was in heaven. I spent a lot of time in the library, especially after I twisted my ankle on the ice rink, and rather fancied becoming a librarian, entirely because I loved the way they flicked through the tickets in the desk file. 

Books have always powered our dreams, bringing us joy and comfort. With fuel prices rising, going early to bed with a good book seems the perfect way to get through this coldest and toughest of months. Were you lucky enough to get a book this Christmas?Even better – a book token? Every year, I asked for a book token for Christmas but my mother refused to buy me one. "It’s not a proper present," she insisted and presented me with yet another highly undesirable, scratchy jumper.

In Suffolk we are truly blessed with independent bookshops, owned by knowledgeable bibliophiles, with time to chat, advise and pass the time of day, just ‘talking books’. That’s where they succeed over the impersonal online suppliers. Our local bookshops have obviously suffered enormously during the pandemic, and some have closed their doors. We should cherish, support and visit those that survived, still stocked high with good reads and with staff to guide you to the right choices.

I’ve learned a lot about what makes a good bookshop, after visiting many of them when my own book was launched recently. Although officially under the Waterstones umbrella, the independent spirit pervades Southwold Bookshop, where Steph, Irene and Nina gave me a lovely book launch party last month and a spectacular window display.

One evening, Abbie, at Halesworth Books, invited me to do a talk about my comedy series and a 'signing'. On the night, glasses of something chilled and fizzy were offered, trays of nibbles appeared, chairs were quickly filled and Abbie pronounced it the busiest evening ever. Some guests purchased other books (as well as mine), often after a discussion with Abbie or one of her staff about their special interests. Many visiting the bookshop for the first time were so entranced they planned to return, frequently.

Further down the coast is the legendary Aldeburgh Bookshop, conveniently facing the busy Aldeburgh cinema. John and Mary James have run the bookshop with love, passion and an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature for the last 20 years. They launched the Aldeburgh Literary Festival (March 3-5, 2023), run a second-hand book service, issue their own tokens, as well as National Book Tokens, and have won a 'Nibbie' (the Oscars of the book trade) for Best Independent Bookshop.

They even found time to edit a wonderful anthology, A New Suffolk Garland, a collection of the best writing from Suffolk authors, including Roger Deakin, Esther Freud and Richard Mabey. All profits from the book go to the Festival of Suffolk Charity Fund. Forget the Gucci beach towel - the distinctive Aldeburgh Bookshop bag is the most desirable accessory to flaunt on the coast. 

So, lift your spirits this month by picking the brains of your local 'bookie' and joining me under the covers. Although it’s no longer my mum’s voice I hear when my eyelids start to droop. From the other side of the bed, my husband mutters: "For heaven’s sake, Jan, switch the ***** light off!"

Jan’s book of the scripts from her Radio 4 comedy series, starring Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam,  CONVERSATIONS FROM A LONG MARRIAGE is available from a bookshop near you.