Browne’s Bookstore – much loved, greatly missed

The recent death, aged 85, of former proprietor Gerd Browne (née Hamer) – Norwegian ski champion, intrepid adventurer, active member of the Buddhist community and anti-nuclear campaigner – has prompted us to publish some memories of the much-loved – now much-missed – Browne’s Bookstore, and of its proprietor and staff.

Photo of exterior of Browne's Bookstore
Browne’s Bookstore, after it had expanded from Nº56 into the adjacent Nº54a, formerly ‘Stitches’ bearing Cecilie Browne’s new shop-front design
Photo, courtesy Cecilie Browne

Born in 1936, Gerd completed an English and teaching degree at Oslo University and was working at a Norwegian ski resort when she met her husband-to-be Patrick Browne in 1960. The couple married in 1962 in Norway. They lived in London, before spending two years in Italy, with their eldest child, Cecilie, still a young baby at the time.

The family lived in Cambridge from 1965-1974 –during which time Gerd gave birth to their two sons, Alex (b 1965) and Anthony (b 1967) – before moving to a 10-acre smallholding in Fowlmere, half of which was planted with potatoes. Gerd threw her energy into vegetables, and chickens, and starting the Bookstore, as well as bringing up her three children.

Gerd moved to Cambridge in 1982 after separating from Patrick, becoming politically active in the anti-nuclear movement, including visiting Greenham Common. In 1984 she bought the house in Newnham where she lived for 37 years, until her death, this year.

Family get-togethers for Gerd and her three children may have been interesting, as her children have rather different political persuasions. Cecilie has been an environmental activist, Alex has been an animal rights activist, while Anthony was an adviser to then London mayor Boris Johnson before being elected as Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire.

Gerd died peacefully at Addenbrooke’s on 4th July 2021, following a short illness.


For fuller obituaries of Gerd Browne see:


Browsing at Browne’s

For 30 years Browne’s Bookstore – opening in 1976 as a husband and wife joint enterprise, before husband Patrick moved on to publishing – was a Mill Road institution, closing its doors to customers for the final time in 2007. When the Bookstore opened in 1976 it also sold potatoes by the sack, from the family smallholding in Fowlmere. Very Mill Road!

Patrick Browne outside the original Bookstore
Patrick Browne outside the original Bookstore Photo: courtesy Cecilie Browne

When Browne’s was extended to include the former tiny haberdashery shop – ‘Stitches’ – next door at 54a, daughter Cecilie was employed to design and paint the new double shop front. (See the photo at the head of this post.) She also designed plastic bags and bookmarks with the slogan: Come and browse at Browne’s.


Staff memories

For more than 30 years, Browne’s Bookstore flourished; an institution, a constant of life in and around Mill Road.

Gerd Browne loved her shop; and, perhaps because it was a small local enterprise and they were a small team, the staff all cared about Browne’s too. For many of them Gerd was a friend as well as an employer. She shared her ideas with them and listened, open-mindedly, to theirs. She was thoughtful, and generous.

In autumn a jostling stream of students arrived, needing course-books, advice and information – keeping everyone more than busy; then flowers for the workers came from Gerd. At Christmas there was an evening out together. And, after the New Year stocktaking, when friends and partners were invited in for a day of book counting, she took everyone to the Salisbury Arms, around the corner in Tenison Road, for a companionable meal.

Browne’s was never just any old bookshop. It was useful, regarded with deep affection, and familiar to so many people.

  • Do you want the latest novel by your favourite author? Browne’s will probably have it.
  • The big book shops have all told you that the book which you want is out of print, unavailable? Browne’s will somehow track it down.
  • You need an obscure come on pamphlet published in 1946? Browne’s will get you a copy.
  • There is a birthday coming up and you’ve forgotten to buy a card? Browne’s have a wonderful selection; and wrapping paper, too, if you need it.
  • You’ve been cooped up with the children for seemingly endless days of rain. Take them to Browne’s. They can choose a book and sit on the floor in the children section whilst you socialise and browse; then you can go home refreshed and read their choice till bedtime.
  • Do you want to put up a notice? It can be displayed on Browne’s free noticeboard. Where can you find the leaflet that’s going around? At Browne’s.

The list of roles played by Browne’s is seemingly endless. You met all sorts of people there. Local authors. Local artists. Eccentrics. Academics. Hippies. Three successive generations of the same family.

People on the street still stop to talk to one-time customers and one-time members of staff. They all say the same things:

Oh, I DO miss Browne’s.
I STILL miss Browne’s.

Elizabeth (Mysia) Baggs and Sally-Ann Ball, former employees

Gerd was a joy to work for – very ethical and good to her staff.

Gill Wakefield, former book-keeper
Gerd enjoying a festive snack in the office Photo: courtesy Cecilie Browne

20th anniversary

For 1996’s 20th anniversary the Bookstore window was decorated with Cecilie’s memorable browsing at Browne’s phrase.
Photo: courtesy Cecilie Browne
Gerd with son Anthony Browne, at the Bookstore’s 20th anniversary celebrations
Photo: courtesy Cecilie Browne

Meet some of the Bookstore staff


Interior and exterior views

When Browne’s Bookstore closed its doors to customers for the final time in 2007, independent bookshops across the UK had been closing down at a rate of two per week for some time. Gerd had held out for as long as she could in order to keep her loyal staff employed, but with the rapid rise of internet book sales and the end of her contract with Norwegian libraries, there was no option but to close.

Gerd , at home, post ‘retirement’ Photo: courtesy Cecilie Browne

Customers’ memories (and memories of customers)

I have pleasant memories of browsing through bookshelves brimming with so much useful and interesting literature, in Browne’s Bookstore.

I suppose the most significant memory is that of negotiating with Mrs Browne’s son, c 1986,  to set up an exchange system for A level (and O level added later) Physics & Mathematics text books, to help the relatively impoverished students of my Evening Class at what was then the Technical College. (Although I admit to also informing my students at St Andrew’s VIth Form College, where I was head tutor in Maths & Physics, of the arrangement!) He was very obliging and the arrangement was a great success, both for the students and for Browne’s, and ran for some years as the Tech morphed into a Poly, and beyond.

Ed Lloyd Jenkins, local resident

People would pop in for a chat, whether it was the two old ladies needing an ear for their woes, families coming in with their children, students returning to introduce partners and offspring, all were welcome.

Mysia Baggs, former employee

One day, a young woman took her time choosing which of two brand new, and very expensive, academic books was in the best condition.

Having made her choice, and paid for her purchase, she revealed that, with heavy books like these, she always cut them into sections at the spine, as this made it lighter to carry just the one or two sections needed for her studies on any particular day.

Sally-Ann Ball, former employee

I used to buy some of my undergraduate text books from Browne’s bookstore in the mid 1990s. It was especially convenient, because at that time we lived in Norfolk, so I travelled to Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, by rail.

I’d often pop into Browne’s to and from the station. They had a great range of academic books, including second hand texts, and the staff were always extremely helpful.

In 1998 we moved to Perowne Street, so I enjoyed a few years of browsing Browne’s on a very regular basis. Sadly by the time I took my Master’s degree, the store had closed.

Carol Ann Wood, local author and resident

At some time in the 1980s I read a review in The Observer of a first novel that sounded interesting.  I meant to keep the review but forgot. 

It was several weeks before I could afford to buy a book by which time I had forgotten both the name of the book and the author. 

I went to Browne’s and explained the situation to Gerd and said that all I could remember was that the photo of the author was a woman wearing glasses and that the review had referenced King Lear. 

Within 30 seconds I had Jane Smiley’s ‘1000 Acres’ in my hand!  I was extremely impressed!

Andy Laing, local resident

I was a great fan of Browne’s Bookstore from its opening day.

I remember ordering an obscure academic book from them not long after opening as they were often quicker than the large established bookshops such as Heffers. (This was long before the internet!) ‘Computing methods in Crystallography’ by J. Rollett.

When it came in Mr & Mrs Browne said it is far too expensive (£21) and they could not possibly charge me that, so they gave it to me at wholesale price.

You may like to see these three drawings I made of Browne’s Bookstore over the years. For the eagle-eyed: the pavement A-board sign still exists outside Arjuna, repainted.

Sam Motherwell, local artist, and resident

And finally, which shop was which?

We were asked: “Did Browne’s take over the former Last Exit bookshop premises?” We checked. No. Last Exit was at Nº 54 and is now the premises of Mr Ho, Chinese restaurant.

Discover more about Nº54 Mill Road, in its incarnations as Last Exit, Bar Italia, Bosphorus and Tulip Restaurant – with a tiny glimpse of Stitches at Nº54a – on the Capturing Cambridge website.

And, “Wasn’t Andy’s Records at Nº56?” Yes, but… both shops shared the same street number, though entirely separate premises!

Photo linked on We’re All Neighbours
Today Mill Taylor and Petersfield Pharmacy share street Nº 56, whilst Modigliani occupies Nº 54a Photo: Google street view

This post is open for comments. Please add your own recollections of browsing at Browne’s.

Mill Road Bridge restrictions end – but what of the future?

By CB & RW

In the real world the relationship between cause and effect can be difficult to trace but that is the task that Cambridgeshire County Council’s Highways and Transport Committee faced in deciding the future of Mill Road Bridge. 

Nobody doubts that Mill Road Traders experienced hard times during the pandemic, but was their hardship the result of restricted access to Mill Road Bridge? Or could it have been part of a wider decline in trade, which caused huge retail giants such as John Lewis and others to teeter, with Debenhams, Top Shop and others vanishing from our High Streets and shopping centres?

The Highways and Transport Committee’s decision to reopen the bridge, which was passed by the acting Chair’s casting vote on Tuesday 27th July appears to endorse this correlation. A connection between poor respiratory health prior to lockdown and pollutants that exceed those levels considered acceptable by the WHO, was not endorsed by that majority of one.

This followed a noisy demonstration the previous Saturday, which highlighted the strongly-held opinions on both sides of this issue.

image as caption
Protest by people opposed to the experimental closure on Mill Road bridge
Picture: Keith Heppell (linked from the Cambridge Independent website)

Cambridge Independent‘s Mike Scialom put it accurately – Mill Road bridge closure protest reveals divisions that will take time to heal. The article has embedded videos which show City Councillor for Romsey ward Dave Baigent, who supported the bridge restrictions – but as a city, rather than county councillor, had no vote on the implementation of the ETRO and has no vote on the future status of the bridge – being roundly abused by some of the demonstrators.

A Cambridge Independent report –Mill Road bridge in Cambridge set to reopen after single deciding vote – by Alex Spencer also includes photos and videos.

Over at Cambridge News, Christy O’Brien reports: Mill Road Bridge to reopen to traffic after controversial closure.

A live report of the meeting, from Camcycle can be found here on Thread Reader App here.

The positive aspect of this decision is that there will be a consultation on the experiences of residents and traders and the impacts that removing the restrictions on the bridge will have on health, collisions and an upturn in trade. These are trends that must be monitored.

Cambridge Independent‘s Gemma Gardner reports that work to reopen Mill Road bridge to all vehicles is set to begin on Tuesday 3rd August – Date set for work to reopen Mill Road bridge in Cambridge to all traffic. Whilst Cambridge News‘s Harry Gold advises Drivers warned Mill Road Bridge not yet open to cars.

Meanwhile, there is a question mark over whether the abrupt ending of the scheme could have financial implications for Cambridgeshire County Council’s future central government (DfT) funding for active transport schemes.

£338 million package to further fuel active travel boom

Funding for infrastructure upgrades, changes to The Highway Code and new requirements to ensure that active travel schemes’ effects are properly assessed.

Department for Transport and The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP

In a sign of the growing frustration within government at some councils, both Conservative and Labour, which have removed active travel schemes in the face of sometimes noisy objections, transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris is formally writing to the leaders of all English local authorities with transport responsibilities.

Peter Walker Political correspondent, The Guardian

Read the full article: Hastily abandoned low-traffic schemes could cost councils funding


But how can we all help our much-loved restaurants, cafés, pubs and independent shops to thrive? Promotion would be a start.

Gwydir St Car Park (car symbol)
For Mill Road’s great restaurants, cafés,
pubs, independent shops and much more
Could we have signage like this on Gonville Place?
Mill Road (cycle symbol, pedestrian symbol)
Great restaurants, cafés,
pubs, independent shops
and so much more
And signage like this on the Chisholm Trail, at the railway station, on Parker’s Piece and at the Collier Road exit of Anglia Ruskin University

This post is open to (polite) comments. Before commenting you might wish to read 10 views on the decision to reopen Mill Road bridge in Cambridge to all traffic, compiled by Cambridge Independent‘s editor Paul Brackley.

Mill Road Bridge bus gate opinion survey

Cambridge Labour Party have published a short survey to measure public opinions about the future of Mill Road.

view of Mill Road Bridge artwork
Image: Over Mill Road Bridge

Whilst Mill Road Bridges have no political affiliations, we would be wrong not to draw this survey to local residents’ attention. It is noteworthy that the Vice-Chair of the Cambridgeshire County Council Highways and Transportation Committee is now Councillor Gerri Bird (Labour, Chesterton Division). It would seem likely that Councillor Bird will have the results of the survey drawn to her attention.

Please fill it in – the result is likely to influence the way that Labour councillors vote in the Highways Committee on this issue.

Cambridge Labour

If, however, you would prefer to contact your local Cambridgeshire County Councillor directly their contact details may be found here:

This blogpost is also open for (polite) comments. We will contact Councillors Howitt and Shailer to ask that they monitor the post for comments, though we cannot guarantee that your comments will be seen, councillors being busy people not full-time public employees.

Bridge Protest

Cambridge Independent report – in the 14th July2021 edition – that campaigners connected to Mill Road Traders’ Association intend to ‘block the bridge completely’ on the morning of Saturday 24th July.

Piero d’Angelico is quoted as saying, “We will block the whole bridge and not even a bus will be allowed through this time.”

A protest in summer 2020 against the restrictions on Mill Road bridge (Image: Local Democracy Reporter, on the Cambridge News website)

Read the full report Blockade plan for protest on Mill Road bridge in Cambridge By Alex Spencer on the Cambridge Independent website.


Piero d’Angelico was approached for further details. He issued this statement:

We are finalising some posters with information, we will come back to you shortly.

Piero d’Angelico, Ambassador, Mill Road Traders’ Association

The anonymous Don’t Kill Mill Road Facebook page has these details and the accompanying image:

Last ditch attempt to try and persuade councillors to reopen Mill Road bridge to cars is being organised by the Mill Road traders whose livelihoods have been affected by the closure.

Show your support for Local independent shops and join them on the 24th July 2021 @ 11am – 2pm.

Also, please complete this survey set up by Cambridge Labour to gauge public opinion https://www.cambridgelabour.org.uk/mill-road-questionnaire/

Mill Road independent shops are at risk of closure if this bridge continues to be closed. Please share this event with your friends and family members.

Don’t Kill Mill Road Facebook page
Image with date and time as in quote, above

It is not known whether the protesters will attempt to physically prevent pedestrians and cyclists from using the bridge, or only the limited range of vehicles currently permitted to use the bridge.

These details are published here to enable those who support the aims of the protesters to join the protest. If you oppose the protesters, it might be better to avoid the bridge at the time of the protest and make your feelings known elsewhere.


This post is open for (polite) comments, whatever your view.

Octo Spa at the Sedgwick Lighthouse

Yes! Another Dinky Door in the Mill Road area.

Lighthouse and octopus spa photo
Octo Spa and lighthouse – Photo: ©DinkyDoors Click the image to read more on Dinky Doors’ website

The Octo Spa and lighthouse have appeared at the junction of Sedgwick Street and St Philip’s Road in Romsey Town.

Octo Spa experiences list
See the Octo Spa experiences on offer – Photo: Mill Road Bridges
Exfoliation bath
No diving, dunking, bombing, inking, petting, thongs or swimming
Make sure to stick to the rules! Photo: Mill Road Bridges

Read more, from Alex Spencer in the Cambridge Independent, with photos from Keith Heppell – Dinky Doors: Cambridge street wakes up to an octopus’s garden.

And from Lottie Limb in the Cambridge News, with more photos – Delightful new Dinky Door appears on residential Cambridge street.

Mill Road – The Future

Is the Mill Road community an undifferentiated block, who agree on everything? Far from it. That’s why we adopted (borrowed) the phrase Community of Communities. Gather half-a-dozen Mill Roaders in a meeting and you’ll generate a score of differing opinions.


We are pleased to see the establishment of a new website and group trying to create a positive vision for the future of Mill Road.

Mill Road – A Street for People is a group of Cambridge residents working on a non-partisan basis to seek consensus to get the best Mill Road for everyone.

Note Mill Road – A Street for People is not controlled by, nor aligned to Mill Road Bridges. We exist to foster debate about Mill Road and will draw attention to all websites, protests, opinion surveys and events concerning Mill Road which come to our attention, on whatever ‘side’ of any ‘argument’ they stand.

Photo of cyclist crossing Mill Road Bridge

It is a site which hosts a variety of (sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting) ideas.

This post is open to (polite) comments, and so is Mill Road – A Street for People.

There are endless discussions on Nextdoor, Facebook and Twitter, but not everyone has (or wants) an account on those social media. This site is open to all, as is Mill Road – A Street for People.


And what of the future?

Since June 2020 there have been restrictions on what traffic can lawfully use Mill Road Bridge – see Wider footways, barriers and bridge restrictions. Some claim that the restrictions are ‘killing’ Mill Road. Others point to the new businesses starting up in Mill Road as signs of change and growth. These include the Harvest Organic Supermarket, and the Eclipse Bakery on Romsey Broadway; whilst, on the Petersfield (city) side, Finn Boys Fish Butchery restaurant, a new Co-op, The Lads Piri-Piri, and another restaurant – Fancett’s – at 96A (Fabio’s former premises) have recently opened or are about to open.

Image street sign
MILL ROAD OPEN
SHOPS OPEN FOR BUSINESS
BRIDGE CLOSED TO THROUGH TRAFFIC
(EXCEPT FOR BUSES AND CYCLES)

Some want all restrictions on bridge traffic removed, to bring ‘passing trade’ back to Mill Road. Others insist that passing motor-traffic is just that. Passing. Not stopping. Not shopping. Would the return of the previous traffic congestion, air pollution and road traffic accidents be worth it for the alleged benefits to traders?

Can compromises be found?

Limited taxi access over the bridge? All taxis? Even the Wolverhampton-registered private hire vehicles operating in Cambridge?

Access for Blue Badge holders? Difficult as the Blue Badge is a parking permit, linked to an individual (driver or passenger) not a vehicle. But could a means be found?

Delivery vehicles to traders? Which ones? What times?

Some blame any drop in trade to the current restrictions on Mill Road Bridge, while others point out that Covid-related restrictions on shopping, eating out, and socialising have hit businesses across the city and the country.

Many have pointed out that it wasn’t traffic restrictions which led to the demise of the once mighty Cambridge and District Co-operative Society, nor to the failure of BHS, Debenhams, Top Shop, and many more; that every High Street, including Mill Road, has had changes of shops.

Doreen’s – The noted shop for coats – is long gone. As shopping preferences change, so do the shops.

Photo of former shop on Mill Road, Doreen's coats
Doreen’s – Courtesy of the Suzy Oakes Collection

To get a flavour of earlier discussions see the links at the foot of this post.


Let’s get the debate progressing.

This post is open to (polite) comments, and so is Mill Road – A Street for People.


And now for something completely different (but related)

Have you ever wondered why Mill Road has become the lucky host to Cambridge Central Mosque?

Could it be that, just as half-a-dozen Mill Roaders will generate a score of differing opinions. That’s exactly the same for Muslims?

Listen to Baroness Sayeeda Warsi on the subject of the ‘Muslim community’.

“You want to talk to me about Muslims, as if somehow they’re just one big monolithic block? You get two Muslims in a room you get six opinions.”

Sayeeda Warsi on Channel 4’s Stand Up and Deliver

If you haven’t seen the two programmes, they are well worth a watch, with (spoiler alert) Sayeeda Warsi a worthy winner, and Rev Richard Coles a commendable runner-up.

No wonder the Cambridge Central Mosque was built on Mill Road – an ideal place for a beautiful building and a continuing debate about the best future for the ‘Mill Road community’.


See also:

FotoDinkyMat Zapped by Aliens?

Following our earlier excitement at the mini photo-booth on Mill Road bridge and the community’s disappointment at reports that the photo-booth had been stolen, the community has rallied round. The Cambridge Independent asked for information…

… and Tara produced a poster.

Poster –Stolen: FotoDinkyMat
If found contact Cambridge Independent
Tara’s poster

Local artist Naomi Davies offered a print of her Dinky Doors painting as a reward for information leading to the safe return of the Mill Road PhotoDinkyMat.

Photo of Naomi Davies’ painting of Cambridge’s Dinky Doors
And Maurizio Dining offered free pizza

It seems, however, that all is not quite so simple…

Wreckage of the former booth has since been found on the pavement. When our web-editor visited today, he found a crime scene, where Dinky Constabulary’s DI Wallace and his colleague DDC* Gromit (both on secondment from Aardman Constabulary) were investigating.
* (Dog Detective Constable)

DDC Gromit (left) and DI Wallace at the crime scene
The same scene viewed from the Dinky Constabulary drone

DI Wallace and DDC Gromit refused to comment on speculation that the photo-booth had succumbed to alien attack. “We are keeping an open mind, and examining all of the evidence,” said DI Wallace, “however we regard the Melt-o 3000 as highly significant.”

A close-up view of the Melt-o 3000

Three teenagers who go by the collective name of ‘The Dolly Darlings’ were “shocked” to see the damage. “We were hoping to to get a set of photos for our PASS proof-of-age cards for when the pubs reopen, just in time for our 18th birthdays,” said Joanna Darling.

The Dolly Darlings. Left to right: Virginia, Veronica and Joanna

There are further reports on this mystery by Alya Zayed Senior reporter on the Cambridge News – New Dinky Door ‘crime scene’ appears in Cambridge after artwork stolen – and – By Alex Spencer of Cambridge Independent – Dinky Doors: the FotoDinkyMat has returned.

Investigations by Dinky Constabulary continue. Whilst there is a way to contribute financially to the work of Dinky Doors, here.

FotoDinkyMat comes to Mill Road Bridge

A mysterious new Dinky Door has arrived in Cambridge – a photo booth for tiny people. Read more on the Cambridge Independent website.

Mill Road bridge’s dinky door under investigation by K9
Three photos for 3p… if you’re small enough!
Photoshop processing department. Penny Plain: Tuppence Coloured
Essential maintenance: Wallace gives the booth a wipe down…
… whilst Gromit investigates the technical department.
Wallace prepares for his passport photo
Dinky Doors artwork stolen after just four days from Mill Road bridge in Cambridge

By Alex Spencer, in the Cambridge Independent, Friday 2nd April 2021 

Since the last update of this post, doubts have arisen about what really happened to the DinkyFotoMat. Read more: FotoDinkyMat Zapped by Aliens?