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Bibliophilism thrives among the goats

Geraldine Brennan reports on a woman who, in turning over a new leaf in her life, opened a new chapter in supplying children's books

Marilyn Brocklehurst left the Home Counties for rural north Norfolk in the late 1970s with the aim of becoming self-sufficient. With her husband, Simon, she bought a plot of land near Aldborough and indulged in vague Good Life fantasies a la Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal.

"We'd read all about it but it never quite happened," says Marilyn. She resumed her career as a children's librarian, Simon got a job at Anglia TV and the plans involving goats and windmills were shifted to the back burner. Today the only commodity that Marilyn is self-sufficient in is children's books. She has 53,000 in the Norfolk Children's Book Centre, which is threatening to take over her home before the second extension is built.

Marilyn started trading in 1986, with four boxes of books from a neighbour who had been selling them at schools and playgroups. "I had given up being a librarian, I was at home with young children and I was desperate for something to read. Once I started visiting schools and introducing children to the books, I was drawn in and it grew. I found that there was demand for a specialist in this part of the country."

The centre has become a landmark over the past decade: last year the parish council wanted to rename the road leading to it Bookshop Lane.

A handful of small independent children's book suppliers put schools at the centre of their service. Among these, the Norfolk centre has a nationwide word-of-mouth reputation and mail-order customers as far away asAustralia and Sri Lanka.

Its reputation is partly due to its location and ambience - it always seems possible that a goat might pop its head around the door - but it is Marilyn's expertise that is the main attraction. As well as running in-service training days and book events for children, teachers and parents at the centre and taking a book fair service to schools, she and her seven full-time staff prepare curriculum-related book lists, advise on stocking school libraries and field every kind of inquiry about books from nursery to sixth-form level.

Marilyn is the sort of person that strangers ask to identify garbled storylines or fragments of poetry, although "the Internet is helping with some of that now", she says. She has judged national awards and is a fierce campaigner for quality in children's books, prepared to hide those that don't meet her standards.

The centre is not so much book-lined as book-jammed, with some sofas squeezed in. Teachers who come after school with book lists and headaches tend to collapse on them with a free cup of coffee and a pile of picture books.

The trend for combined bookshops and cafes came to Aldborough some time ago - Marilyn just doesn't charge for the drinks. Sometimes she opens wine after closing time and customers make a weekend of their visit (the post office does bed and breakfast). The atmosphere is addictive.

But even after the next extension, there will still be room for a windmill if Marilyn ever gets round to it.

s Norfolk Children's Book Centre, Alby, Norwich, Norfolk NR11 7HB. Tel: 01263 768167.E-mail: Web site: Open 10am-4pm and at other timesto teachers by appointment.Closed Sundays and bank holidays

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