Obituary: Gerd Browne - champion skier, owner of Browne’s Bookstore on Mill Road, Cambridge, and mother of Anthony Browne MP
The owner of Browne’s Bookstore on Mill Road, which acted as a community hub for 30 years until its closure in 2007, has died at the age of 85.
Gerd Browne, a mother of three, including South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne, was a Norwegian ski champion, an intrepid adventurer, an active member of the Buddhist community and an anti-nuclear campaigner.
Her store was described as “more than just a bookshop” by former employee Mysia Baggs.
It certainly had a fantastic variety of books, but when it opened in 1976 it also sold potatoes by the sack.
They were grown by Gerd and husband Patrick on their 10-acre smallholding in Fowlmere, half of which was planted with potatoes.
Mysia recalls Gerd as “a very caring boss, really supportive and kind” and notes that people still stop her in the street today to say how much they miss Browne’s.
Former book-keeper Gill Wakefield describes how enjoyable it was to work for Gerd, describing her as “very ethical and good to her staff”.
Gerd’s daughter Cecilie says: “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.”
Cecilie, now an art psychotherapist, designed and painted the shop front when Browne’s was extended to include the tiny sewing shop Stitches next door.
“I also designed homely plastic bags and bookmarks with the slogan: ‘Come and browse at Browne’s’,” remembers Cecilie. “A highlight of the year was the jolly new year stock check where friends and partners were invited in for a day of book counting punctuated by a slap-up lunch at the Salisbury Arms around the corner.”
Gerd Hamer was born on June 21, 1936, in Oslo.
She remembered at the age of four sitting on her father’s lap, listening to the radio, and him telling her “something very serious is happening”.
When Germany invaded Norway, Gerd’s heavily pregnant mother took her to a remote farm in the countryside to escape the Nazis.
Gerd’s father was imprisoned for six weeks and held in solitary confinement for having a radio - they had been banned by the Nazis.
While many knew that Gerd was Norwegian - she never lost the Scandinavian trace to her accent – she rarely spoke of her former days as ski champion, winning many races in Norway in the 1950s.
She had begun skiing at the age of just two and won a competition at the age of 10.
Carrying her slalom skis up the mountain each time, she would manage a few runs per day, but she soon won more competitions and became a local celebrity and one of the country’s best skiers at a time when fewer countries were competing in the sport.
She even won a medal in a national race after her ski broke off - meaning she had to pick it up and run past the finish line.
Gerd completed an English and teaching degree at Oslo University and was working at a Norwegian ski resort, Gjelo, when she met her husband-to-be, Patrick Browne, in 1961.
She went with him to London and enjoyed the rich cultural life of the city, mixing with playwrights, presenters and authors.
After marrying in Norway in 1963, they lived in Italy for two years with Cecilie as a young baby, before moving to the Cambridge area and having two sons, Alex and Anthony.
At their smallholding in Fowlmere, her display cabinet was full of her ski trophies.
Gerd worked with the Samaritans in the 1970s, before becoming involved in women’s groups.
It was her love of reading and books that led to a job at Heffers in the early 1970s and by the mid-70s, she was keen to start her own bookshop.
Browne’s Bookstore was initially a husband and wife team before Patrick moved on to publishing and they separated in the early 1980s.
Gerd moved to Newnham, becoming politically active in the anti-nuclear movement, visiting Greenham Common.
She lived alone in Newnham for almost 40 years and Anthony describes her as a “strong and independent woman”.
Browne’s Bookstore closed its doors for the final time in 2007 - at a time when independent bookshops across the UK were closing down at a rate of two a week.
Cecilie says her mother “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”.
She describes her as an “intrepid, adventurous and striking woman” with “rich and varied interests”.
Cecilie says: “After leaving the mountains of her homeland, she became an avid walker and once the children had left home she completed the arduous south west coastal path before walking the tour of Mont Blanc in the high Alps at 50, while at 60 she managed to get to Tibet to circumambulate the sacred Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, a two-week trip at high altitude.
“This latter trip combined several of her passions: a natural curiosity and love of travel as well as a strong connection with nature and the ritual of walking together with her Buddhist beliefs. This also led Gerd to many long solo trips to India and Ladakh where she made many friends.”
She was active in the Cambridge Buddhist community, going on many Buddhist retreats.
“She was a compassionate person who believed in equality and justice,” says Cecilie.
Her children have different political persuasions. Cecilie has been an environmental activist, Alex has been an animal rights activist, while Anthony is a former chief executive of the British Bankers' Association and was an adviser to then London mayor Boris Johnson before becoming elected as Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire.
A short illness claimed Gerd’s life at the age of 85. She died peacefully at Addenbrooke’s on July 4 and was buried at the Arbory Trust woodland site in Barton
on July 23, 2021. She is survived by her three children and six grandchildren.
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