Machynlleth, an ancient market town in Mid-Wales, supports 4 bookshops: Dyfi Valley Bookshop (used and antiquarian books), Coch-y-Bonddu Books (angling, game shooting, sporting dogs and falconry), the newly opened Literary Cat Books, and Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop — opened by Diane Bailey and Geoff Young ten years ago, not “so that we can make a lot of money” but “because books are important.” These independent booksellers specialize in “books that we are happy to have on the shelves, books that mean something to us” especially photography, politics, Welsh writers (in Welsh or English) and interesting fiction. The shop is just a few doors from the MOMA Machynlleth art gallery with which they have close links, and they write a regular photography feature for the O’r Pedwar Gwynt literary newspaper. I spoke with them shortly after they had re-opened for browsing.
“Having an open shop is like having people coming to visit”
Closing the shop to browsing meant they did not have to keep it tidy at all times, and that allowed them to make changes that would support them through the lockdowns and beyond. “I think you’ll find,” suggested Geoff, “that just about every shop that was closed became a tip, became a mess. Because, you know, having an open shop is like having people coming to visit. So you have to keep it tidy at all times.” Once they no longer had to concern themselves with keeping things tidy, they could have piles of books and boxes on the floor and rethink how the bookshop could work. They moved stuff around and retired over 400 books.[…]
“We’ve resituated the children’s section, so it was nearer to the door, so families can just come in and not have to go through the shop. We moved the local information and walks books and maps right near to the front door so that people could just come in and leave without having to walk right through the shop. We did various things to just make the shop work better. When we were finally able to reopen, we had to have more space, we couldn’t have people brushing past each other. We had to make a lot of changes, which now makes the shop work better than it used to. Because we had, you know, a whole year to work on it.”
Before Covid, about half their stock was used and a half was new, but that has shifted heavily toward new books as their book-buying trips were curtailed. They describe the stock as “probably as good if not better than it’s ever been” as publishers have continued to produce new material and “books have kept appearing.” The loss of browsing opportunities affected what sold. Their stock is carefully selected by them, and frequently the books that they sell “are books that you wouldn’t necessarily see if you were searching online—you wouldn’t even know they existed.”[*] The photography and art books need to be seen and handled if they are to sell, although we have now made our photography books available to buy online on our ffotogaleri website.
“Windows as a means of engaging”
Diane’s expertise in window display has played an important part in the shop’s relationship with the local community during the past year. They might normally change the display almost every week, and they use it as a means of engaging. Early on they used it to promote an opportunity of free books for children: “Children’s nature books were flying out of the door as adults with children were spending more time outside locally, walking, exploring.” The shop has always featured photography on its walls, and it was an easy transition to modify the bookshop window display with the type of Perspex poster holders used by estate agents. Diane used them to stage an exhibition.
“We became aware of a book that had been published by Graffeg of the work of a photographer called Glenn Dene, who is also an ICU specialist at a hospital in South Wales. He’s been taking photographs during the earliest stages of the pandemic. We thought the book was so important that we contacted him, selected photographs from his work, had images printed and created an exhibition both in our bookshop window and then the Ffotogaleri window. We had two windows, two facing-out windows on the street, so that people could come and see an exhibition while they were doing their daily exercise.
“That was a very powerful exhibition. We had many, many comments about it. And it was important because after the end of the first lockdown, a few more visitors were coming to the town and people were feeling a little anxious about that. It was like we were giving a message that the town wants to keep safe. So then from there, we continue to use the windows as a means of engaging.”
Other window display events over the autumn and winter included Writers’ Words for Winter, The Little Things in Life (for St David’s Day), International Women’s Day, and the first Crime Cymru (Virtual) Festival.
“Keeping people safe.”
Diane and Geoff believe that every town should have a good bookshop, “like every town should have a bakery.” They provide a service to the town by providing a curated selection of books and by ordering books for local people. It “keeps their spirits up and it helps keep our spirits up as well.” Window displays and book deliveries (walking and cycling, we don’t run a car in order to reduce our carbon footprint) were only part of the service provided.
“Early on, we were sending out a number of humorous newsletters to our quite large email list with kind of updates. Not so much selling books but just saying, we’re still here and how are you and I’m finding some funny things in this situation. Telling people what we’re doing, what we’re growing on our allotment, that we’re watching old movies and videos. And then I moved on to using MailChimp – it was easier for us to use that system to send information. I started to do Twitter. But we’ve never done Facebook. We used to have a member of staff part-time, who would occasionally put events that we have on the local Facebook. But any events we’ve had in the past, we always would advertise with posters, with our email list. Word of mouth too. We haven’t used the internet in a big way to do that.”
“An opportunity to rethink”
Diane pointed out that the book business can be a demanding one. When the first lockdowns arrived, she was already feeling quite tired from scheduling events and keeping the shop running. When they closed the shop, it was first an opportunity to bring their French bean seeds along in the window in room 2. “In a way, it gave us an opportunity to rethink what we were doing.” That’s when they started the free books for children, which they enjoyed. “We were wrapping books and labelling books and getting little notes through the door.”
“I would say it’s been a kind of sabbatical in a way. And certainly, we wouldn’t have been able to refresh the bookshop, have the bookshop floor newly sanded, we wouldn’t have been able to move all of those photography books to Ffotogaleri so easily. We probably wouldn’t have sorted it or built the shelves over there. And we’ve probably made connections with more publishers because publishers have been reaching out even more. So in many ways, it has created several more strands to the business.”
“They just didn’t happen”
The shop’s location in rural Wales means that it is dependent on people passing through for outdoor activities, the weekly market, or the many events that the town holds each year, especially in summer. The cancellation of those events due to the pandemic meant their busiest weeks didn’t happen.
“There’s a music festival. There’s a comedy festival. They just didn’t happen. Those festival weekends are two of our biggest events in the town. They’re just not happening. We’ve had no Comedy Festival now since 2019. No music festival. The big art gallery near to us, MoMA, has been closed. It opened for one day and then had to close again. It re-opened for appointments on May 29, 2021. The art gallery brings visitors up to our end of town. And if it’s closed, they just don’t come up here. So that’s a big effect on us. You know, we situated the bookshop where it is because of that gallery being there. That was certainly a major factor—and the railway station. Now we have nobody on the trains and nobody in the gallery. So it’s bound to have an effect.”
“Zoom Bookseller Coffee Mornings”
The support of the Booksellers Association was valuable for the success of the shop and helping with the emotional strain. Geoff describes the BA as “proactive and helpful.” They, along with the Welsh Government and Books Council of Wales, provided financial support “which meant that we’re okay.” As important as the financial support was the discovery of a network of independent booksellers they found through the BA.
“One thing we are conscious of, and I think I probably said this at the beginning, is that we feel much more a part of well, for want of a better word a family, of a network, a proper network. No other businesses, it seems to me, have got that as a kind of safety net. You know, bookshops are quite special like that. I don’t think we were conscious of that before. We are aware of other book shops, but once you start making connections, you realise that that it’s a very strong movement. And whereas you wouldn’t get that necessarily in health food shops or vegetable, or grocers or hairdressers—it’s unique.
“It was through the Booksellers Association. We had our Zoom Bookseller Coffee Mornings and that was a revelation. There were people in Yorkshire and Scotland, and we were hearing about their experiences and they were recommending books and talking about their problems—you know, water coming through the roof. That was an important part of the year for us. You never have time to visit all those book shops.”
“The only way is up now”
“Things will improve. We had a good day in the bookshop on Wednesday, we had a good day today and Ffotogaleri re-opens on May 26. People are quite tearful when they come into the bookshop because they’re just full of, you know, they’re overwhelmed by being able to be in a bookshop. That will be happening across the country.
“That’s what makes it fun. I mean, that is what makes it worth doing. […] Because you’re working with ideas, and you’re working with writers and publishers you know, that’s what makes it worthwhile. I think it’s good that people buy the books as well.”
[*] *Without realising the fact that it is a serious disadvantage when they don’t have a physical bookshop they can visit, people are prey to trends online to select books that don’t match their personal tastes, even pockets – we’ve noticed how online prices have soared. Bookshop.org just came along in November 2020 and fortuitously fulfilled any need for an online presence we might have felt.
Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop is located at 3 Glasfryn, Heol Penrallt, Machynlleth, Powys, mid-Wales SY20 8AJ.