For April’s bookshop of the month, we head over to mid Wales where Diana and Geoff run the beautiful Penrallt Gallery Bookshop in Machynlleth. Stocking a wide range of books from visual arts to children’s books, we spoke to Diana and Geoff about their artistic mix of genres, their customers, and any plans they have for the future.
How has your bookshop grown since you opened in 2011?
We started by selling second-hand books only, books that we had been buying over a period of a couple of years, including before we moved to Machynlleth. We still sell second-hand books, specialising in photography books in particular, being very careful about the quality and content of what we buy. We started to stock new books, including increasingly in the Welsh language, to ensure that our subject areas were up to date and to respond quickly to current political and cultural issues. We also now sell specialist journals, including the new Welsh language cultural review, O’r Pedwar Gwynt, which first appeared in 2016. We don’t run a car, preferring to use public transport when we go out to source our second-hand books. With such easy sourcing, ordering and delivery from efficient wholesalers, Bertrams, Gardners, Central Books, Welsh Books Council, and directly from publishers through great reps. such as Sally Sharp every week feels like Christmas. Despite books being the most inspiring possessions and gifts, if a bookshop is to be successful it means hard work and long hours. But we do feel we’re providing a service, too, and one ambition is to provide that across both languages here in Wales.
And how does it contrast to your roots in Nottingham?
Machynlleth is so different to Nottingham, with a far smaller population, still a varied demographic, though, with many younger people coming to work and train at the Centre for Alternative Technology coming from all over the world. With additional seasonal visitors, over the almost 6 years we have been open we have built up or been identified by a sufficiently large following of people that we are able to put on regularly well attended events and sell enough books to justify being recognised as the town’s bookshop. Diane was born and brought up in north Essex and Geoff in South Wales, Nottingham having been a place we once lived and worked in for over 20 years, in the arts and education.
Your bookshop also has a regular display of art works as a gallery space. How have your customers responded to the visual look this creates for the shop?
Our entire shop is curated in terms of design and layout, colour, book display and lighting. Although we do always have an exhibition and almost always photography, the combination of shop and gallery space can blur the difference between the two, but generally people come into our shop either to look specifically at books or to look specifically at framed work on the wall (although they often are distracted by the books!). At the very least what is on the walls adds to the visual qualities of the shop. We live above the shop and this adds to the welcoming atmosphere downstairs. Many customers become friends.
You run lots of events in your versatile space – which event has been a particular highlight for you in the last year or two?
Aside from the exhibition we have on at the moment – a parallel show to the Fay Godwin exhibition we have curated at MoMA Machynlleth – we recently organised a John Berger evening, with readings by eight people who chose a favourite piece of his writing. It was remarkable how each person was able to find and read, quite passionately and beautifully, a piece that they could personally relate to and it was a reminder of the possibly unique range of his work. Next month ‘Forgotten Women – reviving the Classics’ is the title of for our First Thursday sociable book event, and we’re welcoming editors and a publisher from Honno Press to discuss their Welsh Women’s Classics series, and the latest title in English, Gladys of Harlech. We organise events in both English and Welsh, sometimes at other, appropriate venues. People enjoy gathering here, they like the homely and welcoming feel. – the tea, cake and cheese scones always go down well at our events.
What type of art books are your customers most drawn to? Is there a particular focus on any era or genre?
There is a great interest in British painting and illustration from the twentieth century, particularly artists such as John Piper, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, David Jones, Edward Bawden and Winifred Nicholson. Their work covers a period that has been relatively neglected by publishers until fairly recently, but that is no longer the case and a whole range of beautifully produced monographs and illustrated biographies are currently available and very popular with our customers. Increasingly people seek us out knowing that we have what has been described as the most comprehensive collection of books on photography in Wales. Yale titles have been invaluable supplements, as we constantly update our stock.
Do you have any exciting plans for the shop that you’d like to share here?
We are always making plans for the future, some small-scale and short-term, some more adventurous and longer term. Our most exciting plan to date was to curate a major Fay Godwin photographic exhibition at MoMA Machynlleth, which we’ve now done, successfully, also selling many of her books, which are, sadly all out of print. We’re going to have a few days off before starting to work on touring the new prints from the exhibition to other galleries in England as well as Wales. We’ll be hosting a photography weekend with photographer and teacher, Paul Hill in September and between now and then, we’ve poetry workshops, regular writing workshops, a busy time for the Machynlleth Comedy Festival and another exhibition opening here. That will do as we approach our sixth birthday!
For more information about the Penrallt Gallery Bookshop, please visit their website, or pop in store.