Bookseller of the Month
Every month, as part of the new CWA Booksellers Champion initiative, we want to celebrate a bookshop because we believe bookshops don’t just sell our books – they bring our streets alive.
This month, William Shaw introduces us to Griffin Books in Penarth.
Griffin Books, Penarth
Griffin Books in Penarth is one of those shops writers love to be invited to. It’s run by the amazing Mel Griffin who bought the shop nine years ago and turned it into a real community hub – with brilliantly run book events.
What inspired you to buy the bookshop in the first place?
As a teenager I had a Saturday job in my local bookshop and absolutely loved it. I always dreamed of having my own bookshop some day, but never thought it would become a reality. After a 30 year career in corporate IT, I decided that life’s too short to do just one thing your whole life, and suddenly the bookshop idea came flooding back. I had an initial discussion with the then owners of the shop, who were already thinking about retirement, spent a couple of years sorting out my finances and learning the ropes (as their Saturday girl!), and finally got the keys to my very own bookshop on 1st September 2014.
What did you know about bookselling when you bought it – and what do you wish you’d known!?
Honestly, very little! My experience from my teenage years was frankly not very relevant – in those days there were no computers, of course; books were looked up on microfiche catalogues, and orders were sent through the post and the books received at least a week later. However in the preparation period for taking over the shop I did my best to learn, attending various courses for small businesses and working alongside the previous owners on a voluntary basis whenever I could.
What I wish I’d known is you can’t be all things to all people – the beauty of a small indie bookshop is that the range of stock you choose is absolutely unique to you, and that’s what customers value and appreciate. Oh – and also that there’s not enough time for reading! So I rely enormously on feedback from customers, friends and family as well as media reviews in my buying decisions and in recommending books to customers.
In 2014 did people think you were insane investing in a bookshop?
No-one said that – in fact many people seemed quite envious! However I’m not sure they realised quite how much hard work it is.
You’ve built an amazing business. What has been the trick to making Griffin Books part of life in Penarth?
The secret, if there is one, is building a great team around me. I inherited one member of staff from the previous business, and have gradually added new people so that we are now a team of 6 plus two Saturday assistants, and I can honestly say that every one of my staff really cares about the bookshop and treats it as their own. The other essential ingredients are passion, enthusiasm and sheer hard work!
Would you say are social spaces as much as they are retail spaces?
We all really care about our community and making sure Griffin Books is a welcoming, safe space for all at the heart of the high street. We host several book clubs, a toddler story time and have many regulars who come in for a chat and a coffee as much as to browse the shelves!
A key to your success is your amazing calendar of events. Do you remember the first you put on?
Honestly, no! In the early days though they were mostly small scale events with local authors in the shop itself. We must have run hundreds of events over the years, and that side of the business has definitely grown enormously over that time. We’ve become bolder in our pitches, and now host events in large scale venues in Cardiff as well as smaller places in and around Penarth. We’ve learnt a lot along the way, and are often complimented by authors and publicity teams on our professional approach!
What are your fondest memories of events you’ve put on?
We love our ‘crime and cream tea’ events which go down very well with local customers! And we had a lovely one with Vaseem Khan whose crime novels are set in Mumbai, with an Indian-themed light lunch to go with it. When it comes to larger scale events, we enjoyed hosting Ann Cleeves as she embarked on her new detective series set in North Devon. But equally, we like hosting the smaller scale events with debut authors, and then to watch their writing take off!
Which crime writers work well for your readership?
I would say that our readers really appreciate crime novels that have a strong sense of place – so where the setting is almost a character in the story! Clearly there are lots of good examples out there.
Are there any local crime writers whose work should be more widely celebrated?
We are big fans of Katherine Stansfield and Alis Hawkins, both writers based in Wales who write strong historical crime series. On the more contemporary side we love Belinda Bauer and were so pleased when her novel Snap was Booker longlisted.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to see his or her book stocked in a local bookshop?
The vast majority of our stock is from major publishers and professionally produced, so that’s by far the best avenue – and then having been published, by all means reach out to local bookshops to introduce yourself and offer to sign copies or discuss potential events – but don’t just drop in unannounced, email or ring to make an appointment!
If you do go down the self-publishing route, bear in mind that to compete in our crowded shelves, it’s essential that books look right (have the same format and quality of production as published titles) and are priced at the ‘going rate’. But we have found that due to the additional admin and costs involved, we can only realistically consider self-published authors who live in our immediate area or whose books directly relate to our town. And again when approaching a bookshop to consider stocking your self-published book, don’t turn up on a busy Saturday without warning – contact them to arrange an appointment at a mutually convenient time.
Lockdown proved how valuable books were, but was it a particular challenge for you?
Clearly lockdown was a challenge for all local businesses, but myself and my team just threw ourselves into it with determination to make the best of it! We quickly set up an online shop (something we’d been meaning to do for some time), moved all our events and bookclubs online, and set up the team to work from home. We found ourselves delivering books to customers all over the local area and making daily trips to the post office with many more book packages! Thankfully, we’ve been able to not only survive but thrive during the past eighteen months or so, and were absolutely thrilled to have this recognised when we were awarded Welsh Independent Bookshop of the Year for 2021.
What’s special about being a bookshop in Penarth?
Everything! I can honestly say that, 7 years in, I still genuinely look forward to coming to work every day. We love the relationships we forge with our regular local customers, but equally getting to know newcomers to the area and meeting the many visitors to our seaside town. Penarth is also special in the number and variety of independent shops and businesses, and I particularly enjoy collaborating with my fellow local traders either for individual events or for town-wide initiatives such as our Shop Penarth scheme, Christmas window trail and lots more.
On a final note, can I encourage everyone to continue supporting their local independent businesses in general, and bookshops in particular – it’s a cliche I know but ‘use it or lose it’ is the stark reality for us all, and we really want to be here to serve our customers and our communities for decades to come!
Griffin Books, 9A Windsor Rd, Penarth CF64 1JB
029 2070 6455
The Book Makers, Brighton
The Book Makers is not an ordinary bookshop. It is a Brighton-based pop-up, where established writers commit to helping others who might find it harder to get into the mainstream, because of their backgrounds, their circumstances or their health.
As a writer, I visit a lot of bookshops and what’s become clear is that the bookshops that survived Amazon are the ones who have developed a community around them. Some, like Reading Matters in Chapel-en-le-Frith, have strong connections to local schools. Others, like Kett’s Books in Wymondham are volunteer-run, providing a service just by being there. Bookshops, I believe, are leading the way in showing how retail can prosper by not just selling stuff, but by creatively deepening its local links.
During our lockdowns, as some shops disappeared off the high streets forever, I came up with the idea of a pop-up bookshop that could act as a kind of test of how the new high street could produce a new type of bookshop that was also a writing community. Teaming up with local charity Creative Future, who specialise in working with under-represented artists, and David Headley of local bookshop Goldsboro Books, I submitted a bid to Brilliant Brighton, a local business improvement district initiative to bring empty shops back to life.
The easy bit was the writers; they got the point straight away. I contacted sixteen authors, mostly local; the brief was that we would sell their books if they would commit to helping the project – and when appropriate, take on an under-represented writer as a mentee during the lifetime of the project. Fourteen said yes immediately, including crime writers Lesley Thomson, Dorothy Koomson, Elly Griffiths, Paul Burston, Kate Helm aka Eva Carter, Araminta Hall, Mick Finlay and Vaseem Khan.
In June this year, we got the keys to a wonderful space in the heart of the city, right next to Churchill Square. We stocked it with books by local writers, books about Brighton and set in Brighton, books about writing, and books by diverse authors who might not otherwise be showcased in a space like ours. We opened as a shop on July 14 and since September have been running a full programme of workshops, talks and events in the space. Creative Future generously funded a project manager, and the shop is staffed four days a week by brilliant volunteers.
In our packed round of events, highlights have included Dorothy Koomson interviewing the Iranian-British author Sara Jafari and the ensuing discussion of the hurdles that black and brown writers face, the midnight launch of Elly Griffiths’ The Midnight Hour, Julia Crouch interviewing Nadine Matheson and Peter James dropping in to sign books for readers. On December 3 we have the wonderful Vaseem Khan talking to Colin Grant about cultural appropriation and diversity in publishing.
And we’ve sold a ton of books too. On December 18 we’ll close our doors. In one way, I’ll be relieved because I can finally get back to writing books, but I know I’m going to miss it. It has been an amazing experiment and I’m very proud to have been part of it.
The Book Makers
16-17 Cranbourne Street
Open Wed-Sat 10am-5pm until 18 December
Guid Reads, Alva, Clackmannanshire
This month, Booksellers Champion and award-winning author Elly Griffiths writes about Guid Reads in Alva, run by Ruth Galloway.
I was already fascinated by the story behind Guid Reads Alva but, when I found out that the owner was called Ruth Galloway (the name of the protagonist in my books), I knew that I had to get in contact.
And what a story it is. Ruth had life-saving surgery just before the first lockdown. As she recovered, Ruth wanted to give something back to her local community. An avid reader who credited books for getting her through her illness, Ruth felt the loss of her local library, which couldn’t open because it was on school premises. On impulse Ruth bought some folding bookcases and decided to do a book swap in the local park. Despite wind and rain, there was an incredible turnout.
Ruth continued to do her Tuesday book swaps but, as winter approached, she knew that she had to find an alternative venue. She and her daughter joked about opening a shop. Then the perfect premises became available. It had window seats and, even more importantly, had belonged to a lovely couple whom Ruth knew well. Ruth decided to set up a crowd funder to rent the shop. She opened it at 8.30am and, by 9pm the same day, she had the money. A week later, on her 40th birthday, Ruth took possession of the keys. A week after that, Guid Reads Alva opened. Everything was donated, including the bookshelves and the books themselves.
Then comes the next chapter. Ruth’s landlord was retiring and planned to sell the bookshop premises. Unsure what to do, Ruth turned to Twitter for advice. Within seconds, someone tweeted to ask how they could donate. Ruth set up a GoFundMe page and, overnight, she had raised £46,000 towards the purchase of the shop. ‘It was magical,’ she says. She is now only about £2,000 away from her target.
Now Guid Reads Alva is a genuine community hub. Ruth helps fill in benefit forms and has even driven people to hospital and helped them move house. Ongoing projects include teaming with refugee charities to provide books in multiple languages. Ruth has plans to expand her space to include a counselling centre and run literacy sessions. ‘The world’s our oyster,’ she says. Local authors like Moira McPartlin have been very supportive and Ruth would be delighted to hear from any author passing through the town in Clackmannanshire. Crime fiction sales are booming, helped by the success of festivals like Bloody Scotland, and perhaps, suggests Ruth, by an understandable desire to read about people who have worse troubles than we do.
And, for those of you who collect coincidences, Ruth also has Brighton links and she and I once worked as chambermaids at the same hotel. You couldn’t make it up.
71 E Stirling St, Alva, FK12 5ED
Cogito Books, Hexham
This month, author and co-Booksellers Champion, Vaseem Khan, writes about Cogito Books in Hexham, run by Claire Grint.
Cogito Books is based in the rural market town of Hexham, in the beautiful county of Northumberland, home to castles and a nearby coastline. The town is located between Carlisle and Newcastle and is a gateway to Hadrian’s Wall and a must-visit for lovers of Roman history.
In May 2021, the bookshop celebrated its twentieth birthday.
Rewind two decades and Hexham didn’t have a bookshop. Noting this glaring absence, booklovers Alan and Julia Grint decided to do something about the situation, and set up the shop, finding instant support from the local community, so much so that, when, a year and a half later, they were forced to move to new premises – almost overnight – volunteers pitched up to help, passing books along a human chain to the new shop located a hundred metres further down the cobbled street.
Current owner Claire Grint once spent breaks from university helping out in the shop, before later taking over bookkeeping duties. She studied International Business – with French! – a grounding that has been immensely useful since she took over the bookshop in 2012.
Claire says: “Bookshops have to know what they stand for. In the last eighteen months, this has been particularly critical. Like most independents, we had to take on the challenge of continuing to trade during the pandemic. Our priority was talking directly to our customers, especially given the reduced social interaction imposed by the lockdowns. Every book we’ve sold this year has been a result of a conversation between the team – myself, Hilary MacCallum and Jenny Tattersall – and customers. We took phone calls and emails six days a week! Books were posted or hand delivered.”
Claire is passionate about preserving the high street. She made the decision not to create a transactional aspect to the shop’s website. Instead, Cogito Books prioritises relationships: “So many customers have become friends over the years that bookselling doesn’t feel like work!”
The shop is firmly embedded in the community. They host themed book parties, celebrate a cake-fuelled bookshop day inviting customers in to eat, read, and be merry; entertain school visits, and run three book groups – one for children, one for fiction, and one for crime fiction. Their author events are hugely popular, with highlights including a visit by authors Sarah Moss and Max Porter, and an evening with James Rebanks, the nature writer – a genre the shop champions.
Reflecting on the shop’s success, Claire says: ‘There is no single model to being an independent bookseller. Every bookshop has its own personality, based on those who work there, and the community within which the shop is located. Celebrating that diversity is our biggest strength.”
And in terms of unusual reader requests? Although she’s never had to source a tiger for a customer or a bootleg copy of the Codex of Leicester, Claire was once asked if she could somehow provide ‘another lifetime’, just so the customer in question could have enough time to read all the wonderful books she kept pressing into their hands. As unusual requests go, that’s one many bibliophiles might wish for.
No Alibis, Belfast
83 Botanic Avenue, BelfastBT7 1JL
Every month, as part of the new CWA Booksellers Champion initiative, we want to celebrate a bookshop because we believe bookshops don’t just sell our books – they bring our streets alive. August’s CWA Bookseller of the Month is No Alibis in Belfast.
Overview by William Shaw
Next year No Alibis bookshop in Belfast will celebrate twenty-five years in the business. ‘Good God,’ exclaims owner David Torrans, shocked at the calculation. ‘You get a shorter sentence for murder.’
He’s joking, because one thing that shines through everything he says is Torrans’ passion books, though he’s also the first to admit that keeping No Alibis going over the years has sometimes not been easy. The legendary Botanic Avenue bookshop has long been known as a champion of great crime fiction in all shapes and sizes, and from all corners of the world.
Torrans went to Queens University Belfast in his mid-twenties, becoming a bookseller at the university’s bookshop at the age of 27. When the bookshop charged him with broadening their range of genre novels – science fiction and crime in particular – he discovered a talent. After seven years there he decided to go out on his own in 1997 and sank every penny he had into opening No Alibis.
What was the shop before he moved in? ‘It was a dry cleaners.’
Bit of a refit then?
He laughs. ’Very much a refit. We built most of the bookcases ourselves. I sold a lot of my first editions at the time to raise money. Raymond Chandlers’s Killer in the Rain paid for quite a few bookshelves. Some early Lawrence Block. A couple of early Ian Rankin which I wish I’d kept now, but there you go. I hired myself out as a labourer because we didn’t want to pay too much money but even back then it still cost me the guts of thirty grand to set the place up.’
It was Torrans’ knowledge of genre fiction that got the shop up and running.
‘When we opened, sixty to seventy percent of the shop was crime, but one thing I realised was that Belfast was not big enough to have a shop like Jakubowski’s Murder One in London.’
The shop has expanded over the years in the range of material it stocks, with crime now making up roughly a third of the stock, but there’s still an expertise at work in the shop that he’s proud of.
‘We knew pretty quickly there was no point trying to compete with Amazon. What we can do is provide insight and experience. I can tell someone who likes Val McDermid or Michael Connelly about books I know they’ll like which might not even be crime fiction.’
Alongside the bookshop, he runs the imprint No Alibis, whose first title was Gerald Brennan’s locally set novel Disorder, which is typical of the kind of book Torrans champions; a book inspired by Dashiell Hammett yet which doesn’t quite fit into the crime genre.
Lockdown was a test of No Alibi’s adaptability. It was particularly crushing for Northern Ireland. ‘We weren’t even allowed to do click and collect.’
What he learned from the long episode was the loyalty he had built over the years. ‘We found that people were coming to us instead of going to Amazon. They were very supportive. And when we re-opened, there was a palpable sense of joy. “Oh my goodness. We can meet the people we were speaking to on the phone.” You don’t get that looking at a computer screen.’
Its legendary book events at the shop are sadly a thing of the past for now. The last was Jane Harper, just before lockdown.
‘She was absolutely fantastic, amazing. We used to have sixty people in the shop. We were full at every event. That’s what made it so exciting. But that’s just not going to happen, not for a while.’
Of all the crime writers he’s met, who is his favourite?
‘So many of them. You know the old adage, never meet your heroes? Not the case. In all honesty, I have never been disappointed.’
No Alibis, 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast BT7 1JL
Tel: 028 9031 9601
The Steyning Bookshop
106 High Street, Steyning, West Sussex BN44 3RD
Kicking this off is July’s CWA Bookshop of the Month, The Steyning Bookshop, opened in 1984 by Sara and Robin Bowers.
Overview by William Shaw
In the thirty-eight years since The Steyning Bookshop opened its doors, in a quiet market town nestling in a gap in the South Downs, it’s become central to the community, championing efforts to bring the high street alive. An example of how bookshops punch above their weight, it’s had a major impact on the small town. People like the best-selling children’s author, Julia Donaldson, moved to Steyning mainly because she’d visited its bookshop so often – and when the local Post Office closed, it was Donaldson who followed the bookshop’s example, by buying it to keep it open. Bookshops change places.
With her third child about to start school, Sara was facing the option of returning to her job as a school teacher. Instead, inspired by a friend who had opened The Forest Bookshop (now sadly defunct) in the Forest of Dean, she decided on opening bookshop herself, although neither had any experience of the book trade.
“This big old eighteenth century house, which was crumbling and falling apart, came up in the High Street. We bought it at auction and converted it into a bookshop and family house,” explains Sara. It was, she admits, a learning curve.
On their bookseller friend’s advice, they stocked the bookshop using what was then a newfangled idea – a book distributor. At the time, Gardners was largely pooh-poo-ed by other bookshops. “In those days, publishers thought they were doing you a favour by getting you a book in about three weeks. It took an eternity.” Instead, they used a system that was, back then, mostly used by newsagents, but which has since become the norm.
“At the beginning it was all ‘how-to’ books; gardening, DIY and Delia Smith,” remembers Sara, who still runs the shop with her husband and their daughter, Gudrun. Over years, they’ve built an audience for fiction, and crime fiction, by reviewing books in the local magazine and running their own book group and monthly newsletter. More recently, a major key to building their audience has been events. “Right up into the 90s, publishers thought we were too small to have important visitors,” says Sara, wryly.
A chance visit by the sister of Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, led to a bookshop visit, then a sold-out reading. From there, events took off. They’ve hosted major crime figures, including everyone from Robert Goddard, Peter May and Mark Billingham.
“One of our high spots was having Ian Rankin. We won him in a competition. We had to say what we’d do with him if we had him for a day and we said we’d take him to our local microbrewery and have an event there, then bring him back here for tea and cake, then have an evening event. I think we had him at the microbrewery,” says Sara.
Their most popular crime authors are Peter May and CWA Booksellers Champion Elly Griffiths, who’ve both done events for them. “People love reading crime writers who set books in their locale. People love working their way round a town, recognising a familiar landscape. You’d think it would be more unnerving!”
Advice for authors wanting local bookshops to stock them?
Sara warns that local bookshops select books very cautiously. “People trust us about our content and we have to be careful what we stock.” She says that, though she’ll accept almost anything that has local interest, she can’t simply take a book because someone’s written it. And one more thing: if you do claim to be a local writer, but you haven’t visited the shop before, or, as Sara puts it, even bought a single sheet of wrapping paper from them, don’t expect her to embrace your work.
We ask her what her high point has been. “Every day,” she answers. “When it comes to writers, we’re still such groupies. It all seems such a treat.”
Booksellers Champion: Elly Griffiths
You may have heard that I have been appointed the CWA’s Booksellers Champion. I almost expect this role to come with an outfit of some sort, including a cape. I will not be alone in the task, however, and I am pleased to say that I will be part of a triumvirate with fellow superheroes, William Shaw and Vaseem Khan.
There are several things we can all do to support our local booksellers which, in turn, may encourage them to support us. For example, make a visit to your local bookshop. They will love to see you. Take a photo of yourself there and post it on social media with the caption #thecwalovesbookshops. Find out if your local bookshop stocks your books. If they do, offer to sign them. If they don’t, they may change their minds after seeing your lovely face. Also, when you post buying links, be sure to add bookshop.org as well as (or even instead of) Amazon. It will help to support local bookshops, many of whom are struggling right now.
We will be in touch soon to talk about other ways in which CWA members can support booksellers and encourage them to support us.
Download posters for your bookshop
The CWA strongly believes in local booksellers and works where it can to support and encourage their work.
We do this in several ways.
1. By fostering communication and cooperation to mutual benefit between CWA author members and bookshops. In 2017 we appointed a Booksellers Champion in Aline Templeton to initiate, oversee and liaise wherever we can.
How does this work? On a practical level, if you’d like a crime writer to talk at an event at your bookshop, we’ll do our best to find you one. If you’re already holding an event with a CWA member participating and you would like us to help promote it, let us know (with as much notice as possible) and, where appropriate, we will publicise it to our members and also to our thousands of Crime Readers’ Association subscribers. We also work wherever we can to support bookshops and are open to hearing your views of how we can do that.
2. National Crime Reading Month. The CWA’s initiative promotes events and reading projects that happen in June. Bookshops as well as libraries are major hosts when they’re not online.
We have a dedicated webpage for this where events are listed according to geographical region. If you’re looking for an author, suggestions on how to set up an event or publicity for an event you already have planned: contact us.
3. Literature that’s connected with the CWA that you and your customers might also find useful.
We can supply digital posters and flyers for you to use in your book shop, helping to make you more indispensable than ever to the aspiring writer and the public at large.
4. Competitions that support writers. For example, the CWA Margery Allingham Short Story competition, and the Debut Dagger competition for the opening of a crime novel from an unpublished writer.
Keep in touch
Interested in receiving more information about the CWA, National Crime Writing Month and useful news for booksellers? We only send out very occasional bulletins so you won’t be inundated with emails. Sign up below – thank you.
You might also be interested in the CRA site: www.thecra.co.uk . Here you can find out more about our authors’ books and sign up for bimonthly Case Files and the regular CRA newsletter.