The Crime Writers’ Association

Bookshop of the Month – December 2021: Griffin Books

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

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