Oriel Bookshop began in 1974. This was the Welsh Arts Council's Window
on the Arts in Wales, a shop and gallery which would serve local and
national needs not provided for by the commercial sector. The poet
Raymond Garlick had argued that since Welsh Arts Council subsidy was
involved in almost the complete chain of literary production - writers
bursaries and awards, prizes for the best books, aid for book design
& production, aid for publishers to help them distribute, aid
to the Welsh Books Council national warehouse, aid to magazines which
carried book reviews - it might as well complete the final link by
embarking on a venture which could actually put the books into the
hands of the reading (and buying) public. Research had shown that
most of the commercial bookstores in Wales either had no interest
whatsoever in Welsh books or, if they did, then kept that interest
in severe check. They only permanently stocked the obvious decent
sellers of this period (Dylan Thomas, Alexander Cordell) and kept
other titles on their shelves for only a few weeks. Welsh books to
most retailers meant dictionaries, guides to the great little trains
and cheap gift books full of unappetising recipes. Maybe the odd rugby
title. Bara Brith for ever. Oriel would put all this to rights.
The name Oriel was chosen
because it was readily pronounceable by everyone, Welsh and English
speakers, was short, handy, fitted a standard carrier bag and said
something relevant in both tongues. Oriel means gallery in Welsh and
window in English. Pretty neat.
The new venture combined
an Arts Council directly provided gallery (under Peter Jones) with
a new interest in bookselling (under Meic Stephens). It was launched
in on 4th May, 1974, on a shoe-string, in a mildly renovated Victorian
building at 53 Charles Street, Cardiff, (just back from Queen Street,
one of the city's main shopping thoroughfares). For the first two
years Cardiff bookseller, H.J.Lear (later absorbed by the Blackwells
group), helped finance the stock and gave the staff an afternoon's
tour of their stock room by way of training. Everything else was made
up as we went along.
The Charles Street
Oriel in 1974. The manager in front of the shelves.
Peter Finch was the first
bookshop manager. Isabel Hitchman ran the gallery. Throughout the
seventies and eighties the shop was a focus for anyone interested
in Wales, Welsh art, Welsh literature and, later, Welsh craft. There
were poetry readings, launches, small press bookfairs, debates, talks,
lectures, celebrations and workshops. Everyone of relevance on the
Welsh scene in both languages had a slot and writers were brought
in from everywhere else. R.S.Thomas's first album (on the Oriel label,
what else) was launched here. The crowd was so dense that members
fainted and were passed over the heads of the audience to the front
steps where they were revived with glasses of red wine. Gavin Ewart
read to a gathering of six. Eugene Ionesco packed the space. Jackson
Mac Low, D.M. Thomas (who famously demolished a sculpture while adding
extra meaning to one his poems with an arm gesture), Beat poet Lawrence
Ferlinghetti came in 1988 to launch his novella Love In The Days
of Rage, Edwin Morgan, Jackie Kay, Adrian Mitchell, John Agard,
Brian Patten, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Iain Sinclair, Margaret
Drabble, Grace Nichols, Eva Figes, J.P. Donleavy, Bob Cobbing, Margaret
Atwood, Jeni Couzyn, Tony Curtis, Michelene Wandor, Fiona Pitt-Kethley,
Fred D'Aguiar, Jeremy Reed, James Simmons, Frederick Durrenmatt, the
actor John Laurie performing William McGonagall, and others were among
early visitors. The gravitas added by Bryan Martin Davies, Dic Jones,
Menna Elfyn, Islwyn Ffowc Elis ac eraill was irreplacable. There were
singers, classical, folk, pop, rock, Heather Jones and Ray Smith,
John Tripp read to the accompaniment of jazz, Harri Webb led a debate
into the relevance of Anglo-Welsh lit, Ian Watson talked about the
world of sf. The audience were pretty spare for this last one. With
an SF convention in full flow at the nearby Central Hotel nobody showed
up. To save face the staff masqueraded as interested parties. When
the talk was done, the speaker thanked and the quiet applause got
through the audience dutifully got up and put their chairs away. "You
all work here!" yelled Watson, realisation dawning. Bugger.
Oriel ran its own publishing
arm producing the famous poster poems (Hon, Cofio, Fern Hill), a series
of 12" vinyl albums (Pryderi and his Pigs, R.S.Thomas, David
Jones, the Mabinogi), poem postcards, booklets and stamps. It had
a great mobile bookshop which toured the South Wales valleys. This
was driven in its early days by Derek Stockley but for most of its
existence by the indefatigable Geoff Cripps. It launched a critical
service for writers. Published a directory of small publishers. It
ran its own magazine - Oriel News About Writers And Books. It was
constantly attacked by the media (and by a number of misinformed Welsh
bookshop owners) as unfair competition for the private sector (whose
signal failure to stock Welsh material in the first place was one
of the reasons for the place's establishment). There were press campaigns,
a protest outside in the snow by local conservative councillors, and
questions in the Welsh Grand Committee. Bad feeling a plenty but the
shop sailed on.
Oriel Charles Street
Events Programme 1985
A market research report
into the venture suggested that Oriel resembled a private club which
needed a membership card to enter and being up two flights of steep
stairs anyway the shop was only accessible to the fit. It was nevertheless
friendly, cheap to run, easy to be in and sold a lot of books. The
profile of Welsh Literature rose considerably as a result. Peter Finch
did not spend his time wasting hours writing poetry, he sold books.
As costs inflated and Arts
Council core funding slumped the need for such a venture began to
be questioned. Why in Cardiff? What about Bangor? Why not spend the
subsidy on more bursaries? More magazines? More publication grants?
The mandarins twitched and the committee stalwarts shuffled their
papers. But Wales needed a slick, central, all-embracing and efficient
bookshop to service its culture and its language. The show went on.
The Move To The Friary
In the late eighties with the walls of 53 Charles Street taking in
water like blotting paper, subsidence twisting the stairwell and the
roof covered in tar the lease ran out. No renewal possible. The landlords
were into demolition. We had to go. It looked like the end. Yet at
the last minute chance led Peter Finch to the former Barclays Bank
site on the corner of Cardiff's Friary and Greyfriars Road. Empty
for two years and in a perfect secondary site position, just back
from Queen Street again and level. Just what was needed - a single
ground floor large enough to accommodate both shop and gallery. Could
the Arts Council cope with the new rent and enormous corporate service
charges? Finch stood up in committee and guaranteed that he could
double turnover. An unheard of presumption. The Arts Council added
a craft shop as a kind of insurance and away we went. Pots, maps,
and the brilliant books of Wales. In the event turnover tripled.
Oriel The Friary
Events Programme 1993
The new site benefited
from a huge increase in customer flow. The place literally hummed
(well, actually, it played records of Ar Log as background). Commerce
was to the forefront - library orders, school book supply, mail order
services, subscriptions, money-off deals, discounted books, staff
badges, security mirrors, no food in here, dim smugu, & the odd
book of poems. Poet Topher Mills still came in to rearrange the stock
and put his The Bicycle As Easy Pancake to the front of the
display. For a few years, too, the events continued. Lisa St Aubin
de Terán, Benjamin Zephaniah, Simon Armitage, Paul Muldoon,
Carol Anne Duffy, Selima Hill, Jo Shapcott, Ian McMillan, Andrew Motion,
Hugo Williams, Deborah Levy, Hugo Williams, Nigel Jenkins, Mike Jenkins
(including harmonica), Thomas A Clarke, Labi Siffre, John Powell Ward,
Gillian Clarke, Catherine Merriman. But then the funds ran out and
the shop was down to school evenings, book launches and poets who'd
go on for free just for the air time. And a little while after that
the Arts Council announced that it had decided to no longer continue
its direct provision. In two years time the shop was to be divested.
It was at this point - 1994 - that the heart really went out of the
thing. Two years of preparation for the sale, stock counting, analysis,
reduction, reorganisation and then the franchise bid process itself.
Rumours abounded. Blackwells were going to get it. Siop Y Pethe needed
a South Wales base. Toys R Us were going to try their arm at local
llyfrau. In the event there were only two real bids: the management
buy-out team, Peter Finch and Mair Lewis, full of purpose, experience
and sensitivity to the needs of Wales and HMSO. Her Majesty's Stationery
Office, the government's official publisher, masters of Hansard, the
Highway Code and books on cotton production in South Shields. And
in April 1995 who won? Who else.
To be fair HMSO stuck to
the terms of their contact with ACW. They adopted a total bilingual
policy, installed new equipment and tried hard. But they were also
committed to cost effectiveness and simultaneously cut staff and increased
the shop's sales target for non-Welsh books. Amid the royal blue of
the fittings Welsh lit took a downward plunge. Six months or so into
the new deal the British Government announced further changes. HMSO
itself was to be privatised. Sold out of the public sector to the
highest bidder. That all happened swiftly. By September 1997 the new
owners - a consortium of venture capitalists operating under the banner
The Stationery Office were in control.
No question of funding
for events now, no time for anything bar turnover. "Like a real
shop in the real world," someone told me. Indeed.
After more than twenty
years in bookselling in June, 1998 I left* to run the Academi, winner
of the Arts Council's franchise for a Welsh National Literature Promotion
Agency. Back to literature again, my real world. The Stationery Office
Oriel Bookshop then moved to a small, neat site in Cardiff's High
Street. The poetry (largest selection anywhere outside London) &
writer's books were dumped. There were rumours of the stock being
left in skips outside. Eras always have to end
On High Street the new
literature-lite, non-Oriel TSO shop was never a blazing success. It
struggled, went through five managers, and then finally closed its
doors in 2006.
* at the leaving do fellow
poet Topher Mills, who had worked off and on as a casual stock-taker
and book packer down the years, read the following:
The Bookshop Manager's Farewell
stalking unsuspecting shoplifters.
tie tucked in his trousers.
the No. 1 skull
sheening in the striplights.
the purveyor of deviant shelf dividers
and Anglo-Welsh erotica.
mass book writing
because he's nothing else to do
in the small press littered office.
the smooth manipulation
of the passed buck
when the photocopier goes wrong
in the midst of his cut-up concrete epic.
inadvertently shifted into cyber limbo.
blamlessness amidst the females.
confronting the vicious man
stealing from the staff room
that led to fundamentalist Tai Chi,
the martial art you do in your slippers.
dealing with that awkward bastard
who always came in at 5.25 pm
to order obscure small press books
that did not exist.
the bulk buying of the
completely unsalable boxed Bob Cobbing.
the unfailingly excellent demonstrations
of how to pack a book so well
no-one would ever be able to unpack it.
the carpark space chess game.
the affairs, the non-affairs.
the unrequited cups of coffee.
the irritating stacks of his unsold life.
T. Mills (piano)
Invitation card to the fifth anniversary bash
design by Penknife
Will life continue without
books to sell? Something tells me that won't turn out to be quite
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