Oriel: the Bookshop

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The 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.

Oriel interior 1974
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 Events Sesaon 1985 front

Oriel Events season 1985 back
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. Ask anybody.

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 events programme
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. Franchised out.

HMSO Arrives

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.

Peter Finch

* 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

No more
stalking unsuspecting shoplifters.
No more
tie tucked in his trousers.
No more
the No. 1 skull
sheening in the striplights.
No more
the purveyor of deviant shelf dividers
and Anglo-Welsh erotica.
No more
mass book writing
because he's nothing else to do
in the small press littered office.
No more
the smooth manipulation
of the passed buck
when the photocopier goes wrong
in the midst of his cut-up concrete epic.
No more
bureaucratic desiderata
inadvertently shifted into cyber limbo.
No more
blamlessness amidst the females.
No more
confronting the vicious man
stealing from the staff room
that led to fundamentalist Tai Chi,
the martial art you do in your slippers.
No more
dealing with that awkward bastard
who always came in at 5.25 pm
to order obscure small press books
that did not exist.
No more
the bulk buying of the
completely unsalable boxed Bob Cobbing.
No more
the unfailingly excellent demonstrations
of how to pack a book so well
no-one would ever be able to unpack it.
No more
the carpark space chess game.
No more
the affairs, the non-affairs.
No more
the unrequited cups of coffee.
No more
the irritating stacks of his unsold life.

T. Mills (piano)

Oriel five years old

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 the case.

Peter Finch

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