Nestled within the medieval walled town of Caernarfon, on a street which contains World Heritage Site Caernarfon Castle, is dual-language bookshop Palas Print. Part of a vibrant, bustling hub of independent shops, cafés and restaurants, the shop was opened by Eirian James in 2002. "There was a bookshop for sale in Caernarfon, and I wanted a change from what I was doing, and thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, it will never happen.’ So I took the plunge, invested my savings in the shop, and went for it. We’re still here, still thriving, 16 years later, so we must be doing something right."
James had some experience of the book trade, as she had worked as a rep for the Welsh Books Council in south-east and mid-Wales for three years, visiting bookshops, tourist information centres and other places—“anywhere books were sold!"—with the most recent publications from and about Wales. "I learnt a lot from those booksellers, and brought lots of the good practice I learnt from these businesses to the shop," she said.
Like many bookshops, Palas Print is challenged by online retail, the decline in high-street shopping, and an increase in business rates, but James remains optimistic. "Most of these things are beyond our control," she says. "For me, the challenge is to keep adapting, changing and innovating in response to things we have little or no control over, which can be draining at times, but also invigorating. I enjoy a challenge. We’re very fortunate that our street, Stryd y Plas, is thriving: we have more local, independent shops now than we had five or 10 years ago, and we’re busier year on year." She adds that the local community is also key to the business’ success: "We’re very fortunate to be supported by the local community all year round, and locals are the mainstay of the business. And, as Caernarfon is also a popular holiday destination, we’re busy all year with locals and visitors.
James with author Peter Robinson
"I get the impression that market towns and smaller towns—ones that offer something different, bespoke, individual; where groups of independent shops and other businesses work together for the common good of their street, town, or area—are the ones that are thriving, and that larger towns and cities are finding the current economic climate more challenging."
The shop stocks both Welsh- and English-language books, as James thinks it is "absolutely essential" to have a dual language offering: "It is one of our core values. Welsh is the first language of the vast majority of local residents (above 85%), so it is a truly bilingual community, and Welsh- and English-language books sit side by side in the shop quite comfortably. The split between [sales of books in] Welsh and English is equal. What we sell in volume in Welsh we sell in variety in English."
James is confident that there are "endless" ways to reach new customers, bring new people to the shop and to the street, and new authors to the public’s attention. "When
I think back to when we started and where we are now, I think that huge improvements have been made in terms of the quality and range of books on offer—for adults and children, in both Welsh and English—from Wales," she says. "There is always room for improvement, but I think part of my job is to celebrate the things that are good, to draw people’s attention to the wealth of good literature being produced in Wales, and to support good writing and publishing from Wales and beyond."
This piece is part of The Bookseller's country focus on Wales. For more in the series, click here.