By Tomos Wyn
Caernarfon, North West Wales, on a sunny afternoon, shortly after the country relaxed restrictions on non-essential shopping. I walk around the town in the mild heat, an ice cream in hand, looking for a birthday present for my grandmother. I wind up on Palace Street, an extraordinarily beautiful strip, with colourful decorations sandwiched between local shops supplying baked goods, ice creams, quirky ornaments, and gifts, and my favourite little bookshop – Palas Print.
The mixed display of books, in both Welsh and English, each with a uniquely beautiful cover, is enchanting. Each time I see the shop, I walk in and take a look, telling myself: “I won’t buy anything! I’m just window shopping!” As I’m sure other book lovers know, though, that’s never the case. I will, unfailingly, come out with at least one book. However, I feel that this experience is limited to shopping in person. I can hop on Waterstones.com, Amazon, or an independent bookshop’s website at any moment, browse for 20 minutes, and not buy anything.
When I purchase a book online, it is because I am searching for a specific book or one I’ve heard of from a friend or a review. The streamlined nature of online book shopping gives us a tunnel vision of sorts. We see what we want and buy it without really looking at what’s around us. It’s designed to be efficient. Offline book shopping, however, is a totally different shopping experience. Entering the colourful realm of bookstores facilitates the use of the peripheral. We see everything around us; if it catches our attention, we look. We don’t even need to have heard of the book! Sometimes, it’s as simple as a pretty cover inspiring us to give it a chance. Shopping in person allows our spontaneity to flourish.
I went into Palas Print on that sunny afternoon, intending to buy a single book – Iris Murdoch’s The Bell. However, they didn’t have it. That was fine, but seeing as I had walked there intending on buying something, I asked a few questions. I’ve recently come to resent how I’m far more well-read in English literature than I am in the literature of my mother tongue, Welsh, particularly as my favourite novel, Y Dylluan Wen (The White Owl) is written in the latter. If my favourite novel is Welsh, why do I not read more of my country’s literature? I chalk this up to a lack of information and conversation of Welsh literature in the circles I find myself in, which is no one’s fault but my own – though it doesn’t help that, since coming to Durham, I’ve met a grand total of three Welsh-speakers.
On this sunny Easter day, however, I asked the question. “Which Welsh books would you recommend?” The staff member’s face lit up, and we talked about recommendations and our favourites for twenty minutes. For readers who aren’t aware of the cultural climate in northwestern Wales, we take the preservation of our spoken language particularly seriously – Gerallt Lloyd Owen’s Etifeddiaeth discusses the preservation of Welsh culture over the centuries through poetry. Beyond the spoken language, however, our literature is paid little attention outside the classroom. My favourite novel is one I read in those circumstances.
The staff member recommended Llyfr Glas Nebo (The Blue Book of Nebo), a dual-entry diary format, post-apocalyptic novel exploring faith, hope, and loss; Llyfr Du Cymru Fydd (The Black Book of the New Wales), a short manifesto for a revolutionary independent Wales, and Tu Ôl i’r Awyr (Behind the Sky), a highly-commended romance novel by Megan Angharad Hunter, the winner of the 2020 Young Author of Welsh Literature Scholarship.
Had I not visited a physical shop, I would not have asked my questions and these books would not exist in my life. Actually visiting bookshops allows us to engage with literature outside the scope of what’s popular, and share sentiments by recommending to one another the books that shaped us. We take the recommendations of others and run with them, finding some of our favourite titles in the process. It is this connection that is the joy of shopping for books in person. Welcome back, bookshops – I’ve missed you dearly.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova