Posted July 8, 2013 by in Literary Travels

Book Towns: A Bibliophile’s Paradise

sixpencehouseMy love affair with the kingdom of books began in 2003, when I first read Paul Collins’s delightful memoir, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, his account of his family’s attempt to make a go at life in Hay-on-Wye, the original Book Town just over the English border in Wales. I’ve read Sixpence House several times since – it’s one of the few books I’ve managed to reread, as well as one of very few that I can honestly say have changed my life. You don’t have to have any special interest in Hay or its fellow book towns to enjoy the book – in More Book Lust, Nancy Pearl has it on her list of “Cozies,” books to cuddle up with on a sofa when you want pure relaxation, and Collins is a master of the conversational, unclassifiable work of creative nonfiction – but this bibliophile couldn’t resist the idea of journeying to a town with dozens of bookshops.

Looking down on Hay's main street from the castle.

Looking down on Hay’s main street from the castle.

When I first read Sixpence House, I hadn’t yet been outside the United States but was preparing to travel overseas that fall for my junior year abroad in Reading, England, and I vowed that I would make a pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye. I finally managed to visit in May 2004 (with the fellow who would become my husband) and became just as enraptured as I’d expected to be; together we’ve gone another four times since then. We’ll spend hours browsing the town’s thousands (millions?) of secondhand books, especially on overcast days when the hills don’t tempt. Almost every other shop you pass on the main street sells books, ranging from the ludicrously cheap to the rare and unaffordable, and encompassing every subject and specialty imaginable. Our purchasing strategy has varied over the years: sometimes we go armed with an extensive list of particular titles and authors we’re after, while on other visits we go with no preconceived ideas in mind and simply buy whatever takes our fancy.

Hay Castle, with the open-air "Honesty Bookshop" below (Photo credit: Michael Graham [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Hay Castle, with the open-air “Honesty Bookshop” below (Photo credit: Michael Graham [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Hay is a beloved place that changes with us: as we’ve aged over the last nine years, we’ve watched the town morph too – shops change hands or close down, restaurants open and close. It’s become a home away from home for us, and not just for the bookshops (of which about 20 remain nowadays; still plenty in a tiny town with only 1,500 residents). Hay is nestled amongst Wales’s sheep-covered Black Mountains in a valley along the River Wye, and those lazy afternoons spent perusing used books can be alternated with hill rambling or kayaking, splendid meals at local restaurants, a trip to nearby Hereford (the cathedral there safeguards the Mappa Mundi as well as a famous medieval chained library), or, for bird lovers, a visit to the red kite rehabilitation and feeding center at Gigrin Farm.

Richard Booth in 1984. Photo credit: Tom Ordelman (Thor_NL) (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Booth in 1984. Photo credit: Tom Ordelman (Thor_NL) (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

But books reign in Hay, quite literally. In 1962 Richard Booth opened a secondhand bookshop at Hay, having containers of unwanted books shipped over from America to build up his stock. As others followed suit, Hay became known as the “Town of Books,” a designation which may have been held previously only by Jinbōchō, Tokyo, known since the 1880s as a publishing and bookselling district. Booth’s expanded empire eventually encompassed seven bookshops including Booth’s (still one of the largest secondhand bookshops in the UK), and the town’s twelfth-century castle, which still exists in semi-ruined state and houses – what else? – yet another bookshop.

On April 1, 1977, Booth declared Hay-on-Wye its own independent kingdom, and himself the King of Hay. Despite the April 1st announcement date, one has the sense that this eccentric entrepreneur was largely serious about the enthronement. Indeed, he still sells Hay peerages, extending from duke to knight of the kingdom, for aspiring noblemen and noblewomen. His 1999 autobiography is entitled My Kingdom of Books, and even nowadays, despite having sold the castle and all his shops, Booth can be seen tottering along Hay’s main streets and popping into his former establishments. Although his speech is now a bit slurred and his gait unsteady after a stroke, he is still a loud and opinionated advocate for his beloved book town.


Further afield


Addyman Books, one of my favorite Hay bookshops.

Booth is still acknowledged as the founding father of the I.O.B. (or International Organization of Book Towns), which aims to increase interest in book towns, share knowledge between towns, safeguard regional culture, and strengthen local economies, especially through Internet sales. The I.O.B. hosts a biennial festival in one of its book towns (in contrast with the annual Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts: a one-week extravaganza of book-related events at the end of May, it began in 1988 and now has a high profile in the UK, drawing many big-name authors and filling the tiny town with a flood of tourists).

Book towns are still a largely Western European phenomenon, but some can be found further afield, in Malaysia, Australia, and the U.S. American book towns include Nevada City & Grass Valley, California, Hobart, New York, Stillwater, Minnesota (the first official American book town, as proclaimed by Booth himself on a visit there in 1994), Archer City, Texas (home to Booked Up bookstore, which holds hometown hero Larry McMurtry’s personally amassed collection), and Brownville, Nebraska.

Books this way! In Damme, Belgium.

Books this way! In Damme, Belgium.

Along with Hay, I have also had occasion to visit Damme, a quaint town just four miles from the magnificent medieval city of Bruges in Belgium (although there were plenty of English-language titles for sale, I was so bewildered I didn’t end up buying anything), and next up on this bibliophile’s travel agenda should surely be Wigtown, in lowland Scotland. My interest in it was piqued – though then, sadly, let down – by Jessica Fox’s 2012 memoir of finding employment and love in a Wigtown bookshop, Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets (alas, the book doesn’t nearly live up to its quirky title). Her shallow Valley girl approach to book towns – and to expat life in general – isn’t a patch on Collins’s memoir, though you might find it a breezy summer read if joining the author’s search for places to get a Brazilian wax in rural Scotland sounds like your cup of tea.


Some more books set in the Town of Books

redhousehaddonIf you can’t make it to a book town in person this summer, a couple other books set around Hay-on-Wye may whet your appetite: Sue Gee’s quaint domestic drama, Reading in Bed (2008), opens at the Hay festival, and The Red House (2012), the latest novel from Mark Haddon, is set during a family vacation in a cottage outside Hay. It’s a bit like an updated country house novel, but also feels like a tragicomic play, with its limited setting and time period and a small cast of eight major characters, between whose perspectives and thought life the novel flits. With its frequent attempts at stream-of-consciousness style, The Red House bears subtle echoes of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Nonetheless, Haddon hasn’t topped The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) yet, no matter how hard he’s tried here. That first novel was a triumph of voice, but the multitude of voices here drowns out any meaningful harmony. And though Hay lovers will certainly recognize many of their favorite bookshops and other landmarks in the town’s environs, the mood was all wrong for me; I kept thinking that Haddon’s was not the Hay I know and love.

Books for half a penny, anyone?

Books for half a penny, anyone?

For the eager armchair traveler, I can’t recommend Sixpence House highly enough. You’ll warm to Collins and his young family as he recounts their struggle to find an affordable (and non-crumbling) house in Cusop Dingle, the English hamlet a few miles from Hay, and his quest to complete his own book about the obscure and forgotten figures of history (Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World, published in 2002) while drowning in all the moldy and overlooked tomes he was organizing in Booth’s backroom. You may not be able to drop everything and voyage to rural Wales any time soon, but reading Collins’s memoir is the next best thing. And who knows? – there may be a town of books somewhere near you. I’m longing for my next pilgrimage already.

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.