Hay-on-Wye is quintessential rural Britain. With a backdrop of sheep-speckled green hills rolling into the distance, a winding single-track road leads into the tiny village of quaint stone cottages with small manicured front gardens and potted flowers. The town lies smack on the border between England and Wales — a small side-of-road sign as you enter reads Croeso i Gymru above the English translation: Welcome to Wales. And below that, another sign: Y Gelli: tref y llyfrau … Hay-on-Wye: town of books.
Because just about every other building in this tiny village (population 1,598) is a secondhand bookshop — around two dozen of them in total. You’ll find Boz Books and Addyman Books and Rose’s Books; the specialists — the Poetry Bookshop, Haystacks Music and Books, Murder and Mayhem and Mostly Maps — and then, of course, the massive Richard Booth’s Bookshop, which claims to be the world’s largest secondhand bookshop. And those are just the official establishments: On any given street you’re likely to encounter a passageway lined with bookshelves (leave your money in the honesty box). There are also two outdoor bookshelves (who knows what happens when it rains) by the entrance to a crumbling castle atop the hill in the center of town. Some are mere shacks hidden in corners.
Most of the buildings that aren’t bookshops are tea rooms, pubs or ice cream parlors. There are also a few creative shopkeepers trying to sell local Welsh textiles, outdoor wear or antiques (though many of them still shelve a few old books in the window, just to partake in the bibliomania).
Books are often arranged in no logical order, so good luck finding any specific title you’re after.
The craze all started when an eccentric Richard Booth started opening bookshops in 1962 and never stopped. With books collected from closing-down libraries around the world, he eventually opened more than 30 stores in Hay. Now, at age 78, he owns just one, the King of Hay. The name isn’t a metaphor: In 1977, after purchasing the castle, Booth proclaimed Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom with himself as the monarch. The publicity stunt worked: Hay gained an international reputation as a book town, which now boasts an annual book festival — once described by Bill Clinton as a “Woodstock of the mind” — that draws tens of thousands of visitors annually.
The joy of Hay is in browsing its eclectic and never-ending catalog. Books are often arranged in no logical order, so good luck finding any specific title you’re after. There is beauty in the chaos; creaking plywood shelves have handwritten notes taped to them. I spy a shelf of ancient, weighty, leather-bound tomes — they’re from the 1760s, the shopkeeper tells me, “but don’t let that stop you from picking them up and having a look!” Meanwhile, at Boz Books, Hay’s first bookshop, owner Peter Harris modestly says, “We don’t have anything particularly old in at the moment — only from about the 17th century,” as I admire a whole shelf of first-edition Dickens.
Alas, “a lot of the shops have shut down” in recent years, says Steve from the “world-famous” Hay Cinema Bookshop. Even Harris is thinking of moving “onto the Net.” He bemoans the commercialization of Richard Booth’s Bookshop, which is now owned by an American and stocks about one-third new books — the height of controversy in Hay. Almost betraying the village’s authenticity, its oldest books are now sensibly behind glass, the aisles are spacious and well-lit and there’s even an in-store cafe.
But the rest of the town is still locked in a time period long gone by. Some store owners wear clothes befitting the era of some of the editions they sell. And locals drinking at Coffee Shop Isis don’t seem to realize it’s no longer an appropriate name for a cute little establishment serving up homemade soup, baked potatoes and fruitcake. Never change, Hay — never change.
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