A Letter From Booktown

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By Rita Brutsch

I am in London on vacation, and, after a few days of sightseeing, I can't think of anything better to do than run up and down Charing Cross Road and check out all the bookstores. At first, I'm not really looking for anything in particular, but, then, it occurs to me that this would be the perfect place to look for an out-of-print copy of a book I've always wanted to read, Cape Horn: The Logical Route by the legendary French sailor Bernard Moitessier.

I hunt through the labyrinths of the old used-book stores, climb up several floors in the megastores. I even go all the way up to Notting Hill. There, in the famed Travel Bookshop, I get to hold and look at a first edition of The Worst Journey Ever. That alone was worth the trip to Notting Hill, but the book I'm really looking for is not on its shelves. And, so, it's back to Cecil Court, where some of the best antiquarian shops are located. In desperation, I turn to one of the booksellers (who is looking perfectly stereotypical -- disheveled, chain-smoking, and muttering to himself while stooping over his desk re-pricing his books). I ask, "Where else can I check for this book?"

The bookseller glances in my direction and with a slight smirk says, "Well, if you can't find it in London, you can always try Hay." He is grinning in a deprecating manner and I can't get myself to ask, What exactly is Hay? Later in the hotel I do some research. Hay is actually Hay-on-Wye, a tiny village in Wales, right on the border of Wales and England. As I'm reading, I get more and more intrigued -- this is a "booktown," and it claims to have the biggest used book selection in the world! It's only about a two- to three-hour drive, and it's time to get out of the city anyway.

The trip to Hay is straightforward by car, at least the beginning part, where you drive on the M40 towards Oxford. Remember -- drive on the left and don't panic in those roundabouts! If you are lucky like me you will have a travel partner who does the driving, so you can enjoy the pretty scenery.

Before we know it, we are in Wales, out in the countryside on a single-lane road flanked by hedges. There are sheep everywhere, especially on the road and we are heading … well, where exactly are we heading? It feels very adventurous and the signposts we see read "Y Gelli." Could this be right? A friendly farmer confirms that we are indeed heading in the right direction. Y Gelli (which means "grove") is the Welsh name for Hay-on-Wye.

When we arrive in Hay, we park in the large parking lot behind the tourist information center. It's a quick stop to pick up a map of the town, and we are off.

"Booktown" is no exaggeration. There are books everywhere. The transformation of Hay-on-Wye to a booktown was the brainchild of Richard Booth in 1961, and it has become the world's largest secondhand and antiquarian book center. There are more than 35 major bookstores in this town of 2,000 inhabitants. Some offer books in narrow specializations, while others stock most everything. Addyman Books specializes in English literature and modern first editions. Boz Books specializes in travel and languages, Murder and Mayhem in mystery and suspense. Rose's Bookstore has rare and out-of-print children's and illustrated books. In addition to the stores, the Y Gelli Book Auction takes place every week. The bigger bookstores are open 363 days a year and stay open until late evening during the summer.

It's hard to describe just how many books there are in this town. Richard Booth's bookstores alone are pretty overwhelming. The founder and inventor of the booktown concept has two stores -- Hay Castle and the Richard Booth Bookstore, which is located downtown. On any day, you see people wrestling heavy boxes of books out of their cars and lugging them into the shops to sell them. After what seems like only the briefest moment at the bookseller's desk, the boxes are left behind and the seller leaves a few pounds richer.

It appears no book gets rejected; the piles in the stores just get higher. Everything is here. Name a topic and you will find an exhaustive collection in one of the general secondhand shops. If you like vintage paperbacks you truly are in heaven. I could have spent hours just looking at different covers of Lolita. Time flies in an environment like this, and I almost forgot my quest for my sailor's story. I have a hunch, the Castle Bookstore might just be the place to check, and, so, we climb up the short hill to the entrance.

The overflow of books are shelved outside the building. If you see anything you like, the honor system is in place, just put 50 pence in a tin box and take the book. There are so many books and the bookstore is so sprawling -- it really is in a castle -- that I need directions. It turns out I have already gone too far: the seafarer stories are back out in the tower.

I negotiate the rickety steps up three flights, I'm barely able to stand up straight on the top floor, and I almost knocked myself out on a low-hanging beam, but this looks promising. Everything is kind of dusty, and it seems like this part of the store does not get a lot of traffic. I scan the shelves, slowly adjusting to the dim light, and there it is! Cape Horn: The Logical Route priced at £3.00 -- an absolute bargain.

Each year, for 10 days in late May and early June, the town hosts the Hay Festival, which Bill Clinton called "the Woodstock of the mind." This year, the festival, which attracts more than 50,000 people from around the world, included programs of music, comedy, argument, and discussion groups, and -- of course -- book-related issues. Famous authors, including Maya Angelou, Paulo Coehlo, Tim Winton, Ian McEwan, Germaine Greer, Edna O'Brien, Sebastian Faulks, Louis de Bernieres, and Hari Kunzru were in attendance. Be forewarned, if you are planning to visit during the festival, some hotels are already booked through 2004.

Hay-on-Wye and the "booktown" concept are exciting phenomena for booklovers, and the idea of revitalizing struggling towns through bookselling seems to be thriving. In the village of Fjarland, in the western fjord region of Norway, 14 secondhand and antiquarian bookshops have bolstered a sagging economy and have increased tourism. In Montolieu, in southern France, a variation of Richard Booth's theme has emerged. Inspired by the success in Hay-on-Wye, local booklover Michel Braibant developed a town that emphasizes traditional book-making skills, such as papermaking, marbling, printing, and bookbinding.

Even in the U.S., a booktown is emerging, thanks to the efforts of popular author and rare book dealer, Larry McMurtry. In his economically depressed hometown of Archer City, in West Texas, McMurtry has established a number of stores featuring his vast collection, and he is trying to lure other booksellers to set up shop. "I'm kind of like a book cowboy, and I'm doing a kind of book ranching," he explains. I like that.

Rita Brutsch is a staff member at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California. This piece originally appeared in the Autumn 2002 issue of Readers, the newsletter of Bookshop Santa Cruz.