As anyone who knows me can attest, I am a sucker for books. I’ve had my nose perpetually stuck in a book for as long as I can remember, and I can go absolutely stir crazy if I have to endure a two-hour flight (or ten-minute bus ride) without sufficient reading material.
Although I don’t own a car, and my wardrobe may be threadbare in places, buying books (used or new) is, along with travel, one of the luxuries I will not willingly forgo. Thus it was with great joy that I discovered a place where my bibliomania would not seem out of place: the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, home to 1500 inhabitants and four million books.
Hay-on-Wye, also known by its Welsh name Y Gelli (“The Grove”), lies on the border between Wales and England, and is about halfway between the English cities of Bristol and Birmingham. Its English name is derived from the Norman word for an enclosed field (“hay” or “haie”) and from its setting on the banks of the River Wye.
Earlier on in its thousand-year history, the town was the scene of immense political upheaval owing to its strategic location between Wales and England. The history of the castle at its center illustrates how tumultuous those times were. Built in A.D. 1200 by the local ruler, William de Breos II, Hay Castle replaced an older, smaller castle. After displeasing King John of England, William was forced to flee to France in 1211, and his wife and son were imprisoned.
In 1231, the castle was burned by a Welsh prince, but was rebuilt by Henry III around 1233 and returned to the control of the Breos family. The Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, attacked the castle in 1265 in response to local opposition to the king. In 1322, the English king Edward II again captured the castle from its rulers at the time. And during the Welsh rebellion of the late 14th century, led by nationalist leader Owain Glyndŵr, the castle was nearly destroyed by fire.
The castle had various owners over the following centuries, including the local church, which used it as a vicar’s residence during the Victorian era. In 1971, a resident of Hay-on-Wye, Richard Booth, purchased the property and has since created a bookstore within its walls.
Buy the Book
Creating a bookstore was nothing new to Richard Booth, who first began selling books in Hay-on-Wye in 1961. Convinced that the presence of many bookstores in the town would draw in tourists and gain attention for Hay, he converted an old cinema into the Cinema Bookshop, and encouraged other businesspeople to open stores as well. He eventually sold the Cinema Bookshop, and opened Richard Booth’s Bookshop in the old town firehouse, which has now become the largest secondhand bookstore in Europe.
With the example set by Richard Booth, many other secondhand and antiquarian booksellers made their home base in Hay-on-Wye, and by the end of the 1970s, the town became the world’s first “book town” with an estimated one million books in stock. The book town concept has since spread to many other countries, and the number of bookstores in Hay-on-Wye continues to grow. According to the town’s official Web site, there are now 41 bookstores serving a population of 1500, which means there is one bookstore for every 37 residents. But because Richard Booth’s vision of the town as an international center of bookselling has been realized, locals now must share these stores with the approximately 500,000 visitors it receives each year.
The highest concentration of visitors descends on the town during the last few weeks of May for an event that has become world renowned: The Guardian Hay Festival. Launched in 1988 by Peter Florence and now attracting some 80,000 attendees annually, this literary festival has drawn famous writers such as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, John Updike, and Don DeLillo, among many others, to give readings and conduct book signings for the assembled crowd. One unique aspect of the festival is the fact that attendees are likely to run into their literary heroes in the street (or at the pub) because of the small size of the town.
It’s not surprising that a town full of books has become the setting for a major literary festival; it holds out the promise of a physical location for something that usually only exists in the mind: a community of those who love the written word. I count myself in that number, and hope some day to have that same experience, whether in a small Welsh town or in another place where readers and writers gather to celebrate the joy of books. —Morgen Jahnke