In 1961 a man called Richard Booth opened a second hand bookshop in the unused fire station in a little Welsh town named Hay-on-Wye. He hoped to fill the town with book shops and he even crowned himself King of Hay and in 1977 proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom. He bought the ruined castle on a hill overlooking the town, and got a great deal of publicity for his eccentric ways.
But the publicity produced the results he wanted, for gradually the town began to fill with books. The old cinema turned rows of seats into row of shelves, the castle walls propped up shelves of cheap paperbacks which could be paid for in an honour box, and more and more book shops appeared. Some specialised in crime, or 19thC classics, or sci-fi, etc. More and more visitors came to the town and in 1988 the 10-day Hay Festival was launched (it is both a literary festival and a music festival).
When I first visited Hay-on-Wye I was so excited by such a richness of books. I was with my husband and in-laws, but managed to leave them all having lunch in a pub while I feasted on books instead, browsing for exciting treasures and volumes needed to complete sets at home. Sadly, the advent of the internet and the ease of finding second-hand books from home has caused a bit of a downturn in Hay-on-Wye. Last time I visited, I noticed that some of the shops had moved to other forms of retail, but hopefully the tide will turn again and Hay will continue to flourish as a book town.
Booth’s idea caught on internationally and there is now an official International Organisation of Book Towns. Most are based in scenic villages and have proved to be a successful form of tourism development. Have you visited a book town? Here are some you might like to consider: Wigtown in Scotland, Clunes in Australia, Featherston in New Zealand, Ascona in Switzerland, Bredevoort in the Netherlands, El Pedroso in Spain, Kampung Buku in Malaysia, Montereggio in Italy, Pazin in Croatia, Redu in Belgium, Sedbergh in England, Selfoss in Iceland, Torup in Denmark, Tvedestrand in Norway, Wünsdorf-Waldstadt in Germany and Paju Book City in South Korea.
You can buy a beautiful new book – Book Towns by Alex Johnson, which is gorgeously illustrated and a fabulous travel guide. It covers the forty or so book towns (some official, some semi-official) around the world. What a wonderful international journey that would be – to visit all the book towns. Sadly for most of us, it will have to be an armchair journey instead.
Tell me about book towns you have visited by leaving a comment.
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