1 June 2018 Susannah

Book Towns

"The Honest Bookshop" in Hay on Wye, Wales, UK.

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.

Richard Booth

Richard Booth, the “King” of Hay-on-Wye.

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.

Book Towns by Alex Johnson

Book Towns by Alex Johnson

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.

  International Organisation of Book Towns

   Book Towns, Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word by Alex Johnson

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Featured image credit- “The Honest Bookshop” in Hay on Wye, Wales, UK. by Nexxo, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4201210
Body image credit- Richard George William Pitt Booth, the “King” of Hay-on-Wye. By Tom Ordelman (Thor_NL) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2220829
Body image credit- Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word, by Alex Johnson. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35959803-book-towns

Comments (13)

  1. Miland

    I have visited Hay-on-Wye now and then over the years – my brother and I would drive down in the early morning from Birmingham (during summer), spend a few pleasant hours browsing there and return in the evening.
    But the internet has reduced the incentive for going. In the days before the internet there was a certain excitement in poking around in second-hand bookshops in the hope of an interesting find. I would make day trips to London from Birmingham for just this reason.
    Now we can search for books and have them delivered without going out at all!
    So it’s been a few years since I last went there. But maybe again, some day.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, the internet has made a big change in book shopping, but Hay was still worth a visit last time I was there.

  2. Marisa

    Hi, Susannah:

    We’re currently in Kendal (UK) spending time with our daughter, who lives here; we’ve been to Sedbergh in a previous visit, but this time around we’re planning on travelling through Wales, so your article has come in very handy, for Hay-on-Wye is now on our list of “not-to-be-mised” Welsh towns. Cheers!

  3. Marisa

    Hi, Susannah:

    We are currently in Kendal (UK) spending time with our daughter, who lives here; we’ve been to Sedbergh in a previous visit and we’re planning to travel in Wales this time around, so thank you very much for this article as Hay-on-Wye is now on our list of “no-to-be-missed” Welsh towns!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Sadly some of the book shops in Hay have closed. It is now about four years since I was there, so hope it still has a good number of books shops. Do let me know after your visit?

  4. Joan Greenwood

    As an Australian living in England, I enjoyed visiting the Hay Festival for nearly 20 years. The level of speakers, whether they be authors, polies, scientists or musicians, was exceptional. I really miss this Festival. It was a golden time that I shared with good friends.

  5. Glennis Nancy Clark

    I have recently read the book The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell which is based in Wigtown, Scotland. Really enjoyed the book, particularly the portrayal of characters and humour.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I wrote about the Shaun Bythell book a few newsletters ago. I agree that it was an excellent read. You can go and stay in Wigtown and work in a bookshop there, but I believe it is booked up for about two years.

  6. I was not aware that Featherston was a Book Town. Next time I visit my nieces in Masterton we must make a trip down to Featherston and browse around.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Although I am a Kiwi, I have not been there either and must manage it next time I am in that part of the country. Hope you have fun when you go.

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