Perhaps it was 1999 when I visited this town first – Hay-on-Wye, the town of books. I was stunned – a tiny little town full of books. Around 40 bookshops for a population of 1,500. From antique to remainders, from old paperbacks to periodicals, from first editions and rare books to plainly “weird” collections.
The books were in the castle, in the cinema, in the chapel, in the fire-station, inside, outside, on the shelves, on the stairs, on the ground, on the slopes of the hills; piles and piles of books. A paradise.
All this was mainly down to one man: Richard Booth. Booth was an eccentric and visionary bookseller who fell out with his London peers and moved to Hay-on-Wye, then a small Welsh border town dying a slow death. He bought his first bookshop there in 1961 before taking over the old cinema, the fire station, and finally, the ruined castle dominating the town.
Another bright idea was to go to the States, buy the books that Americans had acquired in Europe, and then sell them back to them – but in Hay.
He had a nose for where books would be. He scooped whole libraries from universities, monasteries, mining libraries and impoverished estates.
Back in Hay, he was a man with a mission. To regenerate Hay through the book trade and to resist industrialised shopping: “A second-hand book – it is an object not sold in the supermarket and therefore offering hope to small towns.”
Others soon followed him. By the 1970s there were more than 30 bookshops in Hay. As a result, hotels, guesthouses, B&Bs and eventually a literary festival (to which Booth vehemently resisted at first) boomed. Nowadays around 500,000 people come through the town each year, one fifth of them from overseas. What’s more, Hay was the template for an international movement of “Book Towns.” A textbook example of do-it-yourself regeneration.
All helped by Booth’s flair for idiosyncratic publicity. This included the declaration of Hay-on-Wye’s “independence.” Naturally, Booth had himself crowned King of Hay and issued rice-paper edible currency for the new state.
When Charing Cross Road – traditionally a London street of bookshops – is now more and more of a “general shopping” street and bookshops seem to disappear from it every month; when online selling seems to be the way forward for most of the booksellers, and when majority books are sold by huge chains, Hay is the place to go.
What also helps trade is that apart from being a books Mecca, Hay is surrounded by countryside of unbelievable beauty. And the astonishing miracle of Tintern Abbey is only 40 miles away.
In the capital’s bookshops one cannot buy books published more than two years ago. But the old stock has to go somewhere. It seems it goes to Hay. And here you can browse as in the old days – with a chance of finding the unexpected. Most of the Hay shops are ad hoc collections where the bookseller either miraculously knows where the stuff is or doesn’t care. This gives them an excitement and edge lacking in London bookshops.
Booth believed that book towns do not always have to be commercially based to succeed – non-commercial activity has its own virtues.
In Hay there is no gloss as in London chain-owned bookshops, but no chairs or coffee either. The bookshops are old-fashioned, personal and unpredictable. Like all good bookshops they are valuable spaces of discovery and encounter.
The trouble with the mainstream and London book scene is predictability. The writ of Wikipedia and trendy reviews runs. There is a false impression of abundance. But curiously, everyone is reading the same books. Boring…
In Hay you find forgotten 1980s design treatises, or the AA yearbook with the weirdest Luddite stuff from early 1990s. Last time in Hay I found Michael Sorkins’ Other Plans complete with stunning drawings, an issue of Threshold from 1982 and a book on K Melnikov issued by an Italian publisher.
And Hay shops don’t have an overspecialised atmosphere like, say, the AA bookshop. It seems that with books the same mechanism works as with environments. The more mixed, the more fruitful, productive, alive and real. Banal, but true: interdisciplinarity is creative. The most unorthodox connections make the most intriguing pictures.
I also love the spaces that books make in town. In the shops, in cafes, in the houses, on the streets and courtyards. They manage to humanise and enliven any environment. With books there is already a dialogue.
In Hay there are even bookshelves outside. These shelves emphasise the blurring of public and private, of exterior and interior – like coffee tables on the pavement, or sound of cutlery in the street
The connection between urban regeneration and cultural activities has been talked up a lot since the 1990. Lots of “cultural quarters” then sprung up all over the country. But do we want culture to be organised by policy makers?
Hay is an alternative model. It is not a recipe but is a good story. It shows how the eccentric commitment of one person could change things; how the actions of one obsessed individual are sometimes more valuable than a gang of well-meaning functionaries.
Hay doesn’t have any gloss or the word “policy” written all over it. It is natural in its greyness as well as in its “bookishness”. Books are always a success in cold cities and, as Hugh Pearman recently remarked, “a bit of dereliction is good for the soul and usefully cheap”.
But will Hay soon become a place for marginalised bookworms?
Somehow I think not. “Physicality” – tactility – is essential for a vibrant place and will be fought for. Browsing is a social activity. As for E-books, they cannot be second hand. Or originals, for that matter. No age, no notes on the margins, no unsettling dedications…