Hay-on-Wye is a small Welsh market-town that straddles the Welsh- Anglo border and sits huddled within the Brecon Beacons National Park. It is nothing out of the ordinary, except that it’s positively groaning with the weight of its many thousands of second-hand, specialist and collectors’ books. This is a town literally packed with words, and come June every year, the bibliophiles arrive in their droves for the annual Literary Festival, booking up the quaint B&Bs and draining the tearooms of Earl Grey as they pore over the multitude of bookshops and gather to hear the greatest literary minds of the year speak.
However, I went to Hay-on-Wye in mid- September, and not during the festival. The crowds were gone. The campsites were empty. And the books that are left still sit, waiting to be browsed by men with beards and backpacks and women in dusty velvet skirts; they are crammed into shelves, into piles, beneath tables and into boxes wherever you turn, as if desperate to prove right the sign that welcomes you as you cross the bridge above the River Wye: “Welcome to Hay-on-Wye: Town of Books”.
It was Richard Booth that created this concept of a town of books, when in 1977 he declared himself “King of the independent nation of Hay-on-Wye”, presumably with his three- story landmark bookshop, it’s fittingly quirky palace. In doing so, he transformed the tourist economy of this sleepy little town, and now you can find “Towns of Books” in countries across Europe. Indeed, Hay-on-Wye’s international influence can be seen in its recent successful bid to be twinned with Timbuktu in Mali, Africa- beating cities like York and Liverpool for the honor. A fitting twin when one considers that Timbuktu is the oldest home of the written word in all of Africa, and the two towns lie on exactly the same line of longitude- a fact Hay-on-Wye is keen to emphasise on its tourist maps, on which the numbered bookshops are intercepted with an emblazoned compass screaming “Timbuktu due south!”.
It is not Hay-on-Wye’s world status or festival that upholds its reputation as a literary Mecca, rather, it’s the array of bookshops, and manifest love of literature. Its narrow streets are adorned with old- fashioned signs declaring “Books Bought and Sold Here”, and are only interrupted by little cafes and adorably kitsch shops full of floral bunting and wool. It would be too much, if it weren’t for the redeeming presence of the weight of thousands of books.
The Hay Cinema Shop, for instance, one of the town’s oldest bookshops, opened 1965, houses over 20,000 volumes across the two floors of the converted cinema. At the base of Hay Castle, one finds a rather small, humble looking sign declaring the meagre courtyard area an “Honesty Bookshop”- one can find a number of these around Hay- in which the books are lined up around the crumbling walls, protected by awnings and plastic bags, and money is left in a small box- usually between 50p to £1. Bookends only stocks books under £3. Some shops overfill, and so have passageways and alleyways opposite, heaving with shelves, and with no one on duty- they just trust their customers to pay, and not cheat the system.
The Children’s Bookshop is a treasure trove of all your favourite childhood memories, whilst the magnificently named and even more magnificently decorated Murder and Mayhem specialises only in detective fiction, crime and horror. There’s a poetry bookshop, a shop full of faded maps, junk shops and antique shops filled with wartime magazines. In short, there’s enough here to keep you browsing happily for several days, and to ensure your suitcase will return home considerably heavier.
Photos by Anna Broster. More of her work can be seen on her flickr.