Monday, September 26, 2005


On Friday last to the small town of Hay-on-Wye, which, as many will know but some may not, is the Town of Books.

Back in 1961, a young Oxford graduate called Richard Booth was keen to set up a business selling secondhand books. Unusually, however, he wasn't interested in basing his business in a city, and certainly not in London; and since his family had lived in Hay-on-Wye since 1903, he decided to set up shop there.

From the very beginning, Booth had the idea that a town full of bookshops could be an international attraction; even if it was a small town just over the border of Wales, with a resident population of 1300. And, over a period of forty years, Booth has proved his point. There are now at least 30 bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, and Booth claims that his own shop has more turnover in secondhand books than any other shop of its kind in the world.

Visiting Hay requires a certain amount of pre-planning and a good deal of stamina, because there are bookshops of every sort and kind, and you would need a good week to visit them all. Some are vast warehouses and some are tiny specialist boutiques; some are for trade only. Prices vary from the enormously expensive to the giveaway. The very cheapest books tend to exhibited in outdoor shelving which may not always protect them from the weather.

In short, Hay contains more or less everything that the book lover could possibly ask for, and Mrs GOB and I spent a pleasant day there. Contrary to what you might imagine, it is Mrs GOB who tends to run wild in these establishments, unless carefully controlled. Fortunately her many purchases were not of the expensive variety.

In my own case, I did find what I was looking for, but it was priced at £250, so I didn't buy it. I did, however, buy four cheaper books, of which you will doubtless hear more in time.

As for the King of Hay himself, R. Booth Esq., I didn't get the chance to speak to him, but I did (I believe) pass him in the street. He was talking to a well dressed and earnest-looking young woman, and they were obviously discussing business. As I passed I heard Mr Booth say, 'But I'll tell you what I have got, and I'm asking a million pounds for it....'

Sadly, I was out of earshot before I had chance to discover what this item was. But I didn't hang about (a) because it would have been rude, and (b) because, let's face it, I am in no position to make a realistic offer, however tempting the morsel might be.

Should you wish to combine a visit to Hay with a holiday, you should be aware that the Wye valley contains some famously beautiful scenery. You should also note that, each year, the Guardian mounts a book festival in the town. This attracts some eminent speakers and about 80,000 visitors.


Gav's Studio said...

Check out the £1 book shop and the poetry bookshop if you go. Both great places.

theorist said...

I wasn't even there and my curiosity is killing me. What text could it have been?

I recommend reading Gekoski's "Nabokov's Butterfly: And Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books?" It's a nice little volume by a rare book seller about the selling history of some well-known books. A fun bit of a read.

Eigon said...

Richard wasn't offering a book for sale - he was offering a bookshop! He's trying to sell the Limited, his huge and rambling shop in the middle of Hay. (I know this because I'm a local).