I’m sitting in The Granary in Hay-on-Wye. It’s mid morning. Outside it’s a little damp but in here there’s a crackling log fire. Every table is taken. Everyone is either reading, writing, or murmuring quietly to whoever they are with. Hops hang from the uncovered joists of the ceiling.
At the next table an earnest man (pointy beard) is reading Sylvia Plaths “The Bell Jar”. On the other side – and by coincidence as I bought a copy yesterday – a 20-something lady with dreadlocks and a multicoloured sweater that looks hand-knitted is reading “The Catcher in the Rye”. The couple at the table beyond nod back; previously they’d commented on the “O The President” decal on Samantha, in a positive way. Someone I can’t place but know – think he is a BBC reporter – is eating scrambled eggs on toast at the corner table and throwing little bits to an appreciative spaniel.
I check Twitter. My pot of tea arrives and I respond to the waitress in Welsh, constantly surprised at remembering words unused in decades.
Hay-on-Wye has the extremely justified title of the “Town of Books”. It’s not a big place; you can walk across downtown (as American colleagues would say) in less than ten minutes. The streets are narrow, but the place isn’t choked with traffic; there’s nowhere to drive to within 20 miles of here, perhaps why.
The bookshops and the festival are why people visit Hay. This tiny town, straddling the border of England and Wales, claims to have “more books” (easily many million) “per square mile” (one?) then anywhere else. And it would be a brave town, even other book towns, which challenged this. I wonder; does this place have the largest concentration of non-digital knowledge in the world? Possibly.
The bookshops differ, from the small and specialist, to several buildings joined together with seemingly endless corridors of books. Shelving differs, from neat and orderly, to books taking up every conceivable space on walls and floor, in some places meaning you have to jump over piles of books to move onwards. In some places, the books are precariously placed. On day one, I pulled one off a high shelf. The shelf came down with it. And the shelves below. And the cabinet. It was raining books – unfortunately hardbacks. The irony of being killed by an avalanche of books (which some librarian colleagues would have found very funny) wasn’t lost on me.
It’s apparently quiet at this time of year, but even so the bookshops were busy with browsers and purchasers. This isn’t a place where books come to die; it’s a place where books are given another opportunity of being refound and reowned. Hay-on-Wye is the global convergence point for used books; container loads from around the world go into the bookshops; purchasers (including me) wait patiently in line at the Post Office to send books back around the world.
Useful though amazon.com is, where it fails, Hay-on-Wye fills the gap. Obscure book? Book published in 1933 that Amazon says is “Unavailable”? That collection of Ladybird books that taught you, simply, about things and which you believed unswervingly in at age six? They’re probably sitting on a shelf in Hay-on-Wye. Somewhere. And here’s the thing – there’s no instant look-up online of where that book is on the shelf. You have to go hunt, and that is part of the fun. In some stores, the staff can help. In others they have a vague idea. In some you are on your own (literally, as some shops are unmanned with just an honesty box for payment).
The problem (is it a problem?) in my case is that, in the hunt for one book, I found and bought more than 30 others on the way. Which lead to several more trips to the post office for despatch, as a swathe of my American colleagues will discover next week.
And it’s not just the bookstores. There are books for sales in cabinets bolted onto walls, in gardens, on tables outside, under a marquee next to the converted cinema (converted, inevitably, into a bookstore), on cabinets in the grounds of the castle:
So that book you remembered about from your youth is here. If it isn’t, it isn’t likely to be anywhere else. J. R. Hartley wasted his time wandering around the local bookshops of his small town; he should have taken the bus across the Golden Valley to Hay-on-Wye and tracked it down here.
The Globe at Hay, a converted chapel, was a revelation and my base for several days. Entering takes you into the most relaxed cafe possible. Sofas, cushions to sit and lie down own, various tables. Free wifi and a formidable menu of excellent and well-priced food, tea and coffee. People tap away on laptops. More of them ask about the decal on Samantha.
Downstairs, the basement is used for classes, keep fit, and as a makeshift cinema where I rewatched “Mulholland Drive” one evening on a comfy sofa while drinking good tea in a proper cup. The Odeon this was not.
The residents are noticeably affluent, in how they dress and shop. This is, to use the increasingly dodgy British classification, an upper middle class town. I suspect the newspaper demographic is about 80 percent Guardian, 15 percent Independent and 5 percent the rest. But whilst people who (tediously) revel in the “grittiness” of “working class” living will automatically assume that means snobbiness, it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t think I’ve visited a more relentlessly friendly, approachable and relaxed place in Britain.
It’s probably helped by the range of shops. As well as over 30 bookshops, there are many foodie shops, from delicatessans to cafes to restaurants to (several) grocers. Many of them selling high quality, organic, and varied, fruit and vegetables. And not at extortionate prices, so it’s not just for those affluent people. Hay-on-Wye isn’t near anywhere significant; Hereford is the local city, nearly an hour away by bus. It’s on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, a wild and empty place I distantly remember from childhood. The town is proof that, with effort and a positive attitude, a relatively ‘remote’ place can have a wide range of goods and services.
It’s no surprise that the annual Hay Festival is a big success. Accommodation is booked up for (many) miles around; the B&B I stay in is booked for the festival week for the next two years. I went to an early festival and remember it being little more than a marquee in the town square. Now it’s a big thing, with speakers such as Bill Clinton proclaiming the festival as “The Woodstock of the mind”.
I wonder what other book towns are like? I visited one a decade ago in Mundal in Norway without realising it, but remember noticing lots of places selling second-hand books. I’m overdue for another visit to Norway and a stay in my favourite hotel there to date. And perhaps an exploration of other booktowns; there are 22 in Europe, ranging from Votikvere in Estonia to Valladolid in Spain. This could become a new hobby (glint in eye) if I can work out how to fund it.
But if you are serious about books and knowledge, you have to visit Hay-on-Wye at least once in your life. Go there. Buy a book for yourself. Buy one for someone else, and post it to them.