Hay-on-Wye - Books Bound for Wales

Hay on Wye is not one of the better known Welsh villages. Indeed, it is often left off maps altogether. Those that include it merely show a tiny dot about 30 km west of Hereford.

However, I bet it is writ large on every publisher's itinerary for Wales. For Hay on Wye is where many of their products end up. This insignificant community is the largest centre for second hand books in the world.

At first glance, Hay looks like a very ordinary little market town surrounding the ruins of a 13th century Norman castle. Clearly, it is not a pre-loved town. Then visitors notice that every second store is a bookshop.

This town of 1500 residents has 22 bookshops. That's one bookshop for every 68 people.

Even in the grounds of the castle there are crammed bookshelves standing in the open and propped up against crumbling masonry. Make your choice and leave your payment in the bucket by the gate.

There is a guide map available to the town's booksellers and printsellers. It's a great read.

If you are travelling on crystal power and into mysticism, Arthuriana or Celtica, West House Books on Broad Street is the place to go. The address may be an indication of its ideological position, however. West House Books lumps &quotWomen's Studies and Cookery" under a single grouping.

That's not an error that B&K Books is likely to have the chance to fall into. It specialises in books on &quotbees, apiculture and social insects".

No doubt H.R Grant & Son over on Castle Street regards bee books as mainstream - they specialise in &quotthree volume sets and other publications on Rev. Francis Kilvert 1870-79".

Unfortunately, I had arrived with a list of works by contemporary authors I wanted to find. I realised I was in trouble when one of the guide's few entries for fiction was Boz Books (&quotspeciality in Dickens and 19th century mainstream authors") .

As I had come to Wales just to visit Hay-on-Wye, I realised I should have researched more in advance. To remedy this I sought out Richard Booth, the extraordinary man behind Hay's bibliographic pre-eminence.

&quotFiction? There's not much money in it. And there's mountains of fiction that the world has forgotten," he stated. &quotNonfiction is more viable. Even there we are really selling obscure knowledge not general knowledge."

&quotIf I've got a 20 year old book on Australia, who cares. But a book of the same age about a particular Australian town may be the definitive work and have real value."

Secondhand books are big business. Mr Booth imports books by the container load from the US, more than 500,000 of them each year.

&quotThere's no problem finding the books: a lot of universities are being sold up in rural areas. And we'll often come across a deceased estate where the house is packed solid with books - it's can be a major problem getting them out."

&quotWhy Hay?" I asked.

&quotMy family have lived here for 100 years," Richard Booth replied. &quotLike most villages, Hay has been decimated by industrial retailing in the form of supermarkets and malls. So why not change a dying town into a specialty town? And it works: there are now three book towns in France modelled on Hay."

&quotWe can't compete with the cities on new or remaindered books. But serious collectors will come here regularly. And there's plenty to sell to them: 95 percent of the books ever published have been published since 1962."

I left Mr Booth and went to find my wife, Lynn. She was in the Five Star Bookshop (&quotscience fiction, space travel, lost worlds, utopian societies") with a sore neck from reading vertical book spines.

That night we stayed nearby in Llangoed Hall, the country house hotel of Sir Bernard Ashley, the widower of Laura Ashley. This is a grand manor with opulent rooms and hardly a Laura Ashley print in sight.

However, it does have doormen in tails, award winning cuisine and the sort of formal service where you feel the need to apologise for being there. At the end of a long, lavish dinner we retreated to our room.

After a day of shopping in Hay-on-Wye we had no shortage of bedtime reading material.

* For more information on Hay-on-Wye contact the British Tourist Authority on (02) 267 4555 or Booth Books in Wales on (0497) 820164.

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David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd