HAY-ON-WYE, Wales — A shortage of reading material is not something you’ll ever encounter in this quaint Welsh border town, home to 1,300 people, 30 book stores (at last count) and one of Britain’s top literary festivals.
It all began with a man named Richard Booth, an Oxford grad, now in his 70s who got the idea that a town full of bookshops could be an international attraction. His family has lived in Hay since 1903 and he felt the town’s remote location protected it from domination by London.
His first second-hand book store (in a former movie house) opened in 1961 and became so popular that others began to emulate the idea. Whenever a business closed in Hay, a new second-hand bookshop would often spring up in its place. Over the years, the former hair salon, the farm machinery dealer, the hardware store, the old fire hall — even a castle — were all converted to book shops, which now contain thousands of tomes on every topic imaginable.
And yet, in the beginning, many locals didn’t warm to Booth’s vision (they weren’t on the same page, you could say).
"They didn’t like that he filled shops with old books. He brought a different type of person into town," one shopkeeper told me. But nearly everyone agrees the "untidy chap with a bohemian attitude," did bring huge publicity to Hay and some local families have done well as a result.
Hay’s reputation as the "Town of Books" grew steadily and by 1988 a book festival was launched. One local tourist brochure now calls it the biggest literary festival in Britain, while the New York Times once dubbed it "the most prestigious festival in the English speaking world."
Now in its 25th year, the Hay Festival of Literature & the Arts has attracted many top speakers over the years including Bill Bryson, Stephen Fry, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Desmond Tutu, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Tony Bennett.
The town is already buzzing with activity in anticipation of this year’s event, which runs May 31 to June 10, and is sure to once again attract book lovers from around the world for 10 days of readings, workshops, book signings and "endless entertainment," including a new late-night music club The Sound Castle.
Among this year’s highlights: Ian Robertson discusses his new book The Winner Effect: How power affects your brain; award-winning travel writer Lucinda Dickens Hawksley will present an intimate portrait of her great-great-great-grandfather Charles Dickens illustrated with personal memorabilia; and conductor Simon Rattle talks with author Tom Service about his book Music As Alchemy: Journeys With Great Conductors and Their Orchestras. Other authors scheduled to attend include David Grossman, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, and Jacqueline Wilson.
There’s a mix of free and ticketed events with activities for all ages including children and teens. (Books aside, single adults may be interested in knowing that there have been at least 29 weddings of couples who met at the festival).
While here, take a stroll along the banks of the River Wye or in the foothills of the Black Mountains, or enjoy the scenery of the surrounding countryside — which includes spectacular views over the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Whether you come for the festival or not, you’ll want to have a peek in some of the book stores and be forewarned, it can be overwhelming. Booth had always hoped small specialist bookshops would open, with the proprietor as the expert on their particular subject, and, to an extent, that’s happened. For example, Hay has the Poetry Bookshop — "the only bookshop in the U.K. devoted entirely to poetry." Outcast Books has an emphasis on applied social studies, psychology, psychotherapy and human relations, while C. Arden Bookseller bills itself as a "Natural History and Gardening Bookshop."
Then there’s the quirky, loads-of-character Murder and Mayhem bookstore on Lion St. that specializes in crime fiction.
"Yes the cobwebs are real," said the proprietor, who noticed me squinting at a huge spider resting in a corner above her desk.
The most requested book or author?
"We still sell more Agatha Christie than any other author," she said. "Of the modern writers, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin and M.C. Beaton also sell well."
SEEKING RICHARD BOOTH
My efforts to find Booth prove fruitless but I do get an insight into his character on a visit to his shop.
Hay Castle Books — one of the largest shops in town — is located in an 800-year-old castle that was built by William de Breos II, one of the most treacherous of the Norman Marcher Lords.
Outside, on the castle grounds, is a large selection of books each selling for just 50p (about 80¢) and an honour box to deposit your payment. Inside are books from rare to modern on all subjects, with a specialization in art, film, photography, humour and American Indians, plus old photographs.
Near the cash register, postcards for sale feature Booth’s face superimposed onto an image of Henry VIII. Booth has reason to play up the royalty theme. On April 1, (April Fool’s Day) 1976, he generated enormous publicity for the town when he declared Hay independent from Britain and had himself crowned king! Presumably all the details are contained in a book the eccentric shop owner penned in 1999 called My Kingdom Of Books: An Autobiography, which is available for purchase.
Wondering around town, which seems to have a preponderance of long-haired bohemian types wearing "wellies" and toting wicker baskets, I stumble on something I hadn’t expected to see — a public library! Employee Andy Jones informs me it contains more than 7,000 books and DVDs, and even those who work in the book stores use the library. (Visitors are also welcome to check e-mail on one of the five public computers).
In the 1950s, Hay was a town in decline. Many of its citizens were retired and a popular market was about to leave town. Then another chapter, so to speak, opened, and Hay became an intellectual hub of sorts.
As bookseller Pat Thornton confides, "this would’ve been a very sleepy old town, if it wasn’t for Richard."