The tiny and picturesque market town of Hay on Wye, which sits on the border of England and Wales boasts an astonishing 30 second-hand bookshops and has become the undisputed second-hand book capital of the world. Hay was also responsible for the establishment of several other “book towns” throughout Europe and the United States. A trip to Hay, if you are visiting the United Kingdom and you are a bibliophile is the literary equivalent of a pilgrimage.
One of the things that you first notice if you visit the town of Hay on Wye is that old books seem to be all over the town – they gather dust in the back rooms of the bookshops; they fill up the old cinema and fire station and one of the pubs. Some of the residents have jumped on the bookselling bandwagon too – you can literally step into peoples front rooms and browse for books piled up on the floor or on bookcases next to their TV or sofa.
Every month or so, several containers of books are shipped into the town, many from bookshops that have gone out of business in the United States, or from estates of the deceased. People in the book trade claim that there are supposedly so many books in Hay that nobody really knows accurately how many, or what their combined value might be. You can find anything in Hay if you have a deep enough wallet; from a cheap dog-eared paperback on the remainder table – to an almost priceless engraved first edition book with leather binding.
One man – Richard Booth – is largely responsible for making Hay the success it is today; and turning a rather sleepy and run-down market town into a book lovers’ dream. Booth had just graduated from university in Oxford in 1961 when he decided to buy the town’s old fire station and turn it into a bookstore. “The Limited” as this shop is known, still has a plaque outside claiming it to be the world’s largest bookshop, and from the outside, it still looks like a country fire station. Somewhat surprised by the success of his venture, gradually Booth bought up other cheap properties, and began to turn them into bookstores. Tentatively, other booksellers moved into the town, attracted by the low rents and overheads. Several specialist booksellers made the move from London, gambling on making a success of their business in rural Wales. Undoubtedly the book business has been a boon to both the town’s economy and that of the surrounding region.
Today, Booth still lives in the half-ruined 13th century castle that dominates the town and owns several of the larger bookshops – the self-styled “Emperor of the World’s Book Towns” and “King of Hay”. Booth has been responsible for several publicity stunts over the years that have helped to increase Hay’s popularity. One of his most famous moments came when he declared home rule and independence for Hay – a move that not only attracted controversy – but more visitors to the town. In earlier times Hay had its share of eccentric inhabitants too – a woman living in the town said to be a witch reportedly walled her son up alive to starve to death, as he had displeased the king at the time.
The bookshops in Hay are certainly diverse – apart from the shops that carry a wide general stock, there are bookshops specializing in natural history, poetry, children’s literature, and mysteries. The Hay Castle Bookshop, owned by Booth specializes in such varied subjects such as transport, photography, American Indians and humor. Many shops have an excellent stock of American and British literature, including some rare and valuable first editions.
If your budget does not stretch to expensive first editions, there are plenty of bookshops where you can browse to your heart’s content for paperbacks at reasonable prices, as well as discounted new books. One of the most well-known bookshops in the town is the Hay Cinema bookshop, with its warren of passageways and rooms and estimated 200,000 used books on every conceivable subject. Look for the famous “pyramid of books” in front of the store.
And what happens to books that nobody wants to buy? One of the most popular places for browsers is the yard in front of the castle, where books that have presumably been deemed not fit for sale are stacked up outside on tables and exposed to the wind and rain and sold for pennies. Another “graveyard” for old books is the field where books are sold on the honor system – you put money in a rusty metal box attached to the wall and walk out with your books. Judging by some of the titles found there you might well wonder who buys these books – a recent find was the no doubt fascinating historical memoir “I was Hitler’s Maid”.
Aside from the bookshops, one of the pleasures of a visit to Hay on Wye is to experience its unspoiled small town feel. A visit to Hay is a little bit like stepping back in time – the town is still largely a community of small family-owned shops and businesses. Here, everybody knows everybody else and most residents is involved in the book trade in some way. Hay can get crowded during the summer but the town has not yet been overwhelmed or spoiled by mass tourism – there are no resorts or 5-star hotels or traffic jams. The nearest railway station is in Hereford, about 20 miles away. Most visitors to Hay still stay in one of the many basic but cozy guest houses or bed and breakfasts, and the best food in Hay is still a traditional home-cooked meal at one of the local pubs. A favorite pub in Hay is the Old Black Lion Inn – a traditional 14th century coaching inn, where Oliver Cromwell supposedly stayed.
Hay has a population of only around 1500, but despite its small size, you should allow several days to thoroughly explore all the bookshops. Most of the shops are open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day, with later opening hours during the summer months. In this part of England and Wales, it is still somewhat unusual to find stores open on Sunday – a day normally set aside for church and family. Hay is small enough to wander around comfortably without getting lost – just look for the town’s two main landmarks, the clock tower, and the castle. There is also a weekly market and there are several craft stores and small shops specializing in local produce. The tourist office can supply a list of accommodation as well as a current list of bookshops.
In recent years Hay has been put even more firmly on the map, with its annual literary festival, held every May, and considered one of the most prestigious in the world. Not bad for a market town of 1500 people! Around 80,000 people from all over the world crowd into the town and surrounding countryside to mingle with authors and other people from the world of books and media.
And if you do get tired of looking at all of those thousands of used books? Well, Hay is conveniently situated near one of Britain’s most beautiful and scenic areas – the Black Mountains. One of Britain’s famous long-distance footpaths – the Offa’s Dyke path which runs along the border between England and Wales, also passes through the town and the surrounding countryside.