Descriptions of Hay-on-Wye vary from the idyllic: ‘Hay-on-Wye is the Woodstock of the mind,’ said Bill Clinton, to the glib: ‘Hay-on-Wye, what is that some kind of sandwich?’ asked playwright Arthur Miller. For decades, prominent figures have had a lot to say about this small town on the border between England and Wales.
The reason is easily spotted from the town’s streets. More than 20 independent bookshops have nestled here. Among them are cosy bookshops for specific genres, such as Murder & Mayhem for crime fiction, and Boz Books for 19th century literature. There are lofty warehouses for second-hand tomes, and other more alfresco situations with bookshelves lining outside streets and walls. And, of course, once a year, the town reaches peak bookish, when it becomes flooded with readers and writers for the Hay Festival (24 May to 3 June this time around).
The area’s connection with books is mostly thanks to an infamous stunt. On April Fool’s Day in 1977, Richard Booth, of Richard Booth’s Bookshop, declared Hay an independent kingdom – and made himself ‘king’. The tongue-in-cheek controversy drew attention and pulled in more booksellers. Now 78, Booth’s scheme keeps the streets busy with visitors and rare book seekers. In fact, universities have studied his niche idea as a way of reviving rural areas.
In the last decade, independent bookshops have become more of a challenge to maintain. In 2013, the cost of overheads and competition with giant online retailers caused a handful of outlets to cave. The town’s answer was to pull another stunt. ‘By royal decree’ bookseller Derek Addyman, of Addyman’s Books, declared a ban on e-readers and Kindles. Large banners were strung up through the town, and Addyman’s idea made national headlines. Catching up with him in 2018, he stands by his position: ‘Real books, unlike e-books, are a recyclable industry. A new book bought today can be a second-hand book sold tomorrow.’ He no longer needs the banners, however, partly because e-reader sales have plummeted in the UK.
According to Addyman, the new concern for Hay-on-Wye is a far more mortal one. ‘All the original sellers are retiring,’ he says. ‘What we want is a new generation of young booksellers to join the trade. It’s no longer considered a dusty old profession, but it’ll take some youngsters to renew it once more and keep people interested in Hay.’
Perhaps it was the same desire for renewal that drove a group of ‘rebel’ booksellers to stage a beheading of the ‘king’s’ effigy and declare the town ‘the commonwealth of Hay-on-Wye’ in 2009. The revolution went unrecognised by Booth, however, there is a sense that we haven’t heard the last from this stunt-pulling town.
This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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