Hay-On-Wye, Wales: a tiny town that goes by the book

I was on my third visit to Hay-on-Wye, Wales, a charming market town in the Upper Wye Valley, on the border of England—and a book lover’s dream! Nearly everywhere I turned—on most narrow streets, I spotted a secondhand bookstore. The former fire station, the old cinema—even the castle! Some two dozen of them in this town of 1,500 house over one million books on every topic imaginable—collectible, used, discounted new, children’s–priced from 50p (about 75 cents) to over 2,000 pounds (about $3,000).

Where to go first? Each shop—from “The Sensible Bookshop” to “Murder and Mayhem”–begged me to enter. I darted in and out of various shops filled with books everywhere—on shelves so high that one needed a stool or ladder; books piled on chairs, stacked on floors. Never mind the dust! Or the musty smell. Or the requisite literary cat sleeping atop a counter or in a front window!

Some half million visit Hay each year. Bibliophiles of all ages—some on canes or pushing baby buggies–strolled through the small streets on this crisp, sunny day as the church bell chimed noon. A few carried their book purchases in burlap bags.

In one large shop dogs on leashes led their owners to book racks; some bibliophiles sat on stuffed chairs, sofas, old church pews, leisurely reading.

In another shop, in a locked, glass case, was a first edition of “You Only Live Twice” by Ian Fleming for 750 pounds (about $1120). A first edition of “Twenty Five Poems” by Dylan Thomas was priced at 400 pounds (about $600).

Known, not surprisingly, as “The Town of Books,” Hay-on-Wye (called Y Gelli—“The Grove”–in Welsh) is about 175 miles from London. No longer served by trains, it takes a bit of planning to get to Hay, unless you have a rental car.

Set near the River Wye in the foothills of the Black Mountains—near the Golden Valley, touching Brecon Beacons National Park, and boasting vivid green hills with grazing sheep—it’s the ideal place for outdoor lovers. It’s perfect for those who want to take a stroll, go cycling, hiking, camping, or canoeing—or who simply want a fresh-air break from reading!

The earliest known reference to the town was a 944 A.D. survey—but it wasn’t until the 12th century that it was given the name of La Haie (meaning “a fenced or hedged enclosure”)—then became Hay-on-Wye in 1947. Due to its location, Hay was the site of many battles. Its castle was founded in the early 13th century—and then destroyed in 1216. In later generations it was destroyed by fires or uprisings—and rebuilt numerous times–as various tenants came and went. Most recently it’s the site of one of the town’s largest bookshops, Hay Castle Books.

On the castle ground’s cubbyhole bookshelves, I was amused to see a sign touting, “Honesty Bookshop; Paperbacks 50p, Hardbacks 1 pound. Please put money into box.” An arrow pointed to the small, hanging red box.

It was book lover Richard Booth, a colorful Oxford grad–a collector of books since age 14–who started this all. In 1962, he converted Hay’s old fire station into a used bookstore, gradually opening other bookshops around town (today, semi-retired, he owns The King of Hay Bookshop on Castle Street). His vision was to create the largest secondhand book center in the world.

And he pretty much did just that. Gradually more enterprising bibliophiles with dreams of owning secondhand bookshops opened them in Hay, converting old buildings into a haven for book lovers. Through advertising and publicity gimmicks, the popularity spread, and people now come from around the world to visit tiny Hay-on-Wye on a literary pilgrimage.

“The Hay,” as it’s fondly dubbed by longtime locals, has been known as a bibliophile’s paradise ever since.

On April Fool’s Day, 1977, the beloved, eccentric Booth—fed up with local political bureaucracy—proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom, crowning himself King of Hay (his horse was dubbed prime minister). He later got on the book bandwagon himself, writing “My Kingdom of Books” (with Lucia Stuart).

Hay-on-Wye became even more famous in 1988, when the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts was founded by locals Norman and Peter Florence with winnings from a poker game. An event which really put Hay-on-Wye on the map, it has been referred to by the The New York Times as “a literary Sundance festival.” Today up to 100,000 swell the tiny town for 10 days each spring to attend the festival, where they can be entertained and educated by book authors, actors, politicians, scientists, philosophers, poets, musicians, and comedians.

Previous celeb authors and speakers have included Bill Clinton (who referred to the festival as “The Woodstock of the Mind”), Paul McCartney (who read poetry), J. K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Tony Blair, John Major, Jimmy Carter, Doris Lessing, Bill Bryson, Toni Morrison, Judith Dench, Desmond Tutu, Arianna Huffington and John Updike. (The next one is May 26 to June 5, 2016).

Hay booksellers acquire secondhand books from all over—via donations or sales from old country houses, schools, libraries, individuals. And some sell via the Internet, shipping books all over the world.

“But there’s nothing like actually browsing in a bookshop, holding a book in your hand,” one owner told me as shoppers milled around the tiny store.

“You can lose yourself in a shop,” added Cardiff-based Blue Badge guide Bill O’Keefe, who laments that he never can visit the town without taking a handful of books home, much to his wife’s distress over where to put them all.

For more information on the town’s bookshops, activities, accommodation, restaurants, and directions: www.hay-on-wye.co.uk

Hay-on-Wye bookshops: http://www.hay-on-wye.co.uk/bookshops/default.asp

The Hay Festival of Literature: May 26 to June 5, 2016: www.hayfestival.com

Blue Badge guide Bill O’Keefe: www.planetwales.co.uk

For additional information: www.americas.visitwales.com, www.visitwales.com and www.visitbritain.com