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3 Great U.K. Side Trips

We all know people who spend their lunch hours bidding for vintage frocks on eBay—but until recently, my own addiction was tracking down used books on Amazon and Abebooks.com. Then, while soaking up the scent of yet another box of out-of-print volumes, I was hit by the sensation that I was somehow missing out on the thrill of the chase. Wouldn't it be great to handle a book and check out its cover and condition before I decided to commit my credit card number to cyberspace?And surely once in a while, I reasoned, didn't it make sense to do things the old-fashioned way and get lost among the musty stacks of a secondhand bookshop—or two, or three—instead?

The very next day I stumbled across a Web link to Booktown.net. The site was the home of the International Organization of Book Towns; it listed 12 "book villages," among them Stillwater, Minnesota, and Kampung Buku, Malaysia, each containing clusters of between 10 and 40 used-book shops. The God of Serendipity had provided an answer to my dreams. It turned out I was not alone.

The first-ever book town, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, was founded in 1961 by eccentric book dealer Richard Booth. The town now attracts 500,000 visitors annually and stocks 1.2 million secondhand titles in its bookstores. Hay's success inspired a worldwide movement, and during the nineties, book towns sprang up everywhere from Finland to France; over the past three years they've popped up faster than this year's hottest books, in Australia, Italy, and Spain, to name a few places.

Hoping to find out more about vintage books (my personal obsessions include paperbacks with original 1950's covers, leather-bound copies of 19th-century classics, and out-of-print travel guides), I hatched a plan to visit three of Europe's English-speaking book towns: Hay-on-Wye and Blaenavon, both in Wales, and Wigtown, in Scotland. Here, some notes and observations, in case the Spirit of the Bookgeist beckons you as well.

HAY-ON-WYE, WALES Before Richard Booth, Hay-on-Wye (population 1,450; bookshops, 40) was a forgotten market town on the Welsh-English border amid the green and rolling Black Mountains. It has since become every reader's fairy-tale fantasy of a book town. A stroll through its compact center reveals a clock tower, a castle, a market square, and 90 stores selling such items as fudge, jigsaw puzzles, intellectual-boho fashions, and enough books to fill several libraries. In summer, thick-socked hikers sit outside pubs with pints of beer and stacks of vintage tomes; fashionably dressed students show off their book purchases in ice cream parlors and settle down for a good read at tables beyond the counter.

Booth converted the 13th-century Hay Castle (44-1497/820-503) into his first bookstore in 1968; in 1977, he declared himself "king of the independent kingdom" of Hay-on-Wye—complete with crown and fake ermine–lined robe. I found him stalking the disorderly stacks in the castle's rambling rooms, where he signed a copy of his autobiography, My Kingdom of Books (Y Lolfa, 1999), and offered his loosely linked thoughts on everything from secondhand books ("not sold in supermarkets, therefore perfect for small towns") to the number of prime ministers he claims to have served at his bookshop ("twelve—including the P.M. of Newfoundland") to Switzerland's St.-Pierre-de-Clages, another worthwhile book town. In the courtyard's Honesty Bookshop, I spied a young assistant reading a used copy of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus beside boxes of soon-to-be-stacked books; meanwhile, customers flicked through 1970's volumes on male chauvinism and celebrity needlepoint, which are purchased by depositing coins into an "honesty box."

Until the "King of Hay" took it over, Richard Booth's Bookshop (44 Lion St.; 44-1497/820-322) sold agricultural machinery; blue-and-white Delft-style tiles, with drawings of fat sheep, pigs, and cows on them, still line the door. Now customers kneel before shelves of books on medicine, music, military matters, and anything else that the variegated clientele cares to request; 400,000 volumes fill three hushed floors.

At B. & K. Books (Riverside, Newport St.; 44-1497/820-386; by appointment), beekeepers Karl and Betty Showler house 500 books on bees, apiculture, and insects (from A Natural History of Bees to Winnie-the-Pooh) in their house and a garden shed. On my visit, white-bearded Karl declaimed a poem (about bees), then showed me a highly collectible 19th-century edition of the Book of Insects by the "insects' Homer," Jean-Henri Fabre, author of such tomes as Life of the Weevil and Life of the Fly. Resisting the temptation to snap it up, I settled for a pot of the Showlers' honey instead.

Chris and Melanie Prince fell in love at the Poetry Bookshop (Ice House, Brook St.; 44-1497/821-812)—then owned by Chris alone—on the day of a solar eclipse in August 1999. Their most precious possession, a gorgeously illustrated first edition of William Blake's Poems by the Way, is not for sale, but poetry fans will come across plenty of alternatives, from first editions by William Wordsworth and Dylan Thomas to the semierotic Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Downstairs in the ice cellar—a circular, brick structure once used by a fishmonger—you'll find anthologies and discounted poetry books.

At Mark Westwood Books (High Town; 44-1497/820-068), a glass-fronted case houses antiquarian books and first editions from the likes of Iris Murdoch and Richard Llewellyn—when I dropped by, a rare 1729 double-volume first English-language edition of Isaac Newton's groundbreaking Principia was in stock. As it was a little beyond my price range ($18,360), I searched for Jane Austen's Emma among the racks of leather-bound, 1970's Folio Society books, which make ideal gifts when your mother's birthday looms.

Paperback editions of Agatha Christie's "cosy crimes" from the fifties are the best sellers at Murder & Mayhem (5 Lion St.; 44-1497/821-613), a ghoulish bookshop specializing in detective fiction, crime, and horror. Make sure to head upstairs for more 1950's Penguin paperbacks by Marjorie Allingham, Patricia Wentworth, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

At the recently opened Black Mountains Bindery (Oxford Terrace; 44-1497/ 821-983), young bookbinder Chris Bradshaw covers antique books (like an 1810 edition of The Works of Samuel Johnson) in leather and vintage cloth. He also makes notebooks, scrapbooks, and sketchbooks using hand-marbled paper from Norwich, England, with traditional, swirling designs.

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