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 erminelined 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.
BLAENAVON, WALES Until June 2003 the former mining town of Blaenavon (30 miles from Hay-on-Wye, near Brecon Beacons National Park; population 4,800; bookshops, 10) was just another casualty of Britain's postindustrial age. Then American entrepreneur and local bookshop owner James Hanna burst onto the scene, persuading 10 booksellers to set up shop along Broad Street. At night the street looks rather unpromising: stores are barricaded; speeding cars threaten the lives of pedestrians teetering on the narrow sidewalk. But by day the shopfronts glow with bright paint; locals dash between the butchers and the bookstores, filling their totes with sausages and paperbacks; sweeping views over the grassy fells appear beyond the town. Inside the stores, friendly booksellers bring their rivals lettuces from their gardens and even show one another their latest finds. (Despite the avuncular, bumbling façade, I can testify that most secondhand booksellers are more competitive than fashion designers, but not in Blaenavon, as yet.)
The Mediterranean-blue interior of Broadleaf Books (12 Broad St.; 44-1495/792-852) provides a welcome haven on Blaenavon's (frequent) rainy days. Visitors loiter for hours over the store's natural history, gardening, farming, photography, and design titles before snapping up such tomes as The Gardener's Book of Weeds or The Naturalist on the Prowl.
Andrew and Stephanie Nummelin lived in Belgium, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Japan before realizing that there was no place like their hometown. Their store, Browning Books (33 Broad St.; 44-1495/ 790-089), cheerfully painted in red, blue, and yellow, stocks children's literature—new and old—and titles on transport and local concerns, all in English and Welsh. The store is named for Stephanie's great-great-grandfather, Lewis Browning, who wrote the town's first history—A Brief History of Blaenavon, Monmouthshire—in 1906. I left clutching a reprint with intriguing chapters on Collieries and Iron Works, Hooliganism, and Accidents and Strikes.
A café-cumantiques storecum-bookshop, the Forge Hammer (29 Broad St.; 44-1495/791-308) brought a new buzz to Broad Street when it opened last summer in a former pub with jade-colored walls. At store closing time (five o'clock) booksellers lean on the wooden bar mulling over their most recent deals; visitors flick through used volumes on antiques or examine vintage china, jewelry, and prints—and then settle down at the charmingly mismatched tables for coffee and home-baked cakes.
WIGTOWN, SCOTLAND Driving to Wigtown (population 1,200; bookshops, 19), in Scotland's southwestern Galloway region, feels like heading to the edge of the known world: near Newton Stewart, a roe deer bounds across the route; the rocky shoreline of the Solway Firth is deserted, apart from a couple of wading birds and an abandoned fishing vessel flying the St. Andrew's flag. Perched on a balmy bay, Wigtown's center is a cluster of whitewashed buildings around a broad green.
The town plunged into depression in the early nineties when its main industries—a creamery and a whisky distillery—closed down. But in 1997 it bounced back as "Scotland's Book Town," and shops selling thousands of used books sprang up around the green and in the nearby village of Bladnoch. These days, booksellers are often found in back rooms while busloads of book-buying tourists rifle through shelves of secondhand thrillers. The owners emerge to greet serious browsers, from Scottish-Americans searching for treatises on tartans to romantic novelists seeking inspirational background books.
Angela Everitt's wittily named women's bookstore, ReadingLasses Bookshop Café (17 S. Main St.; 44-1988/403-266), contains 21,000 used titles on everything from hard-core feminism to fashion. A professor of development studies, Everitt doles out expert opinions on Wigtown's rebirth along with slices of cake in the shop's café. The public county buildings and gardens have been renovated, the co-op supermarket has expanded, the Bladnoch Whisky Distillery has reopened, and locals have found work in the catering and building trades. In summer months, the café buzzes with customers as well as booksellers taking a break; I spent a happy half hour browsing A Complete Manual of Manners by the Right Hon. The Countess of ******* over a smoked-salmon sandwich and a pot of steaming tea.
Bookaholics disappear for hours inside the nine rambling rooms at the Bookshop (17 N. Main St.; 44-1988/402-499)—with 120,000 volumes, it's Scotland's largest used-book store and an unofficial clearinghouse for the region. Owner Shaun Bythell says private sellers bring in more than 100 new books a day—most recently, additions to the inventory include firsts of Ian Fleming's Moonraker, a document with Adolf Hitler's signature, and a signed edition of W. B. Yeats's Winding Stair. (A local heartthrob, Shaun is reported to look fabulous in a kilt; sadly, he wasn't wearing one the day I dropped by.)
Americans with Mac in their surnames head to Byre Books (24 S. Main St.; 44-845/458-3813) for titles on Scottish myths, legends, and local clans, but the shop also stocks books on world mythologies. The folksy location (a former stable with slate-tiled roof, wooden shutters, and lavender-filled garden buzzing with bumblebees) makes this one store you shouldn't miss.
VALERIE WATERHOUSE is the Italy correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
London to Hay-On-Wye (160 miles)
Take the M4 to Bristol. At Junction 15, take A419 to Cirencester, then the A417 to Gloucester. At Ledbury follow A438 to Hay-on-Wye via the Toll Road B4350.
Hay-On-Wye to Blaenavon (30 miles)
Take B4350 from Hay and join A438 near Glasbury. Follow A438 to Bronllys and A479 (toward Abergavenny). Join A40. At Crickhowell, take A4077 to Govilon. After half a mile, turn right to Blaenavon on the narrow B4246.
Blaenavon to Wigtown (430 miles, via Yorkshire)
Follow A4043 to Pontypool, then A4042 and A472 to Usk. After two miles, head north on A449 and A40 to Ross-on-Wye. Join M50 east. At Junction 8, take M5 north, then M6 north at Birmingham. At Junction 31, take A59 to Skipton. Turn left onto B6265 and follow signs to Rylstone. Overnight in Yorkshire. Return to A59, and follow the A65 to Kendal. Join M6 at Junction 36 to Carlisle, then take A74 to Gretna Green. At Gretna Green, take A75 or scenic B724 to Dumfries. Follow A75 to Newton Stewart, and A714 to Wigtown.
WHERE TO STAY
Victorian inn and garden. Cusop, Hay-on-Wye; 44-1497/820-705; doubles from $115.
Luxurious farmhouse B&B with an indoor pool. Cwmafon, Pontypool, Torfaen; 44-1495/774-588; doubles from $67.
An upscale country tavern and restaurant. Hetton, near Skipton, North Yorkshire; 44-1756/730-263; doubles from $230.
Former sporting estate with a rich history. Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire; 44-1671/402-141; www.kirroughtreehouse.co.uk; doubles from $270.
WHERE TO EAT
Pear Tree Restaurant
Native cuisine in a chic town house. 6 Church St., Hay-on-Wye; 44-1497/820-777; dinner for two $115.
Nag's Head Inn
A wood-beamed country pub. 46 Twyn Square, Usk, Gwent; 44-1291/672-820; lunch for two $86.
Steam Packet Inn
Excellent seafood at a fishing-village cottage. Harbour Row, Isle of Whithorn, Wigtownshire; 44-1988/500-334; lunch for two $67.