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.