The whole economy of Hay-on-Wye is based on second-hand books, and its centrepiece is the literary festival
“The major intellectual dynamic of Western Civilization, i.e. the second-hand book, should be put behind its major industry, which is tourism.”
On April 1st, 1977, Richard Booth, quoted above in a 2011 interview with the Daily Telegraph, declared the small market town of Hay-on-Wye an independent nation with himself as king (or “King Richard, Coeur de Livre” to give him his official title). In 1961, Booth opened Hay’s first second-hand bookshop in an abandoned fire station. Now Hay holds the unofficial title of The Town of Books, having spawned a trade that now stretches to twenty-two second-hand bookshops – some specialist, some general – as well as antique shops and a couple of well-stocked second-hand record stores.
The Hay model – or, more specifically, Booth’s model of basing the entire economy of a town on something at once both specialist and general, with a source that will almost never dry up – has been replicated by towns from South Korea to Belgium, from the USA to Sweden.
The one thing Hay has that means it can still call itself the undisputed royal daddy of book towns is the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. From the 25th of May to the 4th of June, various tents, stages, bookshops and even the local church will be holding workshops, readings and lectures by some of the foremost names in writing, art, film and politics, at what Bill Clinton once called “the Woodstock of the Mind”.
High-profile speakers this year include writer and comedian Stephen Fry, authors Neil Gaiman, Jeanette Winterson, Helen Fielding and Ian Rankin, TV presenters Graham Norton and Sandi Toksvig, and politicians including Bernie Sanders and former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón.
With a UK general election looming on June the 8th, talk of Brexit and Anglo-American relations will be rife, so Sanders’ lecture on what he predicts will happen in America seems particularly prescient. Festival director Peter Florence hopes that Sanders’ mere presence will help “galvanise young people like he did in America”. In what is historically a very artistic, liberal festival, Sanders may well be preaching to the converted, but his lecture Our Revolution was one of the first to sell out.
Other events include I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach discussing social realism in film; BBC political journalist and presenter Evan Davis’ talk entitled Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, which promises to be a wryly bleak look at everything from Trump to viral marketing; lawyer and author Philippe Sands in discussion with former Pussy Riot member and activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; and former chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in conversation with Stephen Fry, looking at the relationship between human creativity and machine intelligence.
But of course the festival is just once a year. The rest of the time, Hay remains a centre of book-based tourism, with visitors from all four corners of the earth. “We’ve got a customer, for example, who’s collected 14,000 books on anaesthetics” explains Booth. “When he comes to Hay, his ‘missing’ list is about eight books. So he spends five pounds on books and five hundred pounds on bed & breakfast.” It is this – namely, tourism and services – that really keeps Hay alive. People come for the books and stay for the other things the town has to offer. Rolling hills surround the town and make for lovely walks or cycle rides. The Brecon Beacons national park lies to the south-west and the River Wye runs lazily past the edge of town. A number of good, traditional pubs and cafes serve food and drink (I’d recommend the Blue Boar pub for a pint or three by the fire after a hard day’s book-hunting, and The Granary cafe for food. Excellent sausage and mash).
As for the bookshops themselves, well, it’s a delight just to wander around a lot of them. The wonderfully decorated Murder and Mayhem is, as you may have guessed, the place to go for everything from Poirot to Wallander. The two Addyman stores also stock book-based souvenirs (mugs, t-shirts, etc.) as well as a vast range of titles, while Haystacks is an excellent second-hand record shop selling both CDs and vinyl of pop, rock, classical, jazz… everything you could want (although the owner claims to have never heard of The Fall, at which I became slightly suspicious). The official Hay website can furnish you with a well-written map of the town featuring all the booksellers and what they specialise in, to make it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.
Okay, so a break in a small market town on the Welsh border might not be the most rock and roll thing you’ve ever done, but if your idea of a relaxing time involves nothing more than browsing endless shelves of books, a little walking, and spending the evening delving into your purchases with a pint or a cup of tea, this may just be precisely what you’re looking for.