Just to mark the occasion of what may (or may not…) be a significant birthday this week, I took a trip to Hay-on-Wye, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first heard about its reputation for secondhand bookshops. It’s not as replete as it once was – there’s now around twenty, from a high of over forty a couple of years ago. But that’s still a remarkable figure for a town whose population hovers around 1,500 people.
Sitting here, slightly book-drunk, I’m pleased to report my visit didn’t disappoint. It’s a charming little place, even on an overcast and blustery day like today, with a castle in the middle, and the river close by. I’m certain it’s somewhere I’ll go back to, ideally for the literary festival that happens every May and June. And if you’re thinking about paying a visit, I’d encourage you all the way – and whilst you’re there, you could do worse than making the following stops:
–Murder and Mayhem. As the name suggests, it’s a bookshop specialising in crime fiction, and true crime. Not the biggest bookshop I’ve ever been in, but one clearly loved by its owners and containing a stock that is well chosen and arranged. It’s a compact little place, with bookshelves on every surface, handsomely decorated, and probably the largest range of true crime books I’ve seen anywhere. Upstairs, there’s a comfortable little room housing much of the shop’s paperback fiction. I acquired three books from Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series (The Con Man, Lady Killer and ‘Til Death), and easily could have taken a lot more.
– Richard Booth Bookshop, Cafe and Cinema, possibly one of the loveliest bookshops I’ve ever been in. The space is full of creaking wooden floors and staircases, and there’s a lovely feeling of light and space on the ground and first floors. It’s also got an interesting layout: literature, philosophy and religion at the top; general fiction, children’s and non-fiction on the ground floor; and a whopping basement filled with crime and science fiction. I ignored the symbolism here, and spent most of my time in the dungeons, picking up a copy of Raymond Chandler’s letters and non-fiction for an absolute snip.
– Belle Books, a tiny shop tucked away in a little courtyard off the main road through town, and the last bookshop I visited. I’m glad I did – the owner was really friendly, and genuinely interested in helping me, not something you get from Amazon. As well as his life-story, I also acquired Nicolas Freeling’s Because of the Cats, and also Simenon’s The Stain on the Snow, a non-Maigret novel I’ve heard lots of fine words about.
The trip also reminded me just how wonderful a real bookshop can be, especially those that are clearly loved by their owners – and there are lots of those in Hay. It’s all too easy to be seduced by e-books, as I know I’ve been myself – in some cases, they are absolutely the best thing you can have. But what Amazon can’t replicate is that feeling of serendipity – of browsing a shelf and finding a title by accident, one you never knew you wanted until that moment; or of finding a new author, and starting down a new path. These are all emotions that will keep drawing me back to places like Hay-on-Wye, as long as readers are there to support them.