If heaven were a place on earth for bookaholics, it would have to be Hay-on-Wye. This little Welsh town of only 1,500 people is a small Welsh town, next to the English border. It’s the National Book Town of Wales.
Let that sink in. A National Book Town.
It’s the world’s largest secondhand and antiquarian book centre. It currently has 24 different bookstores. Can you imagine strolling along your town and being surrounded by bookstores? How wonderful is that?
The idea started with Richard Booth, a resident of Hay (and self-proclaimed King of Hay-on-Wye) whose book dealing led to the town becoming renowned for it’s bookstores.
The town has also given birth to the Hay Festival, something Bill Clinton calls the Woodstock of the Mind. It’s held for 10 days, and while the festival started as a literature festival, it now incorporates musical and film previews. This year, among other stars, Benedict Cumberbatch made an appearance.
Fiona, who has lived and worked in Hay all her life as a local primary school teacher and former mayor, was kind enough to answer questions about her town for me.
Can you tell my readers a little about where Hay-on-Wye is? I guess, I’m trying to give a sense of the size of the town and the surrounding area.
Hay is a small Welsh market town of around 1,500 people on the Welsh/English border. It is surrounded by farmland, has the River Wye running alongside it and has a backdrop of the Black Mountains. The town’s centre is dominated by a12th century castle and Jacobean manor house. The castle is a ruin but the manor house is being restored for community use. The town centre is small but thriving with the usual butcher, baker and green grocer but also our famous bookshops, antique and vintage shops and a growing number of independent fashion shops. In the town centre there is a market every Thursday, selling a wide range of products including flowers, farm produce, fish, dairy products and bric-a-brac. There is also a weekly cattle market on the edge of the town.
You’ve lived in the town your whole life and been mayor – how has the town changed over the years?
As a child in the late 50s and early 60s I knew a very different Hay on Wye. At that time it was a place in decline like many other Marches towns. (The Marches is a name given to the border between England and Wales.) It was a town that had been based on agriculture. The introduction of supermarkets had a devastating effect on small retailers. The nearest supermarket was 20 miles away in Hereford but this city also offered more work opportunities and entertainment. People left to work away, the cinema closed and in the early 60s the railway to the town closed.
Fortunately Richard Booth saw all these negative elements as positive and bought many shops including the cinema and opened them as bookshops. He then set about rebranding the town as the Town of Books including the largest second hand bookshop in the world, the Cinema. He is an eccentric entrepreneur who used his eccentricity to sell the town. Within a few short years the town was thriving with jobs for everyone.
I found out about Hay by accident and then promptly fell in love with the town for its own love of books – 24 bookstores! I know this question is probably very general, but any information you can give us, would be great: how did a town of 1500 get 24 bookstores?
As I said above, this was the brainchild of Richard Booth. He has a real passion for books, but also had an excellent business head. He began the bookshops in the early 60s, and built on the town’s needs. He gave as many people as possible a job, and was generous with those who then wanted to open their own. Many of the bookshop owners in Hay today once worked for Richard. Richard realised more people would come to the town if there were more bookshops to choose from and was happy to raise Hay’s profile any way he could.
There are some specialist bookshops for example the Poetry Bookshop, the Children’s Bookshop. There is a shop called Murder and Mayhem that concentrates on crime writing, a map shop and a shop called Boz Books that concentrates on the works of Charles Dickens. Other bookshops have different departments selling books on a range of subjects.
Here in Sydney, we often hear that online purchases and ebooks are putting bookstores out of business – is this something that bookstores in Hay worry about?
Because Hay was never really about new books but more about the physical ownership of a favourite book, the ebooks phenomena has not been a problem. People still love to browse through the bookshops hoping to discover some personal treasure but there is a greater market for online purchases. Because of this, there area growing number of book warehouses on the edge of the town which sell books online.
Hay is listed as being the twin of a town in Belguim, Redu, and Timbuktu in Mali – what does that mean exactly?
Although Hay is twinned with Le Redu, the twinning has lapsed with very little contact between the two towns. The twinning with Timbuktu is relatively recent. This is a very strong link, with many people in Hay having contact with their counterparts in Timbuktu, including doctors, midwives, teachers, council and students in school. People from Hay have been to Timbuktu and there are regular visits to Hay from people in Timbuktu.
The town’s site describes the Two Towns, One World project – is that still continuing? What has it been like for Hay to be part of that project? Can you describe a little of the benefits of it for the towns?
The Two Towns, One World project was funded by the EU to create a better awareness of Timbuktu, to develop links between the two towns and to address awareness of the Millennium Development Goals. That all sounds a bit heavy but the project has been of huge benefit to the town. The grant of around £150,000 enabled Hay to allow different groups to look at how they could link with Timbuktu or develop present links. Money has gone to help local schools develop links with schools in Timbuktu and understand more about global citizenship; doctors and midwives have worked in both towns to reduce infant mortality rates in Timbuktu. There have been projects looking at combining music styles, there has been pottery and jewellery workshops for adults and children and there have been drama productions based on ways of life. Another very successful element has been a Timbuktu trail through the town where major sites throughout Hay are linked with sites in Timbuktu to show similarities, differences and how each culture can learn from the other.
The project is just coming to an end but the work it started will now be carried on by the different groups.
The Festival organisers try every year to ensure the performers are going to impress but my favourite was Bill Clinton. Before the festival grew as big as it is today it was held at a variety of sites around the town including the school where I am head. I was invited to meet him and go to his talk. He was a wonderful speaker but, outside the public arena, was so heavily guarded and directed every minute it seemed he was only himself in front of a crowd of people.
Salman Rushdie also came when he was under threat of a fatwa. The security measures were massive with bins being checked and police in the streets but everything went well.
The festival has changed over the years and grown to encompass journalism, politics and law – what has your experience been of the festival changing over the years?
The biggest change has been as the festival has grown it moved to its own site on the outskirts of the town. It used to be in town in a variety of venues. That made it more intimate, with the stars using the town. Now it is more corporate with performers having less contact with the town. Because it has moved out of the town, there is another festival running at the same time – HowtheLightGetsIn- which is a festival of philosophy and music, and appeals to all age ranges. Both festivals running at the same time mean even more people to enjoy the town.
The festival this year is from May to June – this is going to sound strange, but much like the question above, I’d love to know your POV on the town leading up to the festival, during and after. Hay seems to be straddling the line between maintaining the intimacy of a small town and yet is “large” in the sense of the people it attracts with the festival, if that makes sense. I thought your POV on the changes from “small” to “famous” during the time of the festival from someone who lives in the town would be an interesting POV to have.
The town relies heavily on the Festival. The trade for shops and restaurants during this period helps with the quiet months of Winter. The town is known for its festivals, and we have small ones throughout the year. There is a Walking Festival, Winter Festival and a cycle festival. There are also small day events, food festivals, Fairtrade festival and Spring Festival. We need all this to maintain our small close knit community for the rest of the year. Sometimes it can be a bit frustrating to not have anywhere to park but this a very small price to pay for the buzz in the town.
And, that’s why I’ve added this to my bucket list! What do you think of Hay-on-Wye?