Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Town of Books. Really!

An Essay by R.B. Frank

Let me tell you a bedtime story.

Once upon a time in a faraway land called Wales, there was a town with a musical name: Hay-on-Wye, and in Hay-on-Wye, all the people loved books. They loved them so much that in every building, on every corner, there was a shop devoted to new, used and antique books. They sold well-known and obscure writings that delighted the world. So much so that people descend upon Hay-on-Wye and delight in this land where a warm cup of tea and a dusty tome is not a dream for the book lover, but a reality.

A fairytale? Not this time.

I started following the account Richard Booth's Bookshop on Instagram (@richardboothsbookshop) and fell in love with their posts of the shop, book displays and unique events.

From their account I found Addyman Books (@addymanbooks) who posted vintage, out-of-print books (my obsession) paired with beautiful cups of tea, and homemade marmalade and scones. (Melting.) I realized they were book stores in the same town and their warm comments to each other intrigued me. Were there more?

Hay-on-Wye is on the border of Wales and England. They are surrounded by beautiful countryside, a national park and The Black Mountains. It is approximately an hour and ten minutes from Cardiff Airport, if you're interested. (Google maps is another obsession.) The town consists of a few blocks and you can walk its perimeter in 20 minutes. Within those few blocks are over thirty-two bookstores. Thirty-two! And over fifty separate book dealers. I had to find out how this tiny hamlet, miles from any big city, began and how it has thrived, and how, through social media, they are inviting the world into their shops.

I contacted the above mentioned shop owners directly. The history of how this Book Town came to be is very close to a fairytale story and it includes a castle because what would a fairytale be without a castle? Richard Booth opened a bookstore in Hay in the 1970's in The Old Fire Station. Realizing his aptitude for old books, he bought the Hay Cinema when it closed and filled it with books. Property was cheap then so he went on to buy Hay Castle (there you go) and many other buildings. In 1977 Richard Booth declared Hay-on-Wye independent and made himself king because what's a castle without a king?

Eventually everything was turned into a second hand bookshop. And just as in Field of Dreams "If you build it, they will come," they came. Other people opened their own shops. Derek Addyman and Anne Brichto opened Addyman Books 30 years ago in a room off of a pub. Anne had arrived in Hay for a six week training period and then never left. The town worked its magic on her. In 2007, Elizabeth Haycox, an American, bought Richard Booth's Bookshop and has worked tirelessly to transform the location by employing the best craftsmen and adding the café, cinema and yoga studio.

These people who came together because of their love of books are not just booksellers: they make their shops a wholly aesthetic experience. Richard Booth's Bookshop titles itself as "The largest second-hand bookseller in the world." And they might be right. Ruth Holloway, who  joined the shop last year, posts for their Instagram account and her pictures will draw you in and make you book your flight or train ticket tomorrow. They house children's, history, politics, philosophy, theology, foreign topography, British topography, crafts, antiques, transportation, and rare and antiquarian books. You could lose yourself for days and never leave as you linger in the warm and inviting café, or curl up in the many armchairs scattered throughout the store. Richard Booth's also has a cinema that shows the latest movies and live broadcasts from the National Theater and Royal Opera House.

Addyman's has three shops in Hay. Across from their main shop you can find Mystery & Mayhem, their specialist detective fiction and true crime shop... but be sure to step over the chalk body form on the floor. They have a dreamy literature room with well-worn, mismatched leather armchairs beside a fireplace. Don't pass up the opportunity to wander over and run your hands upon the stunning display of books graced with wood from a Transylvania church. In an Instagram post, Anne says, "I'm trying to turn our shops into the kind of places that I imagined when I dreamt about owning a bookshop. When we are in competition with warehouses and internet companies, we have to try and make our shops as magical as possible. I like saying goodnight to the shop and the books - it is all part of the magic."

Now as they celebrate their 40th anniversary with Bookstagram2017 (@bookstagram2017) from March 31st - April 2nd, people will flock to the town to browse and partake in author visits, readings, music, cinema, sleep-overs (yes! sleep-overs at Addyman's as long as you curate/host the #booksellersbreakfast. Hay Festival, which started as a tiny local event 30 years ago, is May 25th - June 4th. Over the ten days they expect over 85,000 people to participate in the tented celebrations on the greenfield site. Information, reservations and accommodations can be found at  This has grown to a world-wide phenomenon. When you click over, you'll find that Hay Festivals are on six continents. Maybe there's one near you!

The internet has been both a blessing and a curse for Hay-on-Wye. It has helped to attract hundreds of thousands of people over the years and sell to people all over the world. Yet Ann at Addyman Books confesses that business is difficult trying to compete with Amazon and other internet companies. "Sixty percent of secondhand bookshops disappeared over the last 15 years or so." But these shops are smart. They're like the Little Engine That Could. (I bet they have a beautiful, antique edition lying around somewhere). The world has changed and they have evolved by using the internet and social media to promote their stores and unique town. During the year and for their annual festival, booklovers come from Continental Europe, The Netherlands, Italy, Scandinavia, America and Canada. More are coming from China and the Far East, and from the Middle East, Russia and South America. Truly this is a gathering place for a love of something that transcends culture and language, bringing people together around a common interest. It brings them together perhaps, over tea, marmalade, and world peace, one book at a time.

Special thanks to Ruth Holloway at Richard Booth's Bookshop ( @richardboothsbookshop, and Anne Brichto at Addyman Books ( @addymanbooks for taking the time to share their stories. Give them a shout-out on Instagram and tell them 2 Elizabeths sent you!

About the Writer -
R.B. Frank has completed a YA novel Legacy & Legend, which is on Swoonreads. She's published several online and peer reviewed articles and a FF/short story collection - Bit Size Reads: slightly twisted, deliciously dark, really short stories for people with very little time or really short attention spans. She has two kids, two dogs, one  husband and when she's not loving on them, she's worrying about them. You can find her at, or on Instagram @writingoutloud.  

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