Let me take you down to the borders of Wales and England, to a small and beautiful town nestling in the hills on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. This is farming country, green and unspoilt. The air is clear, the skies are wide, and there is nearly always snow on the distant mountains. The countryside is networked with walking paths, not least of which the Offa’s Dyke Path, a 177-mile trail broadly following the border, and King Offa’s 8th century earthworks.
So you get the picture: mountains, valleys, streams, forests, farms and walking paths. But in amongst this bucolic joy is a national treasure: Hay-on-Wye, a pretty town full of distinctive and characterful independent bookshops. If not actually unique, I know of nowhere which combines all the charm, beauty and cultural importance of Hay in such a condensed and beautiful package.
But times change. Vinyl albums give way to CDs, CDs give way to streaming apps. Then someone regrets the passing of old school record shops and revives the concept. Independent bookshops have likewise been on the wane for several decades, with books replaced - in theory at least - by Kindles and other e-readers, but in practice perhaps also by a cultural shift towards the immediacy of smart phones, and increasingly and unnecessarily hectic lifestyles.
I’ve seen a future without independent / second-hand bookshops. It happened in my home town and boy do I regret the passing of the amazing Thomas Thorpe bookshop. I paid wistful homage to it in my blog A La Recherché Du Bookshop Perdu. Take my word for it, once they are gone, they are really gone. So, when you find a good one, patronise it. On principle I never leave a second-hand bookshop without buying at least one book. But when you find a whole town of bookshops, go visit, even if its 100 miles away – stay for the weekend, for a few days, for a week.
Of course Hay on Wye is not just a few bookshops and a lot of hill-walking. It is a thriving community of artists and artisans, independent shops, cultural and creative activities and so much more. It has a castle, an enormous Spring Literary Festival and a smaller version in Autumn, both of which pull in the biggest names in writing, along with thousands of festival-goers. And it also has a range of other activity weekends and days throughout the year. This is a town that knows what it’s about.
One of the aforementioned activity weekends was the cause of my latest visit to Hay. 2019 represented the third running of the annual Bookstagrammer (someone with an Instagram account which focusses heavily on books and reading) Meet Up. It was timed to coincide with the 42nd anniversary of the Hay-on-Wye’s unilateral Declaration of Independence by Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay (among many other titles). The meet ups are an amazing concoction of socialising, book shopping, book quizzing, awards ceremony, craft sessions, great talks, partying and networking.
2019 was the third time I have been to the bookstagrammer meet up. I was lucky enough to attend the first one, back in 2017. This, for me, was a wonderfully weird experience. I had only been running my bookstagram account for four months and did not really have a clue about what I was doing. I didn’t have my name or my photo on my biog then, and was very much in my Instagram infancy, and it was beyond strange to connect with actual people that I knew virtually!
The highlight for me in 2017 was the panel of bookstagram deities – Jude @mybookbath, Micol @literary.journey, Rima @pardonmywritings and Charlotte @what.i.read – talking about what they did, why and how they did it, and taking questions from the audience, all compered by Siobhan @halcyondaysofsummer. I couldn’t attend the final weekend in 2018, but I popped down for the first weekend, where I listened to a brilliant talk by Jeff Towns @dylansmobilebookstore (an expert on all things Dylan Thomas, and Edward Thomas too for that matter) on his adventures in the book trade.
And in 2019 my favourite bit was Dame Jacqueline Wilson being interviewed for a mock Desert Island Discs by the author Jasper Fforde @JasperFforde. She was charming, humble and funny, and even did book signing, something she does not usually do, and Jasper did a great job.
The real highlights though are, firstly, meeting and chatting to so many other book lovers, especially one you ‘know’ virtually but have never met in person; and secondly, the town itself and its wonderful book sellers. In case you don’t know it, or even if you do, here’s a little walk through as many of them as I can remember:
Addyman Books www.hay-on-wyebooks.com/ - Quite simply the most interesting bookshop in Hay, it has a myriad of wonderful spaces, nooks, crannies, split levels, winding stairwells and an alley. It is an aesthetically-pleasing, photographers and explorers delight, but also a book-buyers dream. There is a system / order, but it is really best just to follow your eyes and see what’s around. Addyman is at the top of most people’s must-visit shops in town.
Broad Street Book Centre – This one has a smaller fiction section, and a single story lay out, but some strong specialist areas and always a book or three that jump off the shelves at you.
Clock Tower Books – Right in the centre of town by the pillared market area, this is one of my less frequented shops, but has many shelves of fiction, local books, maps and nature books, and a fair few specialist and collectors books.
Green Ink Booksellers www.greeninkbooksellers.co.uk/ - The newest bookshop in town, this one has quality written all over it, from the extensive and beautiful children’s section downstairs to the collectors’ items. The authors in the fiction section seem carefully curated and lean heavily towards classic and literary fiction.
Hay Castle Honesty Bookshop – The iconic outdoor bookshelves in the castle grounds, many people miss the doorway in the wall and thereby miss one of the highlights of the town. There are two banks of covered shelves with thousands of books, many you won’t want, but always some hidden treasure that will exhilarate you and keep you searching. Great value too at £1 a book.
Hay Cinema Bookshop www.haycinemabookshop.co.uk/ - It’s a barn! It’s just huge. I spent 45 minutes in here and only feel like I scratched the surface. It starts with the long rows of containers full of £1 books outside, where I always find something. Inside, you need to explore every corner, and get an understanding of where things are, then roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. It’s a great value shop too if you are on a budget.
Hay on Wye Booksellers www.hayonwyebooksellers.com/ - Another monster of a shop, centrally located, with room after room of wonderful books. The system is occasionally a little confusing (broadly alphabetical, but not exactly, but with some editions and authors stacked separately) but there is such a wealth of choice that in some ways that just makes it before. They have a great choice in every genre.
Haystacks Music and More - This is situated on the alley between the Tourist Information and The Addyman Annexe. It used to be better, jammed with musty books and with large fiction and poetry sections. Now it is largely given over to music and a little tricky to manoeuvre round. Still, you may find something.
Murder and Mayhem www.hay-on-wyebooks.com/ - If thrillers or murder-mysteries are your thing, this little shop is a must. It has the biggest wall of classic green penguins I’ve ever seen, and is as cute as buttons too.
Richard Booth Books www.boothbooks.co.uk/ - The big beast at the centre of it all, this one is the most like a library or Waterstones, despite being rammed with second-hand books. It is neat, orderly, huge, glossy, and spread across an extensive three floors. Of all the shops in town I think this is the one where you are most likely to find the book on your list, and to find it most quickly. It also has a café!
The Addyman Annexe www.hay-on-wyebooks.com/ - Addyman’s secondary bookshop, less of a ‘fantasy bookshop’ than the main one but still sizeable and well-stocked with a range of collectable classics and current novels, shiny new editions and a good sized non-fiction section.
The Poetry Bookshop www.poetrybookshop.co.uk/ - Just poetry, nothing else, shelf after shelf, wall after wall of it. If it’s a poetry collection, a specific edition or an individual poet that you are looking for, there’s every chance they have it. I’d never heard of probably 90% of the poets they have, so even if you have obscure tastes the chances are that they will have what you want.
The Alley Bookshop – That’s not what it’s called, but I don’t know its name. It is near the clocktower, is small, but well stocked and I always drop some money in their honesty box and come away with a gem or two.
The rest - I may have somehow missed them, or they may have closed, but the internet also lists the following bookshops in Hay that I have not visited, including: C Arden Bookseller (I think this one is by appointment only, and probably up a lane somewhere. I’ve never seen it); King of Hay’s Bookshop (I think this one must have closed. I walk past where it is meant to be so many times and I have never seen it. Whilst I usually unobservant, I think I would spot this); Rose’s Books (I’ve been past this one and peeked into it, but it’s a specialist children’s books only, so not a priority for me); and The Children’s Bookshop (I’ve definitely driven past this one, but it’s both a mile out of town and also a specialist children’s books bookshop).
The bottom line
If you have never visited Hay on Wye, book yourself a visit and go for the day, a weekend, or a whole week. I know of people who have visited from across the globe and no one fails to fall under its spell. If you have previously visited Hay, book a visit and go back there! Whether you are going for the festival or at any other time of the year, it is a great experience. It is so very important to support culturally unique places like this, and to help them survive and thrive. I know I shall be going back there soon.