Every hamlet, village, and city has its own quirks, the things that make it unique. Maybe it’s a monument, a historical moment, or a geographic feature. Certainly, many places in Britain have their own niche, and the market town of Hay-on-Wye is one of them. It’s a town famous the world over for being full of bookshops.
I first traveled to the town in 2004 as part of a study abroad trip. First referred to as “Haya” in 1135, its name in Olde English was “haeg” which referred to a fenced-in area or an enclosure in the woods. In the present day, it’s known as a town full of book shops, lining the streets in a way that transforms it into one of the world’s largest libraries.
It all started in 1961 with the opening of the first book shop by Richard Booth, also known as “Richard Booth’s Bookshop”, which eventually became Europe’s largest second-hand bookshop. Besides books, it also has its own cinema and a café. Not only an entrepreneur, has he followed in a long line of British eccentrics, he declared himself king of Hay-on-Wye after becoming dissatisfied with the local town government. He also declared his horse to be Prime Minister, created 21 hereditary peers, and even issued passports after the gimmick took off.
Prior to this, however, Booth’s massive purchases of books from closing libraries prompted others to do the same, opening multiple bookshops in Hay. This truly transformed Hay into the “Town of Bookshops” and made it a bibliophile’s paradise. With Booth’s self-declared kingdom shenanigans, the town gained even greater notoriety and became a tourist destination.
Starting in 1988, Hay took advantage of its popularity to start the Hay Festival, a ten-day literary celebration that runs from late May to early June every year. Writers from around the world are brought together to discuss literature and share stories, not just including novelists, but poets, lyricists, environmentalists, comedians, filmmakers, politicians, and magicians. Former US President Bill Clinton once described it as “Woodstock of the mind”. Concurrently, there is also a children’s literary festival called “Hay Fever” that runs alongside the main festival.
The number of bookshops has fallen, though, in recent years. At its height, Hay-on-Wye had some 35 shops in the town, but now contains roughly a dozen. Changing technology has changed readers’ habits, as increasing numbers of consumers start using Kindle or other e-readers instead of buying printed books. A trend that is hurting bookshops across the country is only magnified in a town such as Hay, which responds in its own unique way, with Addyman Books displaying a sign that says “This is a Kindle-free town”.
Additionally, as a town situated in the beautiful Welsh countryside, there are plenty of reasons to visit Hay-on-Wye besides books. Of course, being a market town, Hay has a traditional market that is held on Thursdays in Memorial Square from 8 AM to mid-afternoon. There are plenty of campgrounds and outdoor activities, especially during the summer. Hay also has some pretty impressive castle ruins. Hay Castle was built in the 13th Century and continued to be occupied until the early 20th. Another castle is located near St. Mary’s Church in town with a well-preserved moat.
Based on my own experiences, I can say that Hay is an absolutely picturesque village and a great place to visit for many reasons. Personally, I loved all the bookshops and hope that the festival continues to inspire a love of literature and helps keeps the shops alive. Kindle is nice for books I can’t get in stores in the States, but nothing compares to the feeling of a book in my hands. I know Hay-on-Wye feels the same.