Hay-on-Wye Trip & Sixpence House Reread

We found Hay-on-Wye fairly bustling on an early September weekend. Not all of the bookshops are operational or have reliable opening hours, so we missed our chance to go in a few of them this time. Still, nine was plenty to be getting on with. The castle currently has scaffolding up for necessary renovations, and many eateries were offering little or no indoor table service. Masks are not actually compulsory in Wales, but we wore ours inside shops anyway, and half or more of the other customers and booksellers were doing the same.

Day 1: Drive there; Clock Tower Books, Oxfam, a great haul from the honesty shelves by the Castle (everything’s £1); ice cream cones from Shepherds; dinner at The Globe.

Day 2: A walk up Hay Bluff; roast lunch at the Three Tuns pub; Broad Street Book Centre, Hay Cinema Bookshop.

Day 3: Cinema outdoor area, Booth’s, British Red Cross shop, back to Oxfam, back to Clock Tower Books, Green Ink Booksellers; ice cream cones from Shepherds (again); drive home.

“To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn’t even know to ask for in the first place. … What you mean to find matters less than what you do find.”

~Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins (see below)

I bought 26 books in total (though one is an omnibus, so you could call it 28), at an average spend of £1.81 per volume. (My husband bought 10 nature books. We also found a gift for my father-in-law’s birthday next week – whew!) I’m particularly pleased with the Robertson Davies novels and the memoirs, some of which have been on my wish list for a long time. My interests in animals plus foodie and medical themes come through clearly. Some authors here I’ve never tried but have been meaning to; others are familiar names I was interested to read more by. I only noticed later on that Ghosts, the John Fuller poetry book, is a signed copy.

 

What I read

From last year’s book haul: The first 30 or so pages in Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller and Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. I’ll probably only skim the Spowers travel book (another one I only just noticed is signed). I have to read a different Dunmore first, towards my Women’s Prize reading project, as it’s requested after me at the library, but I’ll try to get to Talking to the Dead before too much longer.

I got through another 90 pages in Mike Parker’s On the Red Hill, about life in the house he and his partner inherited in the Welsh countryside from another gay couple. I also read about half of Tilly and the Lost Fairy Tales, Anna James’s second middle-grade novel about a girl who disappears into books and interacts with the characters, and the remainder of A.N. Wilson’s The Tabitha Stories, a cute chapter book with illustrations about a kitten learning how to be a cat.

Mostly, I focused on rereading the whole of Paul Collins’s memoir Sixpence House. I’ve listed this as one of the landmark books in my life because, as I was getting ready for my year abroad in England in the late summer of 2003, it was one of the books that whetted my appetite for traveling, and particularly for visiting Hay-on-Wye. (We first went in 2004; this was our seventh trip.)

In 2000 Collins moved from San Francisco to Hay with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. His parents were British and he’d enjoyed trips to the Book Town before, so it wasn’t a completely random choice. The place suited his interest in the oddities and obscure figures of literature and history. In fact, he’d just finished writing Banvard’s Folly, a fun book containing 13 profiles of thinkers and inventors whose great ideas flopped. (I should reread it, too.)

As he edits his manuscript and hunts for the perfect cover and title, he is also unexpectedly drawn into working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who was responsible for creating the world’s first book town and crowned himself King of Hay. Booth hired him to sort out the American Studies section – but if you ever went in the pre-2007 Booth’s you’ll know how impossible it would have been to make order out of its chaos. He comes across lots of interesting books time has forgotten, though (I first learned about W.N.P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man from this book; why have I still not read it?!), and muses on counterfeiting, cover designs, bookbinding, and the sadness of the remainders bin.

Renting an apartment above Pembertons, which no longer exists but was at that time the town’s only new bookshop, Collins and his wife look at various properties and fall in love with a former pub. But when the survey comes back, they realize fixing all the damp and rot would nearly double its £125,000 price tag. (That sure looks good these days! The B&B next to the Airbnb flat where we stayed was for sale for over £700,000. Cusop Dingle is full of large, posh houses – Collins’s landlady referred to it as the “Beverly Hills of Hay.”) Buying one of the new-build houses on the edge of town just isn’t their dream.

In the end, after six months or so in Hay, they admit defeat and move back to the States. So in a sense this is – just like Banvard’s Folly, the book being shepherded into publication within it – a book about an experiment that turned out to be a noble failure. It’s warm, funny in a Bryson-esque way, and nostalgic for a place that still exists but a time that never will again. I loved spotting familiar landmarks, even if the shops have changed hands or are no longer there. This was probably my fourth read, but it all still felt fresh. An enduring favorite of mine.


I’d be intrigued to know what Collins would make of Hay 20 years later. In 2000 it had 40 bookshops; now it’s only 12, with online sellers, book-related businesses, and shops further afield pushing the listings in the annual leaflet to 26. Whereas then Collins felt they were the only young family in town, it’s very much a hipster place now and we saw many groups of teens and twentysomethings. A tapas bar, boutique stores, turmeric chai lattes … it’s not just a musty antiquarian book lover’s paradise anymore, and that might sadden some like Collins. Yet gentrification and the Festival may be the only things that have kept the town alive. Richard Booth died last year, but the book town vision should live on.


I miss Hay already. I hate to think of all the time that might pass before I can get there again, and what will (or won’t) have changed by then. A few years can seem to go by in an instant these days. My vow is to go again before I turn 40.

37 responses

    1. You’d be in heaven! You’d want to allow at least a few days to have time to take it all in — I remember on my very first trip I was so overwhelmed that I only bought one book (there were more bookshops in those days, too). Wigtown is just about as good, as book towns go, but so much farther away that I can’t see it becoming a regular destination like Hay has been for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What a fantastic haul! Those honesty shelves are wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t often find much there, but this time it was my best single source of books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good haul! Only 12 bookshops left, though, that’s really, really sad. Still, I haven’t been for years so I can hardly say I’ve been supporting it, I suppose. Hooray for Robertson Davies in particular there!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, compared to when we first went in 2004 it is definitely diminished. We kept pointing out storefronts to each other and saying, “there used to be a bookshop there.” But we try to focus on the ones that do exist and are thriving.

      I wasn’t even looking out for Davies, but I’m reading What’s Bred in the Bone at the moment, so it made sense to pick up Book 3 in that trilogy, and then I couldn’t pass up the omnibus edition of the Salterton Trilogy for £1, even if the condition was somewhat poor.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly is! There are apparently three book towns in the USA (in MN, NE and TX), but I don’t know much about them and whether they’re still thriving.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If I landed a few millions, I’d start a book town movement right here in my tiny spot in MD. Should probably concentrate on writing my own book, first.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. If you do, I’ll move back and join you 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I genuinely can’t believe I’ve never been. I must.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are good Airbnb and traditional B&B options. Not cheap, necessarily, but not too bad either. It’s doable by public transport, though a lot easier with a car. If your chap is bookish (and I sincerely hope he is!), you could have a lovely weekend away there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh he totally is. I’m going to badger him about this.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yesssss, I’ve made a convert. Lmk if you need any practical info before booking.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know it 🙂

        Like

  4. Quite a haul, unsurprisingly! I spy Eucalyptus, The Seal Wife and Cowboys Are My Weakness – all favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seal Wife was your doing!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice haul! Lots of Robertson Davies in there!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a haul! And unlike me, you’ll actually read them all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It may take me a few years, though…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As ever I am GREEN with envy. Glad you had a great weekend plus a goodly haul of books. I know I’ll never get there, so its lovely to travel vicariously with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for coming along 🙂

      Like

  8. I’ve only been once, and I’d really love to go again… (but I don’t know if my bank account can survive it)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Suitcase space is always an issue if you’re coming from abroad! We were in a car and only bought 36 books between us, which we’ll find space for on our shelves with no problem.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, suitcase space is a problem as well!

        Like

  9. Looks and sounds heavenly. And you did so well! I love that quote by Paul Collins – so true of any used book store and why I love them so much.
    What ice-cream flavours did you have?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had peanut butter and chocolate, and then cherry yoghurt. It’s sheep’s-milk ice cream, very creamy and tasty.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I was so disappointed on my last trip (2 years ago) – so sad to find many of the bookshops had closed and taken over by knick knack type places. It felt more and more of a ‘destination town’ rather than somewhere people would live.

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    1. There is a different feel to the place these days, it’s true. A lot of the new businesses (boutique stores and eateries) are owned by locals, though, even if they are relatively recent incomers. If daytrippers help the Book Town to survive, that’s all to the good in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It sounds like a wonderful trip. And how could you not “do your bit” to contribute to the booksellers’ success?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A hard task, but someone has to do it 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] On our trip to Hay-on-Wye last month, I was amused to see in a shop a book called One Good Turn: A Natural History of the […]

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  13. Wow, that is a mighty haul you got in Hay! Went there last weekend for the first time and absolutely loved it. Sadly the castle honesty book shop was closed for renovation but I was still able to get a pretty decent amount of books x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How wonderful that you got a chance to visit! Even with a few bookshops temporarily closed, there’s plenty to browse. Thanks for stopping by; I’m pleased you found my post.

      Liked by 1 person

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