When I visited this lovely bookshop a few weeks ago, the Hay Festival was kicking off. On the first weekend of the festival, the sun had come out and the streets of this little Welsh town were full of laughter and music. Hay-on-Wye Booksellers is perfectly situated on the High Street, right at the centre of the action, making it an indispensable part of the Hay-on-Wye experience.
Street musicians and market stalls filled the square outside this shop and tourists, grateful for a bit of good weather, bared their legs and arms lying on the grass in the shadow of the town’s medieval castle. The atmosphere was decidedly festive, celebratory even, and even those trying to read didn’t seem too annoyed to be distracted by the sounds of this traditional, Starbucks-free High Street.
Inside, the sunlight filtered in through the shop’s wide front windows, bringing the jovial atmosphere but only a tiny bit of the noise with it. It was perfect. The two front rooms on the ground floor are filled with classic and contemporary fiction in hardcovers, cheap paperbacks and old antiquarian tomes. You’ll also see shelf upon shelf of poetry and children’s books, which include obscure, rare and out of print titles that you’ve never heard of as well as the favourites. Standing in the centre of the floor is a tower filled of secondhand Penguin paperback editions of classics, which are the staple of any good used bookshop and are usually quite cheap. The shelf, a stand-alone cube in the middle of the floor, is a perfect symbol for what it is that I love most about bookshops; as you explore one side of it, you never know what interesting new book or person might be waiting for you on the other side. As you move further back , you find brilliant history and politics selections as well as books about culture, art and music. Although I love every book, based on the sheer virtue of its being a bound collection of white paper with black type, I am biased to novels and poetry, so I sometimes tend to skim over other sections. But the other sections here at Hay-on-Wye Booksellers remind you of how much you might miss by doing that, with selected titles prominently displayed with their covers out, enticing readers with promises of distant times and far-off places, or careful and considered analysis of the not-so-distant. The more I do learn from non-fiction (when I can get my nose out of an escapist novel and pay attention to the real world, that is) the more I’m able to see the bigger pictures behind the well-known little stories that we tell ourselves. Reading the stories of nations and populations as well as of individual lives can explain and illuminate a single event. I have found this particularly when reading Middle Eastern literature in a post-9/11 world. Whether it’s Peter Tomsen’s epic non-fiction work The Wars of Afghanistan or Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows, reading about the world instead of just swallowing media sensationalism gives more depth and breadth to our understanding of the world around us, proving once again, how reading makes us better people.
A few weeks ago I saw this in practice. I was watching a stage adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. As Atticus handed down his now familiar message that ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them’ I wondered how much they had affected my personality since the first time I read the novel at thirteen years old. In the intermission, I was stuck in the queue behind a terrible woman who was growing not just frustrated but downright angry at the understaffed team of young baristas who were taking just a little bit too long to get her her tea. It’s astounding how we can sit and watch a play about the importance of empathising with others and then five minutes later, be completely unable to do so. My point is that books – fiction or non-fiction – can make us better people by asking us to think about things that lie beyond us as individuals. But only if we actually read them with open hearts and minds and let them make those transformations in us. And I’m coming down off my soap-box … now.
I know that I’ve praised the wide selection of every bookshop in Hay and probably sound like I’m recycling the same clichéd compliments for all of them, but the most astounding thing about this town is its ability to delight and impress you over and over again each time you walk into a new bookshop. In this shop in particular, though, as books spill off the shelves and collect in puddles on the floor, I was struck by the feeling of possibility that this abundance of bookshops and abundance of books gives to the browser. I could learn anything here, be anyone, go anywhere. It’s the feeling I had going into my grade one classroom for the first time when I was six, or the first time I ever saw Senate House Library in London. It’s a feeling of awe at how much there is to see and do and read and feel and think in the world and how lucky we are to have books to help us access even just the tiniest little sliver of all of it for ourselves. It’s a very, very good feeling.
Although this first floor alone might seem overwhelming enough, there’s more. Just like in the Poetry Bookshop, this shop has a wall full of books that leads you up the stairs, albeit slowly, since the books provide a bit of a distraction. As you ascend, you have to try not to block the way too much as you examine the books that lead you from one floor to another. Books are the best guides anyway. Upstairs, when you finally make it, the selection becomes more eclectic. While I may not personally be interested in a book (let alone an entire shelf) on deer management, I am very glad that such a thing exists. Although I must admit that I find some of the more specialised topics quite amusing, in all seriousness, I’m relieved to see them there. I’m reminded once again (as I often am these days) of Murakami’s observation that ‘if you only read what everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’ which seems to speak to the homogenizing influence of a certain internet giant that tells us what everyone else is buying and suggests that we must therefore buy it too. The upper floor of this shop also has an excellent selection of more history and art books, as well as philosophy, psychology and theology books and a selection of comic books and graphic novels. The little windows, somewhat blocked by books, I’ll admit, provide beautiful views of the green and pleasant lands beyond the town, reminding browsers that the outdoors (on sunny days anyway) is a beautiful place to adventure and to read.
This bookshop, like most of Hay’s, sells mostly secondhand books, with some rare and antiquarian books sprinkled in. The nature of secondhand bookshops is that their price range is often quite large. While a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby printed a few years ago with only a few scuffs might go for as low as 50p, a dog-eared, crumpled first edition with a significant ex-libris would cost thousands. I think there’s something wonderful about that. Although both copies contain the exact same story, the history embodied in one copy makes its value greater. The variety which secondhand bookshops provide offers opportunities for everyone to read whatever they want, regardless of how much money they have to spend, while simultaneously asserting that it’s not the beauty of the thing but the collection of stories it represents which is valuable. Books might be the only commodity in the world that actually become more valuable as they becomes dated, irrelevant, dusty, unattractive and well-used.
This was a welcome reminder for me, since sometimes I feel just a little bit bad about how much I enjoy buying books. As much as we like to tell ourselves books are special, they’re still just material objects, aren’t they? They’re things, products, commodities. Sometimes I ask myself, is building a beautiful library of books just a more socially acceptable form of hoarding? Is coveting them, feeling sad when I lose them and not being able to bear to leave them behind nothing more than commodity fetishism?
And then I go somewhere like Hay-on-Wye Booksellers and I’m reminded that, although some books are nothing more than products, designed to fill a demand in the market (cough, cough, Twilight-spin-offs), the really good ones are so much more. If I were to buy an iPod and then drop it, crack it, spill on it, scratch it up and let it become five years out of date, no one would want it anymore. But the more we love and use and personalise our books, the more they mean to the people to whom we give, lend and bequeath them.
The lovely booksellers (because aren’t all booksellers always lovely) in this large but intimate bookshop reminded me of why it’s okay that we define ourselves by the books we’ve read and why collecting them is somewhat (if only just somewhat) different from any other kind of consumption. As I listened to the women behind the till chat to each other about the books they’re reading and watched them spend ages walking around the bookshop helping customers, I couldn’t help but wonder how much money they make. Booksellers aren’t in it for the money. They’re in it because they love books and they want to share that love, foster it in others and make sure that their favourite stories never stop being told and told and retold and then maybe lost for a while and rediscovered and told once again. They’re in it because they believe, like I do, that reading makes you a better person, if you would only just let it.