Category Archives: Hay-on-Wye

The Addyman Annexe

IMG_1946The Addyman Annexe, 27 Castle Street, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5DF

What do you do when your successful bookshop starts to overflow and you just can’t bear to part with the beautiful books?  You create an annexe, a place where there’s more room to spread out and the opportunity to add a new twist to an already-beloved business.  The Addyman Annexe is only a few minutes away from its parent, though in the tiny town of Hay-on-Wye, you could say that of any two locations.  Although the same wide selection and evident love of literature can be found in this shop, it feels different – more modern, more open and exciting in different ways.

IMG_1936During the Hay Festival, the shop was constantly packed with browsers.  Its lovely exterior, simpler design, more contemporary feel and emphasis on what’s good in publishing right now drew a younger crowd than Addyman Books, making it feel more like one of my usual London bookshops than the secondhand treasure coves that populate the rest of Hay.  As much as I love cramped corners, crumbling old tomes and disheveled bookcases, it was refreshing to be in a neat, bright and more vocal environment.  Customers twittered away happily about the events they’d attended, the books they were buying and the beautiful displays that filled the front of the shop, while the bookseller at the till patiently spoke with everyone about their choices.

The front room of the Addyman Annexe is extremely appealing.  During the festival, there was a table devoted to books by festival speakers, arranged immaculately and invitingly amongst the usual fare.  That fare was, as in many of the best bookshops, made up of a perfect mix of popular fiction, non-fiction and a few bays of New Releases, Bestsellers and a staff-curated selection of favourites.  Any bookshop that puts this much thought into their displays is sure to be a good one.   This attractive IMG_1943entrance falls back into another room, filled with history and politics and other misplaced books.  That small room is decorated elegantly and simply, with red walls, neat rows of books and their overspill, piled on the floor.  The sheer number of books packed into this small shop is astounding and  – for someone quickly running out of shelf space – inspiring.  I don’t know how the Annexe manages to keep the overspill from Addyman Books as well as its own massive stock looking neat and orderly while at the same time evoking that feeling of being snuggled up amongst the stacks of an old library.  I do know that I’m in awe.  The shop combines the best of the two kinds of bookshops found in Hay;  the bibliomania of volumes cascading off of shelves with an easy, open atmosphere that invites everyone, regardless of age or income.  Some of the books are new, though most are used and the prices are very reasonable.  Of course the rarer books are more expensive, but you can buy a good paperback for just a few quid.

In one of the front windows there is a display of those old favourites of mine – orange Penguin paperbacks.  These used titles range from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence and are all well-priced.  This is a relief compared to many of the other bookshops in Hay, who stock beautiful books which are far to rare and precious for the average IMG_1937browser to actually buy. But any good city, I think, needs a healthy range of bookshops, giving us choice and variety and the freedom to look at unattainable treasures, but also find a cheap copy of our next read.  Nestled in amongst them are Penguin’s line of mugs.  Now normally I’m not a fan of cross-promotion and don’t like the cheapening of literature through such obvious money-grabs.  That being said … I might have a Great Gatsby mug.  What am I – perfect?  And I’ll say this for small independents: I know it’s hard for them to make as much money as they used to from books alone, so it must be tempting to branch out a little bit.  If that’s what needs to happen to keep places like this afloat, we’ll just have to grin and bear it.  I’d much rather have Penguin mugs and tote bags in amongst the books than plastic toys and Starbucks coffee or – the horror – losing the bookshops altogether.

The rest of this room is filled with a few different sections, including poetry and IMG_1939some fiction, though the majority of it is in the back room.  There are some rarer editions of novels here as well as a couple of modern first editions.  The selection in this shop is what really sets is apart from other bookshops in Hay.  On the shop’s website they say that here is where they store ‘the sexier material: beat, sex, drugs, art, modern firsts, poetry, philosophy, left wing history and the occasional occult work!’  The quirky selection is fun, adventurous and most of all, accessible, since the bookshop is so friendly and homey.

IMG_1938

Up a few steps is a room with yellow walls.  This back room houses the general fiction section as well as – if memory serves – literary criticism and biography. This room is just as neat and tidy, as bright and welcoming as all the others.  And, like the others, it’s quite full.  A large table in the centre features IMG_1942some excellent staff-chosen selections, piles of books collect along the bottoms of shelves again and the shelves that cover all four walls are packed.  It’s a beautiful thing.  The selection is, naturally, amazing and includes novels from across the centuries in various editions – beautiful hardcovers to cheap paperback editions.  In the end, I walked out with a small paperback edition of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha with a very cool cover which only cost £3.  My second purchase here was one of those nice red-spined Vintage editions of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin which only cost £4.50.

IMG_1941Now, this is probably just going to reveal my ignorance, but I had never even heard of Christopher Isherwood until about a moth ago.  I was browsing in the Foyles on the Southbank when I discovered him.  I read the backs of Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains and was intrigued, but went on with my day.  Now have you ever had that experience where you swear you’ve never heard of something in your life until one day you do and then it’s everywhere?  Well, it was like that with Isherwood.  Another instance of Book Fate.  I have learned in my book-hunting escapades that if a book reaches out to you on a few separate occasions, you really ought to give it a chance; it’s trying so hard!  I knew I had made the right decision in trusting the Fates when the friendly bookseller at the till gave my selections and approving nod and said ‘Two brilliant books.’  I felt a bit bad taking the credit; as with most of the best things in life, I didn’t find them, they found me.

Addyman Books

IMG_1968Addyman Books, 39 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AA

A few months ago, I had a craving to read something by Dickens.  It was winter and I was cold and I couldn’t help but think of snowy Christmases in the past when Dickens and a mug of hot chocolate have kept me company.  I usually re-read A Tale of Two Cities every year around Christmastime, but this year I decided to branch out.  So, one cold day in January, I bought a copy of Our Mutual Friend at the Southbank Book Market in London. But other books got in the way and it took me a while to come to Our Mutual Friend. Then, with other books on the go, it took an embarrassingly long time to finish it.  But with Dickens, sometimes it’s good to move slowly.  He immerses you so fully in Victorian London that as I walked through Covent Garden, the City and Clerkenwell I didn’t seem very far away at all from Silas Wegg, Jenny Wren or Gaffer Hexam. I love the feeling, when you’re halfway through a book, that you’re living alongside its characters, half in their world and half in your own, carrying them around with you over the days or weeks (or months in the case of this 822 page novel) that it takes to find out how it all ends for them.  Fortunately, in Dickens, you tend to get a happy ending, at least for those who deserve one.

IMG_1962I have to admit that I have spent most of my life in that half-state, only just maintaining the distinction between fiction and fact and prone to quiet moments of staring blankly out windows.  I truly don’t know how Dickens ever managed a normal conversation while his huge cast of characters (most of them more interesting than real people) were floating through his thoughts all the time.

Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye understands that dream-like, semi-real state which overtakes you when you’re in the middle of a very good book.  The shop is quiet and peaceful and decorated like something from your favourite novel.  It’s strange and carnivalesque, gaudy and incoherent and somehow, still welcoming IMG_1956and comforting.  The front room, full of art books and a couple of lost-looking maps, prints and Penguin classics, feels like an old curiosity shop, populated by lonely-looking chairs, mirrors, chests full of books and miscellaneous bits of furniture.  The selection of secondhand books is eclectic.  If  you’re looking for an easy find, this is not the place to go, but it’s one of the best bookshops for settling down in that I’ve ever seen.  Everything, from the decor to the books, is so singular, so curious, that every kind of misfit, outcast or dreamer can find a nook to call home and lots of strange other nooks to explore.

IMG_1953The main fiction section is arranged in a room that looks like an elaborate Victorian puppet theatre, with bright blue and yellow walls and golden columns and decorations.  The selection consists mainly of secondhand paperbacks and those ubiquitous orange Penguin classics and covers classic novels, contemporary bestsellers and lots of random books that, I assume, have been donated by some very interesting people over the years.

IMG_1955It’s the perfect place for browsing, since it reassures you with the presence of those orange Penguins, while simultaneously suggesting, like Alice’s white rabbit, that going down the rabbit hole might be worth it. You might just come out with a strange new treasure you couldn’t have found otherwise.

The thing I love about unusual places like this is that they’re so inclusive.  They acknowledge the geek or the weirdo in every reader, assuring you that we’re all a bit mad, really, in our different ways, but when there are fantasy worlds to be explored and wild adventures to be had, those different ways don’t matter as much as we might have thought.

IMG_1957

The back rooms of the shop house the science fiction and fantasy sections, which, it’s nice to see, are much larger and given much more space than in IMG_1958most other bookshops.  Although the two tend to be lumped together, here they have their own sides of the back room, as they should.  I had a contemporary literature teacher who explained the critical difference between the genres in a way I’ll never forget.  She said science fiction presents an alternative world  that we think science could one day produce for us or allow us to find.  Fantasy, on the other hand, is an alternative IMG_1959world that no human discovery could ever create.  No matter how sophisticated our science becomes, it will never be able to turn you into an elf.  Unfortunately.  ‘But fear not!’ the bookshop seems to say, ‘We can still pretend!’  It promises that the characters in books, whether they’re hobbits or Mad Hatters or aliens, are never really that different from us, and can be the most loyal companions throughout our lives.  Hence, I suppose, the giant cut-outs of Captain Kirk and Gandalf.

IMG_1966Upstairs, in a little room that feels like somebody’s private library, more characters pop up, just as Dickens’ Rogue Riderhood seemed to be lurking around every corner the other day as I walked through a Rotherhithe that’s very different from his.  Although the cut-out characters are, I’ll admit, slightly terrifying, this little room in the attic, home to more fiction, rare and antiquarian books, poetry and culture sections, is the quietest and most relaxing part  of the shop.  The mismatched decorations, the precarious-looking shelves and the two leather armchairs make the room feel a bit like someone’s attic hideaway.  Like the one I’m probably going to end up having one day when my books take over all the other IMG_1963rooms.  It’s such a homey space that I didn’t linger too long, unwilling to disturb the silence.  Instead, I wandered back through the little hideaways that abound in this shop looking at more books.  It will come as no surprise, I imagine, that this bookshop has an excellent selection  of books about folklore, mythology, the Occult in its ‘Myths, Legends and Fairytales’ alcove.   It also has a very good poetry section.

IMG_1964

Addyman Books is, by any definition, a strange little place.  At times gaudy, often bizarre and usually confusing, it’s actually not that different from most of the books I like.  Its charm comes from its sincerity, its insistence that it’s okay to be a little bit different, that convention is overrated anyway.  The shop welcomes those overly-keen, overly-excited nerds and weirdos who have always found refuge in books, and gathers them together in one wonderfully different place.  It says to those of us who often wish we could escape into the pages of our favourite stories, ‘You’re not alone! We’re with you!  Take a seat, pick a book, escape with us!’

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers

IMG_1928Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, 13/14 High Town, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AE

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.

IMG_1948Street 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.

IMG_1919Inside, 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 IMG_1915cheap.  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 IMG_1918and 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 IMG_1927Kill 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.

IMG_1917I 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 IMG_1911abundance 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 moreIMG_1926.  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 IMG_1922observation 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.

IMG_1914

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, IMG_1912a 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 IMG_1913but 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.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

IMG_1905Richard Booth’s Bookshop, 44 Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5AA

If Hay is the kingdom of books, Richard Booth is the king and this is his castle.  And, judging from how excited I got looking at my bag full of spoils, I’m the dirty rascal.

This beautiful, colourful building, which looks a bit like a gingerbread house or IMG_1898something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, was one of the highlights of my trip to Hay. When my boyfriend (and fellow book pilgrim) and I are trying to distinguish between the dozens of bookshops we explored during a short trip, we both know what the other means by ‘the epic one.’  This is because it simply is the perfect bookshop; it ticks all the boxes.

The size of this bookshop alone makes it stand apart from many of the small independents that I’ve found in other cities and in Hay.  When you first walk in the front door, you simply don’t get a sense of how far back the rows of book stretch.  This is probably because the front of the shop features shelves and tables filled with a thoughtful selection of new releases and old favourites.  This space, the first one that browsers come to, gives a brilliant first impression as it suggests alternative titles that you would never find if they weren’t recommended to you by a connoisseur.  While many of these are novels, I was also delighted to find a very good selection of non-fiction books about politics, environmental issues and the arts.

Once you move beyond the first room  of the bookshop you discover just how IMG_1893wide the selection is and how large the bookshop is.  In many ways it feels more like a library than a bookshop with an almost encyclopedic list of subject areas, presented in neat rows of wooden bookshelves, whose section titles are illuminated by the kind of beautiful brass lamps with green lampshades that fill prestigious libraries all over the world, evoking a sense of awe and advising the brash and tawdry to please keep their voices down.  The subject areas covered on the ground floor range from a brilliant selection of history and politics books to books about gardening, football and the military.  IMG_1894One of the most original things about this shop is that rather than separating its books into new and used and (as in many London bookshops in particular) relegating used books to the basement while the pretty new ones greet customers, Richard Booth’s lets them rub shoulders.  Which, really, is how it should be, since every new book must surely dream of one day being a dog-eared, tea-stained, cracked-spined favourite on the right reader’s overfilled bookshelf.  The ground floor is also home to a lovely children’s section, with a great selection of contemporary and classic children’s books and poetry.  It features  a small wooden table for young readers to get down to business and beautiful designs of plants and flowers, suns and stars on the floor to get their imaginations running properly.  It’s a very adult-dominated bookshop, you IMG_1895see, so the children might need a bit of help getting back into the zone.  Finally, at the back of the ground floor, there is a cafe, which shows that you could quite literally arrive in the morning when they open and not leave until they kick you out in the evening.

But upstairs is where the fun really starts.  Here you’ll find philosophy, psychology, religion and theology, Occult, poetry, literary criticism and of course fiction.  As a student of literature I think I have a higher tolerance than many for the endless movements, theories and schools that are faithfully represented on these shelves, IMG_1900but my favourite subcategory has to be the section on Postmodernism.  Now, I’m sure it is usually well and thoughtfully stocked, but when I happened to stumble upon it, the books had been moved around in such a way that the bookshop itself seemed to confess complete bafflement.  Don’t you love finding unintentional comedy in unexpected places?  The large windows on this floor let in much more sunlight than there is on the ground floor, making the upstairs feel more open and less den-like.  Of course both aesthetics are good in bookshops, so I can’t really say that one is better than the other.  Here, again, the IMG_1897rows of books stretch back further than you expect them to, providing customers with an extensive selection.  But it isn’t just quantity that matters here; quality is the name of the game.  The till is surrounded by copies of each of the Telegraph’s 100 Best Books, so that readers looking for a classic will be met with 100 suggestions and beautiful new and used copies of all of them.  This bookshop makes it very difficult to go wrong.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Richard Booth’s Bookshop is that it goes one step further than most other bookshops in Hay-on-Wye and about two and a half IMG_1904steps further than most London bookshops by offering not just the occasional wooden stool where you can sit and read or peruse your options, but an entire living room, complete with couches, armchairs and cushions. As you make your way through the intimidatingly large and winding selection of fiction books, you realise that at the end of the row of long bookshelves is a perfect reading nook.  It’s as if Richard Booth reached into my brain, picked out all of my criteria for my dream bookshop and brought them all together in one place.  What an absolute legend.  As I wormed through the rows of fiction books, picking up and reluctantly putting back titles by Dickens, Colette, Flaubert, Faulkner, Isherwood and IMG_1903Thackeray, I noticed that the couches were the centre of the shop.  In the half hour I spent wandering around them looking at the books and the wall full of Folio Society editions, I saw two families come and sit for storytime, a student with his laptop take a break and have a coffee and at least three browsers who stopped to collect their thoughts before heading to the till.  Tucked in at the back of the shop, this is a place where you can sit, relax, read and reflect without feeling like you’ll be kicked out in a moment if you don’t buy something.  It’s so easy to get comfortable that I saw one man clearly struggling to decide whether or not it would be acceptable to take his shoes off.  It took him a couple of tries, but in the end he did and he looked very pleased about it.

The book I came home with at the end of a very long visit was from the poetry selection.  And for once, I didn’t just buy it on a whim; there’s a story involved, as there always should be.  A few months ago, I found myself in a lovely bookshop in Copenhagen, exploring the English language section.  IMG_1901There, I found a slim green paperback of poetry by Ruth Padel called Charles Darwin – A Life in Poems.   The poet, a descendent of Darwin’s, has written a collection of poems about his life from early childhood to death, which incorporate  Padel’s brilliant lines with quotations from Darwin’s books and letters and those of his family and friends.  I really wanted to buy it in Copenhagen but, confused by the currency and concerned about overspending on holiday, I decided to refrain and try to track the book down back in England.  Of course, I promptly forgot the author’s name and the book’s title and, disappointed, let it slip from my mind.  Until I saw it here again, waiting on a bottom shelf. It was book fate.   When I brought it to the friendly bookseller at the till, he raised his eyebrows and gave it a once-over.  ‘I’d never noticed this one before,’ he said, ‘it looks interesting.’  I told him (and he politely pretended to care) about how this book had narrowly escaped me once already and this time it was fate and I wouldn’t let it pass me by.  This book wanted to find me.

In a world where we can search and instantaneously find, we forget that sometimes it’s nice not to have all the control.  Places like Richard Booth’s Bookshop, with its inviting atmosphere, surprisingly large area and quirky collection of books, is a reminder that sometimes if you let things be, something amazing that you were never looking for might just find you.

Broad Street Book Centre

IMG_1878Broad Street Book Centre, 6 Broad Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5DB

Now this, my friends, is a proper bookshop.  Housed inside a beautiful Tudor building (or maybe Tudor revival, but I’m not fussy), The Broad Street Book Centre is at the centre of Hay and its dimly-lit windows, wooden floorboards and IMG_1867display of books in the front window draw in many aimless wanderers off the street.  Each inch of wall space and lots of the floor space too is covered with beautiful rare and secondhand books, just waiting for you to come and pick them up.  Many of them are so old and frail, with thin pages, crumbling spines and delicate gold-leaf, that it almost feels unfair to disturb their rest on the walls by picking them up.  But fortunately, the overwhelming message that the shop sends is that this is a place where adventure is allowed, so explore on!

IMG_1876The shop basically consists of what feels like a never-ending string of rooms, which are labelled in the most mystifying system I have ever seen.  I’m sure it makes sense for the owner of the bookshop to say ‘Ah yes, this book needs to go to section A in Room 8b’, but to the average browser, it’s not very helpful.  It is however, charming, so I’ll allow it. And it makes the shop feel a bit like a labyrinth, one where an alternatively benevolent and sadistic overlord gives you hints on how to leave which you never know if you should trust or not.  But the joke’s on him because I’m not trying to leave.  I had to be dragged out in the end, with the gentle admonition that if I spent as much time in every bookshop in Hay as I did in this one, I’d never get through all of them.  Which, in the end, I didn’t.

But if you find yourself scratching your head as  you try to get your head around the somewhat chaotic collection of rooms and books as you make your way through the labyrinth, try to enjoy being lost.  Wandering, in shops like this one, invites a certain wonderful phenomenon: serendipity.  SecondhandIMG_1869 bookshops are one of the best places in  the world for serendipitous moments to happen; indeed, I don’t think any other kind of place is better suited to creating that ‘Well would you look at that!’ feeling.  And that feeling is one of the best feelings we can ever have; it reminds us that despite our efforts to micromanage and control every moment of our days, the world and all its magical possibilities still have the power to surprise us.  It’s a feeling that sadly is becoming less and less common as we not just lose, but freely give up, our ability to accept the random, the unplanned and the unexpected.  Fortunately it is still allowed and even fostered in secondhand bookshops like this one.

IMG_1872One of my favourite rooms in the shop to rummage around in held the children’s section, Folio Society Editions and modern novels. The children’s selection had lots of the contemporary favourites – Harry Potter, Narnia and other secondhand copies of our favourites – but also had many beautiful hardcover children’s books from the 30s and 40s that have been forgotten, including some titles by Enid Blyton that I had never heard of (although I also heard lately that the wrote over 600 children’s books – can you imagine?!) and some very dated storybooks for girls and boys.  The section was colourful and the light from the window just above it made for a bright and pleasant reading area, with a little wooden chair perfect for storytime gatherings, should some ambitious parent decide to try.  On the IMG_1873opposite wall was a brilliant collection of modern first editions, featuring books by writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and all the other darlings of contemporary fiction.  A small selection of these first editions were actually signed by the authors, so they will have been much more expensive, but the rest of the books were affordable.  I would say that for the average paperback novel, you could expect to pay about £5, though many were cheaper than that and a great many of the beautiful rare books were much more expensive.  IMG_1871The final wall of this room was covered in Folio Society Editions of everything from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Arthur Conan Doyle to Emily Bronte.  Some were more expensive than others, again, but most were around £20, making them the perfect gift even if buying one for yourself feels a bit extravagant.  As regular readers know, I love the Folio Society and should probably not go on about them as much as I do, but I will say once again, that they are perfect as presents, particularly if you want to give someone a special copy of a book they love to be kept in a place of honour on their bookshelf.

IMG_1877The shop also has a brilliant collection of CDs, sheet music, history, politics and poetry books and a room that is full of books about the railways.  Because why not, I guess.  I very much doubt that there is anything you couldn’t find in this bookshop, that there is any booklover whose ideal birthday present isn’t lurking at the back of one of its shelves.  And if you’re looking for serendipity or book fate (something I had a great chat about with a bookseller at Richard Booth’s Bookshop – coming up!) this is the place to go.  You’re sure to find a new book, or author, or even genre that you’d never heard of before but won’t be able to get out of your head.

IMG_1870

Which brings me to ‘the one that got away.’  In the fiction section near the front of the shop, I gasped out loud when I discovered a small early edition of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book.  This is the first in the Scottish writer’s series of twelve books of fairy tales, which collect famous stories like Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty with more obscure ones from all over the world.  This book had IMG_1868a blue hard cover, gold  leaf pages, and a Happy Birthday inscription on the front cover.  And it only cost £6.  Unfortunately, knowing that I had already spent too much money on books on my little trip to Hay, I decided to leave it.  For now.  In a way, seeing it there was more precious to me than actually taking it home.  When I was a little girl I used to take Lang’s Fairy Books out of the library at school after our kind  school librarian suggested one to me and I became completely hooked.  I would borrow them week after week until I had read all of the ones we had in the library several times. And I hadn’t thought about that in about ten years.  Like so many other childhood memories, reading those books has probably formed my personality in many ways and I doubt I would be the person I am without them, but they had slipped into the dark recesses at the back of my mind.  Until, as if a bit of fate or serendipity had followed me all the way to Wales, I saw them sitting on a shelf in the Broad Street Book Centre, and precious memories from years ago came flooding back.

The Poetry Bookshop

IMG_1890The Poetry Bookshop, Ice House, Brook Street, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, HR3 5BQ.

In large bookshops, poetry sections always seem a little bit homeless. They often share a shelf with Drama, overshadowed by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and feel like an annexe to the fiction section.  This is hardly fair.

Poetry has been the preferred mode of creative expression since Ancient Greece and its Homeric epics, long before the novel as a form was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.  It was common to civilisations across the world, all of which brought their own styles, forms and conventions to the genre so that it would express exactly what it was that people wanted to say about their homes, their families, their great romances and their terrible wars in words that everyone felt deep down in their softly stirring souls,  but only the great wordsmiths could articulate for them.  It is an art form that can express the complexities and inconsistencies of the human heart and mind in a way that – I don’t believe – any other art form can.

It deserves more than a few anthologies in the back corner of Waterstones.  And yet, shockingly,  Hay-on-Wye’s Poetry Bookshop is the only bookshop in the UK dedicated solely to poetry.  Londoners are lucky enough to have the Poetry Library at the South Bank – a fantastic resource and a quiet place to read – but we rarely have the opportunity to go somewhere where poetry is more than an afterthought, where we can find volumes of poetry to bring home and keep, stain and spill on and dog-ear and write in and defer to in times of need.  It seems a shame, to me.

Thankfully, one poetry bookshop exists, good enough while we wait for IMG_1883the idea to spread.  The couple who own the bookshop are friendly and helpful.  They will let you browse quietly on your own but I have no doubt of their impeccable taste in and knowledge of poetry, should an idle browser need a recommendation.  As I moved slowly around the A-Z collection of English poetry in the main room, the bookshop’s popularity became clear.  Regulars came in to chat with the owners, including the  owner of one of Hay’s other bookshops who came bearing gossip about the Festival.  At one point the owners’ springer spaniel came bounding in and everybody seemed to be used to this.

IMG_1889Around the walls of the main room, poets great and modest are represented.  Ezra Pound has a disproportionately large section, as does Seamus Heaney, but they by no means dominate the selection.  Places of prominence are returned to other poets, whether they’re literary heavyweights like Chaucer and Tennyson or relative newcomers.  It was here that I found the books I came home with.  I bought U.A. Fanthorpe’s Selected Poems, including the brilliant ‘Not My Best Side’ and many other amazing poems for £7.  I also bought a small green edition of James Joyce’s Chamber Music from the 1950s for £8.

The selection continues on the shelves in the centre of the room.  On top of them, beautiful and rare collections of poetry are displayed for our admiration.  Their shelves are full of more books and anthologies and one is dedicated to Old English poetry.   And I mean Old English poetry that’s not Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (which my absolutely legendary Old English teacher dubbed ‘The Heaneywulf’), but translations of other poems like ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’ and my personal favourite ‘Deor.’

There’s a line in ‘Deor’ which goes ‘þæt ofereod, þisses swa mæg’ or ‘That passed over, so may this.’  This one line, coming to us from a thousand years in the past, is a perfect example of how we can carry poetry with us through our lives. I have kept it in my mind as a refrain, almost like a mantra, when I am going through hard times, as a reminder that we have come out all right in hard times before, and can do so again.

IMG_1882But enough of English poetry, modern or ancient.  Downstairs, in what feels like a cellar, is the shop’s collection of international poetry in translation.  This basement brings poetry in Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Urdu, Belarusian, Hungarian, German, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Gaelic, Welsh, various Native American languages and I have no doubt many others that I’ve forgotten to curious readers.  As you duck down to fit through the door, you can’t help but feel that you’re complicit in something.  Rummaging through the shelves full of new and mysterious poetry feels a bit like reading under the blankets with a torch after bedtime, or whatever it was that normal children did to rebel.  Whenever I visit my grandparents, I IMG_1879love exploring the photo albums, old books and boxes full of toys and clothes that fill their basement, in the hopes that I’ll find some treasure from the past and uncover the story is carries with it.  That poking-around-in-grandma’s-trunk feeling is exactly what this basement recreates.  It’s the distinct feeling that you have stumbled upon something that has the potential to be magical.  Of course, poetry in translation is never quite as good as the real thing, but it’s certainly a start.  And if you’ve ever felt the urge to learn Ukrainian, discovering that your new favourite poet wrote in it is a pretty good motivator.

IMG_1887The final part of the shop is the little space upstairs.   On the walls in this little mezzanine are more books of poetry, as well as books about poetry and poets and other miscellaneous works.   There are some interesting titles, but perhaps my favourite thing about it is that the books cover the walls on either side of the staircase, creating a wall full of books that carries the reader all the way from top to bottom without having to look at an inch of dull, uninteresting wall.  I never realised that the boringness of a wall was a major problem until I saw this bookcase, but now that the book wall is in my mind, nothing will ever be the same again.  I want one.

Charmingly, one of the walls on the top floor is covered in penciled height measurements of several different children.  Whether these are the owners’ children, nieces and nephews, friends of the family or loyal customers is left for the browser to imagine, but in the end it doesn’t actually matter.  The most IMG_1884important thing this suggests is the way in which all of us, not just those whose parents sell them, grow up with books and with poetry in particular.  From nursery rhymes to lullabies, silly limericks to advertising jingles, poetry is all around us and it defines us in the years that we grow up.  I heard a speaker at the Hay Festival talking about the way we live in a world filled with poetry and was completely convinced by his argument.  Long after we’ve forgotten exactly what the difference is between an scalene and an isosceles triangle, or whether a motion is centripetal or centrifugal, we remember every word of something as seemingly trivial as ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod.’ A poem from Mother Goose or something as silly as a radio jingle has the transportative power that all good writing always has, recalling worlds and lives we thought we’d left behind and reminding us that the deep and personal emotions to which poetry gives voice are never forgotten.

The Matilda Project Hits the Hay Festival

IMG_1908Hay-on-Wye is a little town of about 1500 people that sits just on the border of England and Wales and is most famous for the Hay Festival, the annual gathering that celebrates literature and the arts.

But the town’s other claim to fame is that it is the ‘Town of Books.’  Despite its small size and population, the town is home to more than thirty bookshops. In 1962, when Richard Booth opened the first one, Hay was a quiet little place in the Welsh borders but within ten years, it had become Mecca for bibliophiles, as dozens of other bookshops clustered around it.  In 1977, Booth declared it The Independent Kingdom of Hay, and since then, the town, its literary festival and its many bookshops have made it heaven for book tourists.

IMG_1907

I am one such tourist.  The incompatibility of our little tent with the rainy Welsh weather aside, it has been brilliant to see writers, artists, philosophers and booksellers talk to sold-out crowds about the things they love.  But Hay’s bookshops have really stolen my heart and with a running total of eight books bought, I am going a little bit crazy.

While it is impossible to really go through all the bookshops in the town on such a short trip, over the next couple of days I will try (if I can pull apart the blur of book-related bliss and organise them into separate bookshops) to walk you, my beloved readers, through the bookshops of Hay, in the hopes that you will fall in love with them the way I have.

Stay posted, and happy reading.