Avid readers and book nerds are well-positioned in Bristol. Countless bookshops, little nods to literature everywhere you turn (from Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes), makes Bristol a bibliophile’s dream destination. But if anywhere can vie for our literary attention, it’s this cute ‘book town’ in Wales, Hay-on-Wye.
Self-described as the ‘World’s First Book Town’, Hay on Wye is legendary in the literary world for its large number of secondhand bookshops – often around 20, this number has fluctuated over the years- and the annual Hay Festival. It even once had its own king, Richard Booth, who proclaimed Hay an “independent kingdom” and named his horse as Prime Minister.
How did The Town of Books start?
Hay-on-Wye hasn’t always been known as a book haven. Sitting on the Welsh/English border in Powys, the market town dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s also home to the Norman-built Hay Castle – which local legend says was built in a day and served as an important buffer between England and Wales. (Hay Castle even has an honesty bookshop propped up against the castle walls.)
Richard Booth wouldn’t open his first bookshop, The Old Fire Station, until centuries later in 1961. Buying cheap books from colleges, libraries, monasteries and bankrupt distributors, he went on to open a further five used bookstores in Hay. Inspiring countless others in the area to follow, at its peak this town of 2,000 people had more than two dozen bookshops – that’s more than one bookshop for every 100 people.
By the ‘70s, Hay on Wye had been dubbed ‘The Town of Books’ and was the ‘World’s First Book Town’ – with Richard renaming himself King Richard Cœur de Livre. Countless copycat book towns have sprung up since (Wigtown in Scotland and Sedbergh in England to name two), but few have been able to rival the original. And that’s without mentioning the annual literary Hay Festival!
What is the Hay Festival?
Hay Festival, also known as the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts, has grown into one of the most prestigious literary events in the world since starting in 1988. Bill Clinton once called it “the Woodstock of the mind”, while “it’s replaced Christmas” for Tony Benn. The 10-day festival attracts 100,000-plus visitors across the event, including some of the greatest writers in the world – everyone from Hilary Mantel to Martin Amis, Carol Ann Duffy to Stephen Fry. This year it will be held from Thursday, May 23 to Sunday, June 2, 2024.
What are the best bookshops in Hay-on-Wye?
Sadly, Richard Booth passed away in 2019, but the King of Hay’s legacy still lives on. Richard Booth’s Bookshop is spread over three floors selling everything from second-hand literary classics to brand-new genre best-sellers, as well as books on culture, politics, fashion, photography, art and design, science, music and more. It even has a cinema screening of the latest movies.
Elsewhere, you’ll find The Children’s Bookshop for a varied stock of children’s literature; Hay’s newest secondhand bookshop, Green Ink Booksellers; Murder and Mayhem specialises in detective fiction, true crime and horror; The Poetry Bookshop sells, well, poetry; and the wittily-titled Gay on Wye for LGBTQ+ literature.
Other bookshops include Hay Cinema Bookshop, Addyman Books and The Addyman Annexe, Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, The Old Electric Shop, The Literature Laboratory, Francis Edwards Antiquarian Bookseller, Clock Tower Books, Mostly Maps, Broad Street Book Centre, North Books, Outcast Books and C. Arden Bookseller.
If you can’t find a good book after visiting Hay-on-Wye, maybe reading just isn’t for you…