World's book paradise

heritage

World Book Day — which is being celebrated on March 7 this year — was designated by the UNESCO as a worldwide celebration of books and reading, and is marked in over 100 countries around the globe. The origins of the day come from Catalonia, where roses and books were given as gifts to loved ones on St George’s Day — a tradition that was started over 90 years ago. The main aim of World Book Day is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own.

On World Book Day, publishers and booksellers work together to promote books and reading for the personal enrichment and enjoyment of all. But that is what the residents of Hay-on-Wye do all through the year. This tiny town, perched on the border of England and Wales, in the shadow of the Black Mountains, is famous for its annual literary festival that has attracted everyone from Bill Clinton to V S Naipaul. Its cluster of narrow streets is home to 1,500 residents and a few dozen bookshops that mainly sell second-hand books.

Not surprisingly, Hay-on-Wye is where bibliophiles from all over the world head to. After all, anyone who has ever bought a second-hand book knows the joy that lies in leafing through its pages. Until the 1960s, Hay-on-Wye was an old-fashioned market town. Ladies would put their hats on to come to Hay on market day. Then Richard George William Pitt Booth, MBE, arrived and built up what he still claims to be the largest second-hand bookstore in the world.

Booth’s family has lived in the Hay area for more than a hundred years. The son of a garage mechanic, he attended Oxford University. After graduating, he decided to return to his Mid Wales roots. In 1962, Booth (born in 1938) opened his first second-hand bookshop in Hay, shipping in hundreds of books from across the globe. Booth was convinced that a town full of book stores could become an international attraction — “you buy books from all over the world and your customers come from all over the world”.

Where he led, others followed, and there are now almost 40 bookshops in the town — many of which set up shop in buildings which had been long neglected. Booth’s first store, for example, was housed in the Old Fire Station. Booth has since upgraded to a more chic place with an elegant façade and glazed tiles. His vast three-floor emporium houses hundreds of thousands of secondhand, antiquarian and some new books. He stocks books on a wide range of subjects including literature, history, natural history, theology, science, art and music, modern languages, classics, topography and more.

Just to walk into Booth’s vast shop containing an overwhelming number of books can make a reader feel humble and excited. If it weren’t for the helpful staff members, many customers would lose their nerves and wouldn’t know where to start.

By the late 1970s, Hay had become the world’s first official Book Town. There are now more than 60 Book Towns across the globe with plans for several more. Booth’s shop is not the only draw in the town. One can easily while away many hours at Hay-on-Wye. Readers interested in 19th-century literature can make their way to Boz Books. This little shop is stocked to the rafters with beautiful editions of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. The Poetry Bookshop, set up by American-British poet and writer Anne Stevenson when she lived in Hay in the 1970s, is the bookshop for poetry enthusiasts. It has every conceivable book on poetry, as well as books on poets and critical works.

As Hay’s reputation as a paradise for book lovers grew, so too did the idea for an annual book celebration, and in 1988, the first ever Hay Literary Festival was held. The 10-day-long festival now brings in around 70,000 visitors every year and attracts some of the biggest names on the circuit. In 2002, former US President Bill Clinton was the star speaker. He described Hay-on-Wye as “my kind of town” and likened the festival to a “Woodstock of the mind”. The festival has a packed programme of debates and conversations with poets and scientists, novelists and historians, artists and gardeners, comedians and musicians, filmmakers and politicians.

Hay Fever, the festival for young families and children, runs across the 10 days of the main festival. It provides children with the chance to meet and talk to their favourite writers and take part in workshops to create wonderful memories and develop new skills in imaginative thinking and self-expression. Hf2 is the festival for teenagers and it provides high-tech workshops on making music and films to an awesome line-up of cutting-edge writers.

Apart from the numerous bookshops, Hay-on-Wye still manages to support two family butchers and greengrocers, an organic deli, several antique shops and half-a-dozen pubs. There are no supermarkets in sight. This quaint Welsh town of books with a strong literary heritage will continue to charm readers for many years to come.

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