Saturday, June 16, 2007

Hay-on-Wye, Wales


Friends: As I crossed into Wales, I was welcomed to the town of Hay-on-Wye, which announced itself as "Town of Books," in both Welsh and English. Unlike many such self-proclamations this was no exaggeration. If anything, it was an understatement, as this charming, well off-the-beaten-path village of 1500 residents is a veritable book-lover's dreamland of second-hand bookstores almost too perfect to be real. There are nearly 40 of them scattered about the town's narrow windy streets, including several untended huts and rows of bookshelves known as "Honesty Book Stores" open 24 hours for the truly addicted to peruse with a coin box to put 50 pence in for hardbacks and 30 pence for soft backs.


With stores ranging in size from a sprawling warehouse larger than New York's Strand to quaint Victorian cottages of several floors, every room crammed with books, the town has more books per square mile than any place in the world. It also lays claim to having more second-hand bookstores than any city in the world. Its annual 10-day book festival at the end of May just drew over 80,000 bibliophiles from all over the world. There were dozen of authors for this, its 20th edition, including Doris Lessing, David Attenborough, Christohpher Hitchens, Alan Greenspan, and Richard Dawkins. Its vast array of events can be checked out at hayfest.uk.com



I strolled from shop to shop in search of books on cycling, going into nearly every one, bypassing only Mostly Maps, Murder and Mayhem, The Poetry Bookshop and The Children's Bookshop. I feared I might discover a mother lode of such books, which I was prepared to mail home, as I'm carrying too much weight already with three books still to read and hefty guidebooks for France and Great Britain.


But I was told at shop after shop that cycling books are hard to come by. One shop owner said they are as difficult to find as books on canals, at least in the category of transportation. About half the shops did have a few books on cycling, which some filed under sports and others under transportation. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I found no book I had to have. I fully expected to find a biography or two on Tom Simpson, the most distinguished English racer ever, an Olympic champion and Tour de France yellow jersey-wearer, though he is best known for being one of three racers to die in the Tour.

There is a monument to him on Mont Ventoux, a kilometer from the summit, where he died in 1967 from plying himself with drugs. I knew of at least three biographies written on him. I have one of them, "Put Me Back on My Bike," reputedly his last words after collapsing along the road, and would gladly have purchased the others. But the only cycling biography I found was on Marco Pantani, which I'd read.


I could have bought some interesting cycling pamphlets from the 1920s on the early days of the bike, but I'm not a collector of such things. I had to buy something, however, after my hours of search. I settled on a light weight paperback from one of the Honesty Book Stores, "The Harmless People," about the natives of the Kalahari desert, one of my next destinations.


It was no wasted day. Each store had a distinctive character and was a pleasure to meander though. I kept thinking of my book collector friends Helene and Ron and what ecstasy they would be in here. It might actually have been too much for them to handle. I could have spent all day alone in Richard Booth's gigantic three-floored warehouse. Booth is the man who made all this happen. Hay-on-Wye was a dying town. He decided to make it a book town and in 1962 opened the first book store. He bought up old houses and turned them into more book stores, renting them out to dealers. The town became such a mecca for books that students from all over England would come here to buy their books for school. Booth is still alive, but quite an elderly man and more eccentric than ever, I was told.


I saw many books that I have added to my "find at the library" list. The quantity and quality of books made Chicago's annual Printer's Row gathering of book dealers from all over the mid-west look like a paltry garage sale of harlequin novels. Here one could find shelves and shelves not only of Shakespeare but of Shakespeare criticism and Dickens and Napoleon, even presidents of the US. Some stores were the outlets for multiple dealers, who each had their own specialty. One combined Churchill and birds, another devoted a whole room to composers. There were shelves and shelves on rugby and cricket along with a smattering of US sports. Many had quaint signs--"Sssch, I'm Reading," "You are entering the sci-fi zone."


I asked at the tourist office if any of the stores specialized in cycling. They went to an index and found one store that claimed it did. It did have a shelf of books, but mostly how-to books relating to mountain biking and travel routes in various areas. Responding to my interest in cycling, the woman at the tourist office mentioned a bed and breakfast in town that used to cater to touring cyclists called "Rest for the Tyred.". It had a bicycle wheel hanging over its entry. The proprietor said they rarely had touring cyclists any more, though they were its main clientele when it opened more than a century ago.


There was campground just out of town where I was able to get a shower for ten pence. I asked about reserving a camp spot for next year's book festival, but it was already all booked up.


Later, George

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