Thursday, 1 March 2012

Travel: Hay-on-Wye ~ the never-ending bookshelf

WHY WOULD a magnificent dreamer named Richard Booth decide to set up the world’s second-hand books capital in a tiny Welsh town on the border with England in 1961? Hay-on-Wye is in mid-Wales, halfway between Bristol and Birmingham and on the road to Ireland. But the winning argument was its safe distance from the book trade in London.

Booth, whose family had lived in Hay since 1903, argued that a country business could be competitive. He first set up the Cinema Bookshop, which he later sold to a London businessman. Today, Booths bookshop at 44, Lion Street, has the largest turnover of second-hand books in the world, boasting of 44,000-plus titles. You buy books from all over the world, and your customers come from all over the world, he believes.

As if to prove Booth’s point famous writers, poets, musicians and comedians gather at Hay every summer for the 10-day Sunday Times Hay Festival of Literature (former US president Bill Clinton was there in 2001). The brainchild of Norman Florence, eminent actor Peter Ustinov and others, the New York Times has called it the most prestigious festival in the English-speaking world.

My Welsh host Catrin and I find ourselves at Hay-on-Wye on a cold, wet August afternoon overshadowed by grey sides. Our first stop is the Blue Boar pub, its benches dark with age, its bar overhung by assorted mugs all in a row, like unusual bunting to the non-British eye. The country goodness of Welsh rarebit, a mustard-rich cheese toast, with a fresh salad, topped off with a steaming cappuccino, fuels us for our foray into bookshops beyond counting.

The Bag of Books, its tables loaded with titles stacked eye-high, proves a haven for bargains. Before I even realize it, I’ve picked up volumes of poems by John Agard and Paul Muldoon for just a pound each. And then, I find an irresistible collection of Yoruba folk tales. Three books for less than Rs. 210! I can’t believe my luck.

These 40-odd bookshops, veering away from current trends towards internet vending, often do not have a computerized database. Nor do they have pesky assistants creeping out of the woodwork, offering to help. So we enjoy the luxury of searching through shelves of unusual titles, some antiquarian, some first editions, before stumbling upon hidden treasures. I don’t find the books I’m hunting for on contemporary enamels as an art form, or the intricacies of conch shells or even The Artists Cookbook. Instead, I come across ‘City Psalms’, a collection by Britain’s most popular performance poet, Benjamin Zephaniah. Now, that’s a steal!
But wait a minute, the Booksearch at Hay advertises an online universe of 27 million books through an international network of dealers. They promise a free online search for elusive titles, with an 83 per cent success rate, while you wine and dine in style.

The front of Roses Books

If that isn’t temptation enough, 18-year-old Roses Books offers worldwide mailing. Its prime focus? Why, collectible childrens’ and illustrated books!

At Mark Westwood Books, I ask the berouged, bespectacled lady at the desk if they have a copy of an all-time favourite book. I want to gift a friend, Helene Hanff’s ‘84 Charing Cross Road,’ based on cross-Atlantic correspondence between an American bibliophile and an antiquarian bookseller in London. She checks out her master-list, nods, then darts upwards to the stock room, But I can read the answer on her face when she returns empty-handed. ‘It must have been sold yesterday,’ she says apologetically. ‘And the salesperson probably forgot to enter the sale on our computer.’

But, what about Booth, the self-declared King of Hay? On April 1, 1977, he declared that the town should be independent of the British Isles. By what logic? Hay is between England and Wales, the maverick entrepreneur told the international press that had gathered for the event. Flagellating big business and the bureaucracy, he made a case for the manual and traditional economy through arguments for Home Rule for Hay. Is Booth off his rocker? Not entirely, given the evidence that Richard Booth Bookshops Limited have brought into Hay more books than all the combined Welsh universities and public libraries.

 A store titled Murder and Mayhem!

Booth’s future dreams for Hay include small specialist bookshops with experts at the helm. Most of his former staff have opened independent outlets of their own, leading to a booming trade. As an in-house step towards the future, his wife has set up stores at the restored town castle, now owned by Booth, that focus on areas such as the American Indians, Ecology, Film and Photography, Fine Art, History of Transport and Horror Fiction.

The castle has an embattled history to its credit. Built around 1200 A.D. by William de Breos, a Norman lord, it was reportedly destroyed by King John of England in 1216. Legend says that it was rebuilt in a single night by de Breos’ wife, Maud de St Valery. How did she perform this superhuman feat? By carrying stones up in her apron. Later, Maud and her eldest son were starved to death by being walled in alive by the vengeful English monarch. Destroyed and rebuilt many times over, it housed the vicars of Hay during Victorian times.

Hay, by the way, does not derive its name from cattle fodder. Rather, its origins lie in the Norman word Hay or haie, meaning a hedged enclosure. Its Welsh name, Y-Gelli, means a grove.

Situated on the banks of the River Wye, in the foothills of the Black Mountains, the rolling green hills of Radnor are visible from Hay. Up a single-drive track, Hay Bluff rises 2,227 ft high, allowing a spectacular view of the Brecon Beacons range.

As Booth continues to augment his stocks by acquiring books by library, by collection, or even volume by volume, the legend of Hay-on-Wye grows – until it assumes larger-than-life dimensions that you can touch. Silky as a well-worn page. Gilded golden like letters on leather-bound antique books. Filled with languages that trigger fantasies, a great leap towards transcending everyday life.

(Originally published in The Hindu Business Line, October 2001)

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