Visiting the world’s very first Book Town, in the words of John Denver, is like “comin’ home to a place I’d never been before.”
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Building the First Book Town in Wales
The idea of Book Towns began in the little berg of Hay-on-Wye Wales in the entrepreneurial mind of Sir Richard Booth. I like Sir Richard for two reasons:
1. the whole book thing.
2. Hay-on-Wye is a small town in an agriculture region of Wales. Richard Booth wanted to do something to enhance the community and provide jobs for those not engaged in agriculture. He wanted to keep the small town alive.
Yep, that speaks to the farmer’s daughter in me.
So, in 1961, he bought an empty fire station and started filling it with second hand books. Other towns people saw his success, so more used bookstores opened.
It’s hard to say how many booksellers there are in Hay. Sometimes, it’s just a table out in an open space with somebody selling books for the day. But it’s safe to say that in a town of about 1,500 people, there are more than two dozen bookstores and untold millions of books for sale.
Booth sold his original fire station book store, but you can still find him in town. Look for the store “The King of Hay.” Ya, that’s what Richard Booth calls himself, all in good fun. He also appointed his horse Prime Minister of his kingdom. I’ve never met him, but I like Richard Booth.
The Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival
With so many books, bibliophiles and great words filling the streets of Hay, it made sense that a book festival would follow. The Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival is a ten day event that stretches from the last few days of May through the first week of June. It’s ten days filled with author talks and book signings, writing workshops and public readings. Upwards of 100,000 people come to little Hay-on-Wye during the festival
That’s just another point that proves concept of Book Towns is a documented model of sustainable tourism and rural economic development.
People will travel hundreds of miles to visit these little towns, to browse in book shops and chat with like-minded individuals. Then, of course, they need a place to eat and sleep. They often buy other souvenirs of their journeys and they go home and tell their friends.
And then, they will curl up with one of their Book Town purchases and let the pages take them on a journey that can only be taken in a book.
Book Towns Around the World
Richard Booth didn’t stop in Wales. He spread his crazy madness around the world and today more than 200 communities have been officially designated Book Towns.
To be a designated Book Town, yours must be a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty.
Stillwater Minnesota was the first book town in the U.S. with five massive bookstores.
Another is tiny Brownville, Nebraska, population 50. But the little cafe and craft shops all have huge numbers of books, including an old school house with an estimated one million books.
Check out the entire list of Book Towns here.