Hay on Wye, Town of Kindles? - Katherine Roberts

I have fond memories of Hay-on-Wye. I used to live in Ross-on-Wye, about 30 miles downriver of the now world-famous town of books, and often tackled the twisty rural roads through the glorious Herefordshire countryside to the Welsh border, all in the name of research.

It's been about 25 years since my first visit to the town, back in the early 1990s. My friend Sue and I used to go to the Book Festival while it was still quite small, and the children's authors did their talks in the local primary school hall - or in its more modest classrooms, depending on their level of fame. One of the first children's events we attended was JK Rowling reading from an early Harry Potter in the school hall, where the organizers were clearly caught by surprise at the size of the audience and did well to squeeze everyone in. My friend and I stood in the doorway, trying not to feel too self-conscious among all the young fans squashed together on the floor. Afterwards, the signing queue stretched right around the school - twice. The next year, children's authors joined the big names and did their events in tents on the main site. Then the Festival got its own bigger (and muddier) site on the edge of town, and from there things got bigger still. Today, there is not just the spring festival at Hay-on-Wye, but also a winter one, and spin-off 'Hay' festivals in far flung parts of the world.


A reader who lingered too long at the Hay Festival?

All this fame has undoubtedly been good for tourism. I prefer to visit Hay-on-Wye when the main Festival is not running, because then you can actually park your car in the main car park, the town is quieter, and the bookshops and cafes have more time for tourists. I love poking around in the dusty corners of the honesty bookstalls, where you used to be able to pick up bargains for 20p or so if you were lucky. You can lose yourself for hours in the back rooms of Richard Booth's main shop in the centre of town, where my friend Sue and I would unearth long-forgotten science fiction and fantasy novels. I even once spotted a proof copy of my first Seven Fabulous Wonders book The Great Pyramid Robbery on some random stand... naturally, like all well-trained authors, I turned it face-out before we left☺.

The Great Pyramid Robbery
(2017 cover)

Today, Richard Booth's bookshop has gone upmarket. There is a coffee shop where all the best bargains used to be, and beautifully labelled shelves advertising all the different genres. Young Adult is upstairs, where the floor is amazingly sparkly. The Great Pyramid Robbery has long vanished, perhaps someone bought it? One of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries is there instead, face-out and pristine, making this part of the shop look a little bit like a big chain bookstore selling new books... which Hay does not (yet) have, thankfully.

Definitely not a chain bookstore

It might be my memory playing tricks, but there seem to be fewer book shops than before, and you need a special map to find them all. The honesty stalls in the outbuildings beside the castle have mostly disappeared, leaving just two ranks of covered shelving in the main castle garden near the street, which someone had artistically arranged by colour when I visited earlier this month, so that all the blue books were on the left, followed by white, then yellow, then orange, then green, etc... as good an attempt at categorizing the random titles found here as any, I guess.

Hay Castle bookstall - before the colour coding.

There are definitely fewer boxes full of tatty paperbacks sitting outside the shops where I used to do quite a bit of random shopping, and the discount £1 shop on the corner selling pristine copies of brand-new titles has vanished, to be replaced by some kind of gift store or clothing outlet... I didn't take much note, I'm afraid. Gone are the days of picking up a Hay author's book for a song in this shop, and then hot-footing it back to the Festival to get it signed - perhaps their publishers complained? Although, in truth, the discount shop was merely taking advantage of the fact publishers had optimistically overprinted and sold off their surplus stock at very high discount. Those books always turn up again one day, you know.

Books sold for less than the price of a birthday card.

These days, I look back at my bargain hunting younger Hay self with horror. But who can afford to buy full-priced books on a regular basis? Certainly not struggling authors. In fact, when I was in Hay only last week, I overheard a young woman saying to a friend that she wished she could buy a book because she wanted one, but she couldn't justify the expense (not even second hand), which I'm hoping is not an early sign of Brexit book buying jitters.

Hay feels different in 2017. The honesty book stalls, what's left of them, require pounds instead of pence - although the Old Cinema Bookshop still has a few bargain shelves that are worth checking out. I assume most of the tatty paperbacks I remember browsing through on the street have disintegrated, or perhaps been read to death. The secondhand book shops that remain have gone rather upmarket, and gift shops and cafes are taking over where books once reigned supreme. The wooden tourist information hut in the corner of the carpark, where my friend Mary used to work, has gone, to be replaced by a smart complex of shops complete with cafe, and shiny loos that require 20p before they will let you in.

Even the humble carpark is no longer content with a simple machine that swallows coins and issues tickets. It now wants you to answer a long list of questions before it will allow you to insert the price of a good book for the privilege of parking your car:

Language? (answer this one wrong, and you'll be totally flummoxed by the indecipherable Welsh instructions).
Type of vehicle? (You can't just answer 'car' - it's 'car and motorcycle', even if you haven't got a convenient motorcycle in the back.)
Registration number? (Cue anyone like me, who recently changed their car, running back across the carpark to check...)
Like the honesty bookstalls, the carpark machine too wants pounds these days instead of pence - and more fool you if you feed it your last 20p, because then you'll be hopping your way around Hay looking for a loo that doesn't think you're from London and try to fleece you for a wee. And after all that, if the machine rejects your new pound coins, you'll have to start the whole process again, accompanied by the groans of the queue behind you... this time, because you are panicking and forget to answer the language question, in the default Welsh.

Oh, and best not to mention the property prices. Everyone who is anyone from the London literati scene wants a cute little cottage in Hay these days, it seems, meaning that long gone are the days when you can buy a rundown little Welsh cottage for a song and camp there at weekends while you do it up.

Fame is not always a good thing for small Welsh/Herefordshire border towns. They start to get above themselves. Their car parks and their toilets acquire lives of their own. Their secondhand bookstalls seem to think they are selling new books. Their discount and new bookstores vanish into the ether. Their old-world charm is slowly overtaken by a desperate scramble for London pounds, and those bendy B roads just cannot cope.

Sue, taking in the view across Hay from the castle

With vanishing print runs by midlist authors, and the rarity of the more esoteric titles publishers used to support, where will all the future secondhand books come from? I doubt many of today's print-on-demand titles will find their way to Hay, and who wants to unearth yet another copy of last year's celebrity memoir? Old paper books eventually wear out. Will Hay be the same with a collection of old Kindles in boxes set out in the sunshine and showers on the street? Somehow, I doubt it.

No Kindles here yet... happy book bargain hunting!


Katherine Roberts writes historical fantasy for young readers with a focus on legend and myth. She also writes historical fiction with a touch of romance for older readers under the name 'Katherine A Roberts'. Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk


Penny Dolan said…
Thanks for these memories of Hay-on Wye and the current improvements (and prices), and your thoughts on the passing of browsing bookshelves. I've been there a couple of times during the season, but was too busy with other commitments to do much browsing.

Tourists can be a mixed blessing, as the grumpy bookseller in Hawes has found out. His rudeness to the too-passing browsers made national news and he has now gone. Whether the shop will survive under the Town Council's "polite new owners" is another matter. I fear the bookshop is seen a good shelter from the rain by the wandering coach parties, so I half-sympathise with his charge of "50p if you're browsing but taken off the book price if you buy."

London's Charing Cross Road - home to the "84 Charing Cross Road" book be Helene Hanff - used to have several outdoor browsing bookshops too. Probably that was when the universal raincoat had pockets big enough to carry a paperback.

My town, not as far north as Hawes, was known for second-hand books, but only one such bookshop remains, at least of the kind that smells of old books and interesting discoveries. The smart but cheap-to-run Oxfam bookshop swallowed up the other outlets, with the remaining charity shops hosting used blockbusters and sagas. No bookish romance there.

We do have a recently upgraded Waterstones-with-cafe and a small, hopeful independent is opening this weekend, but of course all those titles are new. Occasionally, opening up a "Used but in Good Condition" parcel from one of the on-line book suppliers, I still catch that scent of what's now "a pre-loved book".

Heavens, how the thought of all those disappearing bookshelves has made me witter on! Right, coffee!
AliB said…
A lovely post, Katharine. so many country places have 'benefited' from the kind of trendy gentrification that just makes so many of them look the same. A shame that even Hay is going that way - not to mention the hike in prices.
Ali B
Fran B said…
Try Wigtown in the Scottish Borders - it still has great charm with eleven bookshops round the village green where the 'big tent' is. Late night hot chocolate in a bookshop while listening to a bedtime story being read; a created mezzanine floor with single bed, wee table and reading lamp in 'THE BOOKSHOP' - you can book (pardon the pun) to spend the night; pop-up gourmet food stalls after the chef has been the 'author' at an event; and so on. Brilliant fun. But book accommodation. early - it's just a wee place and it's becoming very popular.
Yes, I understand that the Scottish Borders are a rather magical place, like the Welsh border used to be before parts of it (like Hay-on-Wye) got "discovered".

I think all borders are magical places - there's always a chance that if you go sideways at just the right moment, you might end up in Narnia...

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