Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Hay-on-Why?

My summer holiday this year took in just a few of the many delights of England and Wales, including the Gower, the gardens of Hatfield House, the food of the Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and the vibrant city of Cardiff. On the day of our exit from Wales, I decided that no self-respecting book lover could possibly leave without visiting the famous Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, whose literary festival attracts thousands every year, as do its many bookshops. I was excited about this visit and had almost been expecting something magical. However, I'd now advise bibliophiles not to bother.

The near-mythical status of Hay-on-Wye is founded more or less on the reputation of its eccentric "king", Richard Booth, who also owns several of the bookshops in the town, including one bearing his own name. This, when combined with the magnitude of its yearly literary festival, leads visitors to expect that they are getting something unique. However, even though parking and tourist information are both plentiful, the town is still something of a disappointment.

I appreciate that we visited on a not-too-summery day in July, and that the place may well be more exciting when the festival is actually on. But given the town's propensity towards bookselling, one is expecting to see bookshops literally everywhere, with books almost spilling out of the town's every nook and cranny. However, what we saw was just an ordinary town that just happened to have a few more bookshops than average - and that was only when you had walked down a few streets. We weren't hit with the immediate feeling of "wow, look at all these bookshops!" that we had been hoping for - and sadly, neither did this feeling develop gradually as we wandered through the town.

But surely the bookshops themselves would be vast treasure troves of bargainous bookish buys to suit every interest? Not really. Many of them just seem to be general bookshops, rather than tailoring stock to suit different topics, so there is a feeling that once you've been in one of the bookshops, they all look pretty much the same, and while the proprietors attempt to organise their books by topic within shops, there again is still a feeling of getting lost amongst books in a negative way. There's the kind of purposeless browsing where you feel you may find a rare pearl at any moment, and there's the kind of purposeless browsing where you lose motivation and think "what's the point? I haven't got a hope of finding the kind of thing I want or like amongst all this".

Even the bookshops' architecture lacked character. Of course there was the blurred vision of the creaky-floored, faux-Tudor establishment, but many of them look like this, meaning that the overall effect is homogenised, not characterful (even though that doesn't seem to stop the hordes of foreign tourists - particularly Americans - being attracted to it and coming and loving it year on year). Equally, the one shop I really had hope for in terms of a memorable experience - the bookshop that used to be an old cinema - had ripped out all of the original features of the building that would have made it unique, leaving you to browse a soulless warehouse.

the book in question
To complete the litany of disappointments, there weren't even any good deals to be had. I appreciate that it's not the point of second-hand bookshops to give you as big a discount as Amazon. But I caught one bookshop selling a book for £30 which I later found for 1p (plus postage, of course) online. Is such a discrepancy in price really justified for a book that wasn't even signed or especially collectable? I don't think so - this to me smacks of Hay-on-Wye trying to milk tourists for all they're worth.

beautiful Hereford
I therefore left the town after two hours' browsing, feeling deflated and without even a single purchase to show for my efforts. All in all, it just seemed like a pointless visit and I was disappointed that I hadn't managed to enjoy it. It's possible that I would try again when the festival is on (although the difficulty in accessing Hay by public transport and the fact that the festival is held out of school holiday time makes it very difficult for working tourists to visit just for a weekend), and that I would find it more exciting then, thanks to the special events and guest speakers that are laid on, and the inevitable change in atmosphere that this likely bringing to the town. However, I'd be more likely to recommend doing what we did afterwards: driving for a bit longer to go to Hereford for lunch, which, while it boasts a vapid chain-dominated high street, also has plenty of cobbled side roads showcasing independent retailers, a beautiful cathedral, and the best cup of coffee we had for the entire trip. Hay could perhaps take a few lessons from Hereford in delivering an engaging town centre all year round - and not just when its world-famous festival is on.

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