I’m very lucky to have grown up less than an hour away from Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli in Welsh), the Welsh town of books, situated on the border with England, in Powys. The town is one of my favourite places on the planet and I make sure to take a trip there at least four times a year, if not more. The history of the town is well documented elsewhere, so I won’t go through the details of it here.
I have my father to thank for introducing me to this wonderful place. When I was a kid, my father, who was a sales representative at the time, had a sales route that would take him from Merthyr Tydfil, through to Brecon and then on to Hay-on-Wye every other Friday. On school holidays he would take me with him, and let me wander around this bookshop paradise for the afternoon. My parents have always been supportive and encouraging, and I can’t express enough gratitude to them for nurturing my love of reading in this way from a young age.
I suppose my first visit to the town would have been when I was around eight years of age. At the time, my primary bookish interests were old Beano, Dandy, Topper and Beezer annuals. Two of the town’s bookshops in particular were filled with such delights: Richard Booth’s Bookshop and now-closed The Bookshop (on the corner of Castle St and High Town). On the ground floor of Booth’s and in the basement room of The Bookshop there were shelves and shelves of British kid’s comic annuals ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s. These sections were my first destination on every early visit to the town, as I was keen to find any annual that I hadn’t previously read (my father’s love of the Beano as a child-teenager-adult meant that I already had an impressive collection of annuals set aside for me before I was born). I have very clear memories of running my fingers across the tattered spines of countless Beano, Dandy, Beezer, Topper, Whizzer and Chips, Cor! and Buster annuals, trying to decipher from the spine design and colours only whether I already had that particular edition in my growing collection.
The Bookshop also had a corner dedicated to young adult books, mostly fiction, horror and sci-fi. It was a little while before I graduated over to that section – I think I was put off by some of the grotesque monsters and creepy typefaces on the covers of some of the books – despite my lifelong love of horror, I was an anxious kid – but by age ten or eleven I was happily browsing the kids’ horror fiction section, having become fully engrossed in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps! series. I’d also started experimenting with trying to find other cartoon books that were kept in the previously forbidden humour sections in the “grown-ups” areas of the shops. I started up a ramshackle collection of anthologies and collections of things like Jim Davis’s Garfield, Gary Larson’s The Far Side, Matt Groening’s Life In Hell, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Scott Adams’s Dilbert, before moving on to much more “adult” fare like Gilbert Shelton’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers , Peter Bagge’s Hate! and Hunt Emerson’s Puss-Puss.
As I grew older, and phases came and went, my tastes changed. At age fourteen or fifteen I started scouring the third floor of The Bookshop for as many Nirvana or Kurt Cobain biographies as possible, as well as searching for any books on the history of Fender guitars or Home Recording for Beginners-style guidebooks. After that I started reading ropey books with titles like “Unsolved Mysteries of Britain” or “The Secrets of the Unknown”, found in the front room of the first floor of Hay on Wye Booksellers. All of these books were trash of course, but I was eager to read as much of this supposed “forbidden knowledge” as I could. From there I started searching for more “adult” horror books, especially in places like Addyman-owned Murder and Mayhem and the Hay Cinema Bookshop. At age 13 I had watched The Exorcist and despite the paralysing fear I had of the film, I was eager to find the original Blatty novel. I found it in Murder and Mayhem, along with Mark Kermode’s essay book on the film, complete with cover design with a film still of the grimacing demon which is still terrifying.
As I grew older still and set my sights on studying literature at university, I started to look for classics of the Beat Generation, books that Addymans had in bounds. I think I bought my first copy of Naked Lunch in Addymans, but couldn’t quite afford the very early editions of Kerouac and Ginsberg. some of these are still there, and I still can’t afford them.
These days, I usually have a list of the books I’m looking for (usually horror, poetry, folklore and local history) and I have a good sense of which shop is likely to have them in stock, as well as an estimation on the kind of prices they’d carry. Even so, I usually find myself coming home with something I’d never previously seen, opening up new channels of discovery and future spending.
Sadly, a lot of the shops have now closed down, including the much-mentioned The Bookshop. The larger shops like Booths, Hay Cinema Bookshop and Addymans are still seemingly going strong, and are usually full of customers every time I go. I’ve also found a couple of new favourites, like Oxford House Books, which is absolutely one of the best in town, and The Poetry Bookshop, which, in addition to their great Beat literature section, has wall-to-wall poetry books, collections and pamphlets.
Hay provides so much more than a visit to your local high street book shop, it provides you with surprises, with books you never knew existed, with cheap versions of old classics, with books on music, travel, science, astronomy, crime, nature, humour, horror, history, esoterica, poetry, biography and more. Spending a day in Hay is good for the soul. There are always tourists around but the town is usually quiet (aside from festival season), and the stillness and silence of a deserted room in a hidden bookshop is something to be treasured. Having a list of books to buy, with a solid planned route around the shops is probably my favourite way to spend a day.
If you’ve never been, go as soon as you can!