Britain’s secondhand bookshop Mecca

by Ed Gutierrez

Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross may be the book centers of London, but the Mecca for secondhand books in Britain is on the English/Welsh border. With more than 30 secondhand bookshops, tiny Hay-on-Wye bills itself as the “town of books.”

Hay-On-Way in Wales is a town of secondhand bookstores — and little else.

Though the bookshops in Hay-on-Wye can be as vast as any Waterstones, they remain pleasantly haphazard and intimate. Most are converted houses with holes in their wooden floors, providing a rat’s view of the underlaying mayhem. Books fill the fireplaces and run down the staircases and loft beams.

“The most aMAZEing bookshop in the world,” says a sign outside Hay Cinema Bookshop. It stocks 200,000 volumes where a screen and plush seats must have once been. Most items hover in the 10 pound range, and reprinted classics can be had for a pound.

Not to be outdone, Richard Booth’s Bookshop down the street carries double the stock and declares itself to be “the biggest secondhand bookshop in the world.”

There are no card catalogs to help you sort through the stacks. You don’t need them when you have hand-printed cardboard signs and an attendant who looks like he just got out of bed but speaks a perfect gentleman’s English. “May I help you find a book, sir?”

If he can’t find it, Booksearch across the street probably can. Like a detective agency, the shop will track down any out-of-print book across the country. It promises “perseverance over years if needed” and does not charge a fee if the search proves to be in vain.

The surrounding countryside is famous for the Wye River, flocks of sheep and rain. Looking out the attic window of one of the town’s bookshops, one might think of the opening lines of William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.”

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green

Only the view is of Wales, not England. The town is on the Welsh side of the border, and the Black Mountains mark the divide. Still standing in the middle of town is the shell of a 13th-century castle that everyone from King John of England to Prince Llewellyn of Wales was fighting over.

Hay-on-Wye is in the Golden Valley, but “golden” is a mistranslation of the Welsh and actually means “muddy” or “wet,” according to Nick Duberley, a member of the town council of Ross-on-Wye, which is further down the river. Duberley sports a beard like Saint Nick and a fashion of pajama bottoms and lumberjack shirt. His shopping bag contains obscure tomes on fossils and the region’s geography.

We have lunch at the Granary, one of the area’s numerous publike restaurants and restaurantlike pubs. A fire in the hearth warms the sleeping dog and reading customers. The aroma of home-cooked Stilton cheese-and-leek soup, and shepherd’s and mince pies mix in the air.

Duberley quotes romantic English poems from memory faster than most people can read them. After the mulled wine takes effect, the bachelor tells me about a Russian woman he’s met through an Internet dating service. Later, I find just the right book for him — about the intercultural problems faced by Russian women married to foreign men — but I blink and the book is swallowed up in the multitude.

The town is full of mad hatters like Duberley. Richard Booth started the first secondhand book shop in Hay-on-Wye in 1961 and owned most of the town at one point, including the castle. In 1977, he declared the town independent from the U.K. and appointed himself king — his horse was made prime minister. Currency was to be printed on rice paper so that “people could put their money where their mouth is.” His stunt gained nationwide media attention, though it didn’t grant him his fiefdom.

Booth and his kin understand the pleasure of searching for a book forgotten by time, polite society and Amazon.com. The visitor to Hay-on-Wye gets sucked into the maze of stacks and feels the insatiable curiosity of Faustus.

Hours of digging for gold pan out “The World’s Strangest Customs” and “The Cruise of the ‘Cachalot,’ ” a whaling book by Frank T. Bullen that promises in the prologue to “come near” “Moby Dick.”