If you want a data haven, Sealand is the micro nation you need to go to; if you want a Segway, then go to North Dumpling Island. If you want books, however, then Hay-on-Wye is the destination of choice.
Hay was declared a micro nation by the self-proclaimed King of Hay, Richard Booth, in 1977. It was something of a publicity stunt that helped put Hay on the map. Previously a struggling market town, Booth’s dedication to the place has turned it into a Mecca for book retailers, with over 30 second hand bookstores operating within the town and its outskirts.
(Booth was, however, beheaded in effigy and Hay declared a commonwealth in 2009. Other booksellers felt that Booth had neglected his duty in drumming up publicity for the town. I think I might have seen the head earlier today actually.)
The story of Hay touches on several niche subjects and social concerns; micro nations, for instance, or library closures.
That last one’s a bit of a topical issue, what with libraries across the UK under threat from the Government’s austerity measures. It also raises the question of what happens to all the books. Earlier this week, when in Worcester, we visited a store run by an environmental charity that gave away books for free; in Hay’s case, the books traveled from further afield. Apparently, in response to a wave of library closures in the US, Booth took a group of Hay locals to America to bring back redundant stock.
This could be a lifeline for collections threatened by public spending cuts, with the concept of the ‘booktown‘ providing an escape route for books that would otherwise end up as landfill. I feel happier knowing there’s a sanctuary for quirky titles, titles like this:
This is particularly important at the moment. Browsing Hay’s bookstores, you can’t help but notice the petitions, protests against plans to build a giant supermarket in the area. This feels like a crime – unusual, out of print volumes threatened by Fifty Shades of Grey goo, the continuing homogenising of Britain’s towns.
That said, all those books have a permanence to them, and when that’s such a part of the landscape it’s no surprise if you develop a problem with ebooks. Hay is a monument to the physicality of the printed word, a place where Terry Pratchett’s concept of libraries bending the fabric of time and space could almost be true. If I ever have to rebuild civilisation, I’m heading to the nearest booktown when the batteries on my Kindle run out.
In the end, we didn’t buy that many books during our time in Hay-on-Wye. For me though something more important happened; I was inspired to keep blogging, to keep telling stories, to keep making sure I try to put the stuff I learn out there, into a public space. After all, that’s what all those writers represented on the shelves of Hay wanted to do, and now they sit there, happy, given a second lease of life by the spiritual home of all Britain’s bibliophiles.
PS. Should have mentioned this originally, but Hay-on-Wye is twinned with Timbuktu in Mali. during its golden age the city was a centre of Islamic scholarship but now, facing desertification and poverty, it’s facing a desperate struggle to save its ancient historical documents from extremists. Another wrinkle on the preservation of knowledge.