A book-lover’s heaven in Wales

People sometimes give me strange looks when I tell them that my dream vacation is a quiet spot where I can read all day. These are the same folks who vacation at beach resorts where rum punch and dancing every night means they need a vacation from their vacation when they get home from vacation.

I don’t see the point.

So when my husband and I went to England for holiday last year there was only one place I really wanted to visit: Hay-on-Wye, Wales, better known as “The Town of Books.”

From London we took a train to Hereford, then hopped a rickety bus that drove at a furious pace along the narrow roads through the rolling foothills of the Black Mountains just inside the Welsh border. Everywhere I looked I saw green hills, neatly rolled stacks of hay, vineyards and more sheep than you could shake a walking stick at. It had been unbearably hot and muggy since we arrived in England, but up in the hills it cooled slightly and the breeze through the bus windows was delicious. For the first time in two weeks I wasn’t sweating.

When I stepped off the bus I let out a squeal of delight, surprising myself because I rarely squeal — even frown on it, actually — but I had just spotted the first of over 35 bookstores in this tiny Welsh town, population 1,400. Photography, anthropology, ornithology, cooking, military, philosophy, psychology, children’s books, annuals, fiction as far as the eye could see, picture books, religious texts — billions of pages, zillions of words. At last count over a million books were here in the world’s largest secondhand book center, and I was going to get me some.

We checked into our bed and breakfast, a two-story cottage called Tinto House, on the town square. Our room had a woody theme, with a big comfy bed, a window facing the town clock and, you guessed it, books on the shelves. On a table, a tray that held a small kettle pictured all the provincial flowers of Canada — a little piece of home. I waved at the trillium.

We were only in Hay-on-Wye for a day and a half, so we had to get cracking. The first shop we came to had books crammed into shelves and piled on the floor, and magazines, some more than a century old, littered desks and chairs. There was no mood lighting, no comfy chairs, no coffee shop — just books, plain and simple. I was soon to find out that all the bookstores followed this pattern, and it was a welcome relief from the huge bookstore conglomerates I’ve seen in Canada and the United States that seem to be most interested in the fabric design of their chairs and whether or not they can get employee uniforms to match.

I spent the first few hours writing down titles and authors. Knowing that I could buy only so many to pass the airline’s weight restriction, the list would come in handy for searching back home. Finally, I bought my first one, but buying books in Hay-on-Wye is like eating peanuts — you can’t have just one. I bought more, added to my list and, sometimes, simply stood inside a shop’s basement for a moment and inhaled the mixed aromas of dust, mildew, old and new paper, glue and leather. Ah, heaven!

Bookcase after bookcase line the castle’s inner walls and the Castle Book Store operates on the honesty system — 50 pence for hardcovers, 30 pence for paperbacks. You drop your change in a small metal box that is emptied each night.

Bookcase after bookcase line the castle’s inner walls and the Castle Book Store operates on the honesty system — 50 pence for hardcovers, 30 pence for paperbacks. You drop your change in a small metal box that is emptied each night.

In the center of town lie the ruins of Hay Castle. Legend has it that a giantess, Maud Walbee, or Moll as she is also known, the wife of the lord of the castle, built it in the 12th century by carrying the huge stones in her apron. I wondered how she would feel knowing that one day her castle would be turned into a big book shop.

After a wonderful dinner at Kilvert’s Restaurant (named for Rev. Francis Kilvert, a Victorian vicar who lived near the town) that came complete with a resident cat who acted as though it was her right to share your dinner, I wrote some postcards home, leaning out the window, a cup of tea balanced on the sill, listening to the town clock chime every quarter hour, and wishing that tomorrow would get here quick so that I could again wander through the stacks.

That night, as so many other nights in my life, I read myself to sleep. That’s a heck of a lot better than dancing the Macarena, in my book.

Originally published at Salon.com, January 1998.

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