It’s nearly two o’clock in the morning, and Alexis Jensen and her family are still maneuvering the ever-narrowing road that winds through the Black Mountains in southern Wales. Not having anticipated the farmland, tricky terrain, and occasional stretch of forest, the Jensens were expecting to have reached their destination hours ago. But Jensen is on a quest, and no thickets of brambles or crumbling infrastructure can stand in her way. Soon enough, an idyllic town comes into view, framed by the vast wilds of Wales. And though the town’s cobblestone streets and old-fashioned appearance seem quite similar to other English and Welsh hamlets, the shops found in Hay-on-Wye set the town apart from most tourist destinations found in the British Isles, making it the perfect location for Jensen’s journey.
Dubbed the National Book Town of Wales, Hay-on-Wye boasts nearly two dozen bookshops with content ranging from rare children’s books to antique maps. It is a mecca for book collectors, and thanks to a publicity stunt in 1977 in which local book- shop owner Richard Booth declared Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom and crowned himself king, the hamlet has found a comfortable place on the travel routes of literary enthusiasts. The yearly Hay Festival—held for ten days from late May to early June—is responsible for drawing a large crowd. Over 80,000 visitors from across the globe gather in the quaint town to meet prominent literary figures, listen to live music, and screen upcoming movies.
Though the festival attracts visitors during the beginning of summer, it’s the bookshops—the crown jewels of Hay-on-Wye—that keep the crowds coming throughout the year. The interiors of most bookshops in the halcyon town are a far cry from the neatly ordered, sterile stacks found in large bookstore chains. Many are specialty or secondhand bookshops and, as such, are arranged in a hodgepodge manner—books tipping precariously off of shelves, pages popping out of books—that Jensen says increases the romanticism of the book-buying experience. The whimsical layout of these shops slows down the browsing process considerably and can try the patience of a less dedicated book hunter.
While the tranquil atmosphere of Hay-on-Wye might be uninspiring to vacationers seeking a thrill or arduous outdoor challenge, the true bibliophile is right at home in the dusty old bookshops. The natural history enthusiast finds his niche in the midst of the Collins New Natural Collection and in the countless volumes on the subject of gardening and botany found at C. Arden Bookseller, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans unite under the roof of Murder and Mayhem, a shop specializing in detective fiction, true crime, and horror novels.
Readers of all interests can find the book they need in the Hay-on-Wye Booksellers located in the heart of town. For enthusiasts whose primary interest lie in ambiance, the Hay Castle Bookshop is the place to go; the most recently built portion of the castle is one of the only sections of the historic monument that can accommodate visitors. And what else would Hay-on-Wye use that space for but a bookshop where history and literature intermingle and coexist? Along the castle’s outer walls is another unique bookshop: the Honesty Bookshop. Unmanned shelves crammed with books line the stone walls, and payment is made on the honor system—a box mounted to the wall serves as clerk and cash register, and visitors make payment for their books there.
Jensen wishes only that she’d had more time to peruse the shelves of the various bookshops Hay-on-Wye has to offer. Despite the difficulty of leafing through piles of books, Jensen was lucky enough to fulfill her goal and leave Hay-on-Wye as the proud owner of a stunning collection of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales with original illustrations. “It’s like walking into nature and falling in love, because it’s so beautiful in all its old and dusty glory,” said Jensen of her experience searching for the perfect book in Hay-on-Wye.
The avid book collector and the general literary lover alike could spend several days leafing through antique volumes and second edition folios and still leave shelves of books untouched. And in the end, each will find—just as Jensen did—that the magic and romanticism of finding the right book outweighs any difficulty found in the travel or search.