Wye You Shouldn’t Go

The world’s most overrated bookstores.

Monday’s New York Times feature on Larry McMurtry’s used-book-selling enterprise in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, reported that he took his inspiration from the world’s first book town, Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh border region. In various stories since the mid-1990s, the Times has referred to Hay in rapt tones: It’s a “Mecca for book pilgrims” or a “pilgrimage site for rare book collectors.” Take this advice from someone who’s been there: Go to Hay-on-Wye for the spectacular scenery, some of the kindest bed-and-breakfast hosts in Britain, or tips on promoting tourism to your very own out-of-the-way ghost town. And if your trip coincides with the annual literary festival—said to be the world’s biggest—great. But if it’s books you’re wanting, fuhgeddaboutit.

Before I made my own hajj to Hay, I did some serious preparation: I wrote up a wants list, I offered to seek out rare volumes for friends, I studied guides to first editions and “points of issue” (the details and errors that identify true first editions). What a waste of time! I’d have been better served studying merchandising techniques at my local supermarket, because when I got to Hay I was appalled at what I found: A million books, 999,000 of which are junk. And stinky junk at that.

It’s easy to be snobbish about books and bookselling—there’s a residual air of stuffiness in most aspects of the trade—but it’s hard to imagine that even the most democratic of book lovers wouldn’t be horrified by Hay. A bit of absent-minded disorganization can be charming, but most of the town’s more than three dozen stores are just a big mess. There are a lot of books, but it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting most of them, not because they’re esoteric or specialized, but because they’re marginal garbage—old tabloid tales, library copies of terrible romantic novels, outdated schoolbooks, vanity press editions. Few of the stores seem to have any sense of cataloging—books are simply stacked up with the vaguest notion of categorization. I can imagine a librarian stepping into a randomly selected Hay store and weeping. My Slate colleague Moira Redmond described Hay-on-Wye as a town of “greengrocers who happen to sell books” because that’s what people come for—a shocking contrast with most used-bookstore owners, bibliophiles who simply can’t stop themselves from buying and selling books.

The biggest sin, though, was poor condition. At least half the clothbound books were missing their dust jackets. In the States, that would make them all but unsaleable. The used bookstores in my neighborhood put protective sleeves on all the hardback editions they offer for sale—even the books they set outside in the “$2 for anything in this pile” bin. In Hay, there was less protection than in a seminary. Like all collectibles, the price of used books depends on the volumes’ state, and for the benefit of buyers and sellers, there are established definitions for the terms of the trade. Very few tomes in the bookstores of Hay qualified as anything more than reading copies. If a copy is jacketless, foxed, price-clipped, shelf-worn, and reeking of mildew, that should be reflected in the price, and in my experience, the books in Hay-on-Wye were expensive, whatever their condition.

Still, you have to admire the marketing genius that lures a million visitors a year to a relatively remote town of 2,500. (Hay has no train station—visitors without a car can look forward to a 55-minute bus ride from Hereford, which is a three-hour train journey from London. The bus only runs five times a day, a schedule that keeps local taxi firms busy and Hereford hoteliers happy.) Richard Booth, an eccentric Hay-on-Wye bookseller with a talent for self-promotion, hatched the idea of the book town 40 years ago; since then several others have sprung up in Europe, Asia, and North America. It can be a godsend for an isolated community where shop fronts and storage warehouses are cheap and plentiful: A European Union Web site for book towns boasts that Redu in Belgium was “almost extinct” 18 years ago; the Norwegian book town of Fjærland is a five-hour ferry ride from Bergen!

I wish these secluded places all the best in their struggle for economic resurgence. But as a bibliophile severely disappointed by Hay, I hope Larry McMurtry’s stacks are better stocked and organized.