Teetering on the cusp of England and Wales is the bibliophile’s playground of Hey-on-Wye, famed for its second hand bookshops and book festival. If you are a book lover, Hay will keep you entertained in the shops’ maze-like layouts and millions of books on view. For years my parents lived within walking distance of the town centre so I’ve spent hours ensconced amongst Hay’s books and lugged many volumes home.
The Hay-on-Wye of today seemed more of a theme park than I remember. Fewer bookshops and more cafes, food shops, upmarket clothing stores and a littering of gift shops full of cute ceramics and housewares. Even the bookshops have seen more spit and polish with a more commercial edge and less of the musty antiquarianism I used to love. You can’t blame Hay-on-Wye for capitalising on its celebrity but its gentrification seems a little out of keeping for the wilds of the Brecon Beacons, and a touch too much hooray henry.
It didn’t stop me pulling out my list of books I’ve wanted in a while. I had a fine time crawling along bookshelves muttering the author’s name under my breath as if that would help the book to magically appear from its strictly alphabetised rows. I failed miserably to avoid the temptation to browse.
In my experience, browsing among books can lead to no good. At best you end up topping up your wish list and on a bad day your book bag overflows with books you never knew you needed, and in hindsight never do. But if the book gods grant you special privileges you’ll find a surprising treasure. I found a volume of food writing by Derek Cooper one of my long time food heroes so was blessed.
You don’t need to remind me about the stupidity of buying books when you have a finite baggage allowance to travel home, let alone the pain of struggling on public transport weighed down by heavy bags. But there are some things in life worth putting in a bit of extra effort for.