It’s the Hay Festival this week, at the original book town, Hay-on-Wye. Even when the festival has packed up, it’s still a lovely place for bookworms to visit at any time of the year. But if you’d like to take a bookshop tour of the world, there are book towns all over the globe.
Surrounded by beautiful countryside, on the border between England and Wales, the small town of Hay is world famous as the site of the Hay Literary Festival, and the first book town in the world. In 1961, bibliophile Richard Booth opened a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. He then took people from the town to the USA where libraries were closing down and selling off stock. Bringing back second hand books in shipping containers, he encouraged others to start second hand bookshops to reinvigorate the rural economy. On 1 April 1977, he declared Hay-on-Wye to be an ‘independent kingdom’ with himself as its monarch as a tongue-in-cheek publicity stunt.
Montereggio is a small village, with a long history of bookselling. Back in the 1800s, villages left their families with baskets of books heading towards the cities to sell their wares, starting up a literary tradition – even though the vendors may not have actually been able to read. Following generations sold books on stalls and then finally set up bookshops. There’s a book festival every year in August, filling the narrow alleys with stalls offering books of all kinds, as well as a variety of literary events with authors and publishers. and a prestigious illustrated book award, the Silent Book Contest.
Paju Book City is the only member of the International Organisation of Book Towns to contain nothing but bookshops, book cafes and publishers – the whole city is dedicated to Korean books.
Dreamed up by publisher Yi Ki-Ung it’s now owned by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. 250 publishers are based in Paju with 10,000 people working there. There’s an annual Booksori book festival, attracting up to half a million visitors, the Paju book awards for Asian writers, editors and designers for promoting the region’s culture, and a children’s book festival each May. Lectures and book clubs run throughout the year.
Located just a dozen miles from the border with North Korea, the founders wanted to emphasise the importance of the common good above self-interest. As an antidote to the over-development of Seoul it was designed to have tree-lined, mainly traffic-free streets.
The Forest of Wisdom (Hoedong-gil) is a library with eight-metre-high shelves and a collection of 50,000 donated books, where volunteer advisers help readers search the stacks. There is also an on-site hotel, so bibliophile visitors can read books 24 hours a day.
In 2007, with the help of 100 local volunteers (at a time when Clunes only had a population of about 900) a group of residents decided to host an event they named “Booktown for a Day”.
Hoping that around 1000 people would turn up to the market day of rare, collectable and antique books, nearly 6000 people actually visited. Since then, Clunes has been recognised as an International Book Town, with the population having doubled in the past 10 years -a testament to the effects of the now annual literary festival. It is a hub of ideas and the arts as well as having a disproportionately high number of bookshops. Clunes offers a free series of writer talks on the third Sunday of the month – known as ‘Booktown on Sunday’, as well as its festival which now attracts around 18,000 people per year.
Bellprat, situated in a beautiful rural setting, is Catalonia’s first book town, and the second in Spain, after Urueña. With a lovely medieval centre, the inhabitants are welcoming and enthusiastic about sharing their love of books – especially those in Catalan. Their annual festival is held on the first weekend of June, and several houses are temporarily turned into secondhand bookshops, as well as the covered market being given over to books.
Cal Pinyota on Plaza Catalunya (find on Airbnb) is a bookshop-hotel with fiction genre themed bedrooms, including detective, historical fiction, and travel. It also organises creative writing workshops and themed literary weekends for families, with suggested reading lists, treasure hunts and craft sessions.
Wigtown was officially designated as Scotland’s National Book Town in 1998 and is now home to a wide range of book-related businesses. In its twentieth year, there are now over quarter of a million books to choose from, both old and new. The annual Wigtown Book Festival over ten days each autumn offers more than 200 events for adults, children and young people including literature, music, film, theatre, arts and crafts.
On the banks of the St.Croix River, Stillwater, Minnesota was officially designated the “First Book Town in North America” by the Richard Booth of Hay-on-Wye in August, 1994. Although the town has only five book stores remaining, there are more than 500,000 antiquarian and secondhand books available for sale. Just one book shop alone, Loome Theological Booksellers (North America’s largest specialist in Theology, Philosophy and Religion) has 250,000 titles.
There is only one children’s book town – Lilleputthammer. The Children’s City of Books has six houses devoted entirely to books, themed as When Mum and Dad Were Young(books written between 1900 and 1970), Picture Book House, Youth Literature Mysteries and Crime, The Comics House, and The House of Facts. The main section of the town has a miniature copy of the main street in the city of Lillehammer, Storgata, with all the houses built as they looked in the 1930s but at a quarter size. There are also lots of other shops, including a bookshop with new books.
The historic town of Óbidos was previously best-known for its annual chocolate festival, until bookshop owner José Pinho, had the idea to transform Óbidos into a book town.
They didn’t open new bookshops – many stores just added bookselling to their business. Art galleries now sell art books, the market sells cookbooks along with fruit and vegetables, and the museums stock history and other related books.
The Literary Man hotel has merged accommodation and literature with around 50,000 books on sale, spread around the property. One of the most beautiful bookshops is the Grande Livraria de Santiago, inside the town’s 13th-century church, and a children’s bookshop is inside a former primary school. The town also hosts a major international literary festival, Folio.
10. Kokata, India
Kolkata has a long history as a major printing centre, set up by the East India Company, and the International Kolkata Book Fair, established in 1976, is the world’s biggest book fair for the general public.
College Street, in the northern, older part of the city is known as Boi Para (Colony of Books), regarded as the largest secondhand book market in the world. Around 1.5km long, the street is lined with stalls, bookshops, publishers, and educational institutions, including Dasgupta & Co, the street’s first bookstore, set up in 1886.
We hope that this has inspired you to visit some of these booktowns, or seek out others near you. Do let us know if you have any recommendations!