There's something about secondhand bookshops

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Old books

Don't you just want to reach out and touch these? Is there a single book there that wouldn't be worth looking at? And how does anyone ever make it all the way through a secondhand bookshop, anyway?

I've just spent three days in Hay-on-Wye, a tiny town on the England-Wales border that's best known now for its annual festival of literature and the arts. We made it to two and a half days' worth of the festival, but we (meaning, here, me and assorted family) were mostly there for the books. Hay-on-Wye is also the secondhand bookshop capital of, well, everywhere.


Every other shop sells books: £1 ex-library paperbacks, four-figure collectors' items, obscure fiction, obscure non-fiction, 1930s pulp fiction and leatherbound books called Ants and their Ways. There are over thirty bookshops in a town centre you can walk across in ten minutes. And while the booksellers are incredibly professional, and large secondhand bookshops really do need (and have) library-style organisation by increasingly detailed subdivision of subject area, there are only so many things you can do to impose order on chaos.


The festival itself is held out of town these days, but about ten minutes' walk away from the town centre. Still, ten minutes is a long, long way when it's as cold and wet and rainy as it was at the weekend. There's a constant stream of people walking between town and festival in both directions, and when there's only one narrow pavement and everybody's fighting with umbrellas and trying not to get even more mud on their feet (about which, I'd like to apologise to Nobel prizewinning poet Wole Soyinka for nearly jabbing him in the throat with an umbrella spoke. Well dodged, Mr. Soyinka). With all the events being held in giant marquee tents, it even got difficult to hear the speaker over the rattling, rippling sounds of walls and roofs in the wind sometimes (speak up, Professor Schama), but my God was it worth it. A. A. Gill's impersonation of a golf ball alone made up for the ticket prices. And between events, books.

Easy Conjuring

I bought more than I can afford and fewer than I wanted, which is about right. Among acquisitions is the Ruskin book from a previous post, a seemingly brand-new copy of this for about 1/18th of the Amazon price, five George Pelecanos novels and a 1953 edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles with photo illustrations. (According to the preface, '[a]ll but one of these photographs are reproduced by kind permission of Mr. Clive Holland who took them when, with Thomas Hardy, he visited the places described in the novel, shortly after its publication. They therefore present the Wessex scene as Hardy himself saw it. The actual place-names are given in italics.')

Not enough, of course. But you could spend Paris Hilton's inheritance in Hay, and you still wouldn't have bought enough books.



  1. Amy Palko Says:
  2. What wonderful photographs!! I've just linked to you at Textual Tangents.

  3. Thanks! I'm annoyed my camera batteries went flat, or I would've had more.

  4. Quillhill Says:
  5. I bought more than I can afford and fewer than I wanted. Isn't it always so.