In 2014, I was browsing through Cereal magazine when I stumbled upon this article about a “Town of Books”. The feature was brief but evocative, & in characteristic Cereal Magazine aesthetic, generously layered with moody, rain-washed images – a spindly chair at the back of a bookstore in dusky light, clothbound volumes stacked against each other, the humble yet majestic Welsh plains. I devoured the pictures as I did the words, & remember being drawn to this particular line: The books of Hay-on-Wye outnumber its human inhabitants by an estimated 6800 to one.
It was a figure that did not make sense, perhaps because all my life I had felt that there was no real limit of how much one could read if he or she was willing. But there it was, the impossible number as stark as day – 6800. If a resident of Hay-on-Wye were to read a book every week, it would take 130.77 years to finish the volumes allotted to him or her, book swaps aside. It was unreachable, astounding, daunting.
According to the feature, Hay-on-Wye (commonly abbreviated to just “Hay”) lies just on the border between Wales & England, far away from the capital cities of each country. Up till the 1960s, Hay was nothing more than a floundering market town until Richard Booth – a wiry, 20-something graduate who had gone off to study at Oxford University – returned home & became frustrated at how all his friends were leaving for cities like Cardiff & London for greater prospects. He decided to save the dwindling economy of his rural home the only way he knew how – through books. In 1962, he shipped hundreds of them in containers from the soon-to-be derelict libraries of America & scoured the counties for the forgotten collections of English aristocrats & opened a secondhand bookstore in Hay’s abandoned fire station.
It worked. Tourists started coming, followed by quizzical literati in the years after (it was after all the famed playwright Arthur Miller, who upon being asked to attend the town’s annual literary festival, asked: Hay-on-Wye? What is that, some kind of sandwich?). The sleepy town was finally & thankfully drawn out of slumber, saved from the fate of going out like a whisper like so many others. Since then, many have followed Booth’s example in setting up their own book enclaves, peppered all around town. Fifty-odd years later, Hay is home to two dozen bookstores & something like two million books. It is also hosts the annual Hay festival. Every year in May to June, writers, poets, artists, philosophers & bibliophiles, the likes of which include Alain De Botton & Joseph Heller, descend to the little town for this very reason.
What a story, what a place. I wanted to be there. For 22 years, I had sat on the floor of my tiny “library” & inhabited pages of novels & their fantastic tales. Books had been my world. How would it be like then, to live in a world of books?
“Books are the cumulative livelihood, directly or indirectly, of hundreds living in this town, and the draw for the many hundreds of thousands more who come to visit. They contain every imaginable world within their covers, our sum knowledge, every hope and every fear, in scores of languages by countless hands.”
– Richard Aslan, for Cereal Magazine.
For a long time, the natural rhythms of life intervened. Final year thesis, relationships, fixations with other cities, first job, tragedy. As each year passed, my life became a little messier & confusing & I read a little less until I read nothing at all. The mystical town of Hay faded into the background like a forgotten poet. But then like a miracle, three years later, I found myself in Swansea, Wales under the most unlikely of circumstances & remembered the book town that existed in between the folds of the Welsh countryside. Hay-on-Wye. A whimsical, three-note melody that beckoned me to thee. & so I booked my bus tickets, packed a night bag, & went.
Here’s the story of my 36 hours in the magical kingdom.
From where I am in Swansea, it takes 25 pounds, four hours & three buses to get to Hay, all to visit a town that you can walk across in ten minutes. The morning I leave, the temperature drops to a frigid four degrees & I miss the first bus out & have to wait forty minutes for the next one to arrive. Waiting at the interchange, it’s so cold that I can hardly feel my face. I finally clamber onto the regional bus at 7am. It is just me & an old couple sitting two seats ahead. The radiator is on full blast. I fall asleep almost immediately, unable to witness Swansea City fading behind me.
I wake up a half hour later & all I see is green. This is not the green that I am used to – that gaudy shade caught in jarring, tropical sunlight – but green touched by hues of brown & unbridled rock, an expansive landscape that forms the backdrop of books by Dylan Thomas & Bruce Chatwin. I realise that we are in the heart of Brecon Beacons National Park. There seems to be no horizon to this rolling greenery & a strange feeling rises in the pit of my stomach, swelling like a bubble, a feeling that I’ve only felt a few times before when I found myself in the middle of infinities… what was it? Peace? Bliss? Awe?
I wish I could ask someone about this. The old man turns around & gestures to the top window above his head. He’s asking me if it’s alright to open it. I nod, & he cracks the glass panel wide open & the bus is filled with fresh, vale air. I listen to James Vincent McMorrow & Sam Amidon & Lucy Rose. For more than an hour, we watch the hills twist slowly into roads, the old couple & I; we pass by clusters of thatched cottages, clusters of sheep, all the things in clusters against the sheet of green.
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
(Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953)
I get off at Brecon & catch bus 39 as per instructions from Chrissy, my Airbnb host. From the looks of her online profile, she is fifty or sixty-something, has a doughy, not unpleasant face & wears purple glasses. She says that she will meet me outside Hay Castle at exactly noon. I’m nervous because my phone has run out of battery & I have stupidly not written her phone number or address down.
We pass by a few stone mansions, a few road signs, a few people. Suddenly, Hay-on-Wye bursts into view. I can’t believe it, I’ve arrived. It’s down season here – the literary festival isn’t for a few more months – so the streets are mostly clear with the odd couple or lone traveller milling about at a pleasant pace. The bus stops right outside Hay Castle & seconds after I step down, I meet Chrissy. She is exactly like how I imagined – chatty, kind, warm. Immediately she launches into questions about where I came from, what I was doing in here in Hay, if I’ve had any lunch, etc. Her little apartment sits on the edge of town & when we reach, we trudge up two flights of steps & step into a warm little abode.
She shows me my room – spacious, comfy, big windows with a view of Hay Castle – & tells me where the amenities are. The tour takes two minutes because besides my bedroom, the only things to see are the bathroom (which we both share), a tiny sitting room & an even tinier kitchen. We don’t talk very much because she knows that I have come all this way & am itching to explore the town & its many bookstores. Chrissy leaves me with some food recommendations & retreats into her own room. I take only what I need, including two empty book bags & step out.
I don’t really know where to go so I stop everywhere. I go into The Fudge Shop & get a piece of chocolate fudge to nibble at as I let the streets take me where they may. To get to Castle Road, which is the main vein where most of the bookshops are clustered on, I make a turn into “Back Fold”, an unsuspecting lane, in itself a self-contained world of record shops & knick-knack boutiques & hidden tea salons. Back Fold narrows steadily until one has to squeeze oneself through the opening at the end. As I slide through the two building walls, I think to myself, this is what Alice in Wonderland must have felt like, falling through the rabbit hole.
Castle Street. The store signs are studded with old-fashioned names – apothecary, antiques, antiquarian – spelt out in fading gold letter & winding curlicues. I duck into Hay-on-Wye Booksellers first & lose myself in the first of many shelves of books. I marvel at the first editions locked behind glass boxes in the antiquarian section & talk briefly to the woman behind the counter, who has a shock of white blond hair & is meticulously cataloguing new arrivals, only stopping to make a sale or answer queries.
The next stop is Hay Castle, the crumbling monument that is the heart of Hay-on-Wye. I enter the castle via a small staircase & am surprised to find a dozen shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books, abandoned to the raw elements on this cold day.
The Honesty Bookshop is a peculiar feature of Hay-on-Wye, the only one in town that has no till nor owner. It gets its supply from a variety of sources & works like this – 50p for paperbacks, £1 for hardbacks, take all the time you need & leave the money in the little box at the stairs after you’re done. All proceeds go to the restoration & upkeep of the castle. The castle grounds & the sweet, spring air are yours alone to take in.
Hay Castle isn’t much when you compare it to the other massive stone castles scattered across England, but it is here where Richard Booth, the unofficial founding father of Hay, laid down the cornerstone for the first national book town in the world & all the eccentric booksellers to come. Similar to the eponymous, hapless hero of Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish classic Don Quixote, Booth is a queer enigma with ridiculous dreams. Quixote dubs himself a knight-errant & Booth proclaims Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom under his self-declared kingship, taking Hay Castle as his throne room; Quixote recruits an unsuspecting farmer to be his squire & Booth establishes a House of Lords made out of ordinary citizens & names his horse his prime minister. They are both driven by the same, unrealistic desire, or in Cervantes’ words: to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, bring justice to the world… & if not the world, at least this little corner of the once mighty Welsh kingdom.
What fools. What kings.
Next is Addyman Annexe, complete with a book passage & thousands of penguin paperbacks. Then Rose’s Books, all pretty in pink, a children’s books specialty store stocked with hundreds of out-of-print Tin Tin magazines & Grimm compendiums & beautifully illustrated fables. Then Francis Edwards, whose name sounds familiar until I remember that this is the “same” bookshop that I stumbled into four years ago in London’s west end when I was wet & cold & beginning to feel the first pangs of loneliness in that big, English city. As I stepped into this sister bookshop, I felt a rush of familiarity & recalled that moment from years ago tenderly. Francis Edwards welcomed me then & it was welcoming me now.
Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards
The sheet tacked on the front door reads
Open till late for midnight browsers
so I enter just after eleven
& even when the stinging spring chill blows
through the narrow shop space
nobody lifts their head to look, nobody notices
In a second everything is stock-still.
The first thing I see is an old man in a corner
apart from the rest, tenderly touching the book spines
& I want to cry from the beauty of it
from the realization that this city
is not of love or light or sin
but of little moments & things;
the shelves like billowing arms
& I can’t help it, I let myself fall
You’ve felt like this before, haven’t you?
Battened. held. safe.
(how well you know it
though you’ve never been before)
like maybe you could settle your words down into the dust
like maybe it would keep your secret for you
The rest of the afternoon passes in a salubrious haze. Lunch at Oscars – a ham pie & coffee with cream unspooling slowly in its warm centre. Broad Street Book Centre. A sundae at Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, listening to Willie Nelson. I finally arrive at Richard Booth’s Bookstore, the grandest one in town by a mile with two massive storeys, a cafe & a cinema. One can spot it from far away with its red lacquered front & huge glass windows.
Here, I take my time. I order a beer & an English muffin from the cafe & read some poetry; I melt into one of the plush chairs on the second floor, light streaming in from the open ceiling as I navigate worlds of botany, sailing, history, & philosophy. I’m beginning to taste the edges of that feeling of being battened, held, safe, the feeling of finally settling into the skin that I was always meant to be in, like a fitting book jacket. Ah.
That night, after a quick dinner at one of the two open pubs in town, I go back to Richard Booth’s 47-seat cinema, where I’ve purchased a ticket for that night’s showing of “Jackie”. Here, going for a film feels like you’re going to the opera, & rightfully so, in a town where the weekly film is the only form of entertainment besides the local pub or watching TV at home. At the foyer, there is a man in a trim vest & bow tie that serves wine, ice cream & candy from big, glass jars. I get gummy bears & a glass of red, feeling a little sheepish.
At 730pm sharp, me & 46 other people troop into the theatre & nestle into the plush red seats. We watch Natalie Portman on the big screen in all of her lithe beauty, watch her go into a catatonic state of shock & nearly mad with grief as Mr Kennedy is assassinated. We marvel at her polished, mid-Atlantic accent & her expressive brown eyes. We see her go from devastation to gracefulness in seconds & then back again, feeling our own hearts skip a beat at the tumult of raw emotion.
When the credits roll, everybody claps. It is a very good film. I sit in my corner seat for a little while longer while people get up to leave. I realise that I’m tearing up. From what? It has been months since I’ve watched a movie & enjoyed it, but it goes beyond that. Something about community, or home. I can’t be too sure.
The next morning I get up early to spend a few more daylight hours in Booth’s kingdom, but before I venture out, Chrissy prepares breakfast for me – three kinds of cereal, fresh fruit juice, & a really delicious toast that has all kinds of nuts & fruit in it. She brews me a cup of strong, Welsh tea & while I devour my bowl of sweet oats on a foldable table in her tiny living room, we talk about life & people & books. Like me, Chrissy isn’t a native of Hay-on-Wye. She’s not even Welsh. She is a welcome stranger in the land, who left a bad marriage, stumbled upon Hay after traversing the English countryside for days & then decided to stay.
“I came across this little town, & I know this sounds strange but when I arrived at Hay, I just felt it sort of… embrace me, you know? There was such an air of love in this place & somehow I knew that I would fit right in.”
Strange, I felt it too.
She tells me about her life, the whole unfiltered version of it too, all without asking, & I listen. She talks about how tough it is to make ends meet, but how she knits little hats & scarves to sell at the main square on Market day & rents out the second room & gets by. She says she’s happier then she’s ever been. I don’t know how to respond to the stark openness, but I buy a red knit cap from her & promise I will take some photos of her apartment with my DSLR camera so that she can put them up on the site.
Oh that would be so nice! I’ll need to clean up the place first though…
I decide to leave her to it, & so I thank her for the wonderful breakfast & go out. It’s another morning of the same – Hay Cinema Bookshop, Clocktower Books, Hancock & Monks Music. I do a little shopping in The Old Electric Shop, a space flooded with natural light & odds & ends.
I love this, the quiet tinkering. Two feet away from me, there is a couple sitting in silence on a couch, just holding hands & bathing in the glow of early morning. A few more people scattered around, reading or writing. I don’t know what it is that draws writers to cafes, to coffee & wine, but I love it – you know you are with the like-minded. Here, the gentle whir of the espresso machine will keep you company; here, the muffled conversations will inspire you. You will inhale, sigh with relief, & perhaps if you are lucky, the word will start flowing.
One rarely has days like these in Singapore. I treasure the effervescent moment.
It’s eleven – time to go.
After half an hour of walking around, I finally find The Poetry Bookshop, a quiet space in a back alley run by Chris & his wife, where I have a lovely conversation with him & find a rare, first edition poetry collection by Elizabeth Smart aptly titled “A Bonus”. Smart, like most other poets, was unknown & unappreciated in her time & only achieved relative fame years after she died with the prose-poetry volume titled “By Grand Central Station I Set Down & Wept”, a pivotal piece of work for me in my late teens, writing that joined two worlds that I never knew could touch. Her poetry though, is very different, but lovely all the same, & true.
How I used to long
For silence and solitude.
Because in a day or two
Out of the blue
Angels descended then
Connecting me with heaven
In a constant consummation
Independent of men
and things and events
All day and night
A long long amen.
Is This Pain Justified – Elizabeth Smart, from “The Bonus”
In my reverie, I realise that I’m blocking someone from making an actual query. I make way for a man in a beautiful navy blue coat who asks Chris a question about an author I’ve never heard of before & Chris says that while he does not have any copies, Richard Booth’s might have some. He writes down a few things on a scrap of paper & the man leaves happy, hopeful, his leather satchel bouncing behind him as he exits the bookshop & makes his way to the bookseller down the street.
Booksellers. I realise that this is the company that I am in – booksellers – people who have made it their life’s work to hunt down gems of the written word, who have driven for hours or days in search for their favourite author’s work. Next to them, I pale in comparison when it comes to a singular love for books. I can only peer through the looking glass, my fingers grazing the cold illuminated surface, in wonderment of these bookshops & their inhabitants.
Two o’ clock. My time in Hay has come to an end. I pick up my things, say goodbye to Chrissy, & catch the 39 out of Herefordshire. I settle into the seat, thinking about the hours that have passed in a tranquil fury. It was everything hoped for & more. It has been a rough year & I feel like maybe these 36 hours in Hay-on-Wye have done a healing work, that maybe something that I’ve been holding within me has broken like a dam. Lo, the Magical Kingdom.
Hay is a town that is full of dreamers, & not the kind of dreamers that sit around all day doing nothing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Beach, George Whitman & his daughter, Richard Booth… these booksellers are men & women of greatness because they know & believe in the magic of storytelling, of print, of curation. Booth just decided to do something, & a bunch of people then did the same.
In his memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, the poet Lewis Buzbee says this: I am fatally attracted to all bookstores, & I identify with this gravitational pull well because in this day & age where we see the world through pixels & screens, there is a certain comfort & romance to reading with unadulterated eyes. By reading, you partake not only in your past, but someone else’s, or maybe even a whole civilisation’s. It is a necessity & a privilege.
So go ahead. Open the door, dip your finger into the jar, let your eye linger on the page. It’s all waiting for you.