Though a drive through the electrically green countryside that surrounds Hay-on-Wye makes for a perfectly lovely afternoon, a more potent draw is the sleepy Welsh town’s mouthwatering amount of printed matter: with over a million books crammed into its aging stores, quaint, cobblestoned Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli, in Welsh) is a bibliophilic Mecca to be reckoned with. Dusty volumes are packed in like sardines, some of them in shops tucked away down alleyways verdant with moss and mildew. Mouldering British cookbooks fight for shelf space with plant-taxonomy guides, romance novels and pricey but lavishly produced first editions.
To unearth these treasures the intrepid bookhunter need only meander into one of the many bookshops that liberally dot the town. And with a human-to-bookshop ratio of around 40:1, there’s a lot of choice. Mystery aficionados should check out Murder & Mayhem, while a visit to The Poetry Bookshop is de rigueur for fans of verse. One of the largest and most diverse collections can be found at the Hay Cinema Bookshop – rickety mini staircases, two sprawling floors and a labyrinthine series of rooms loosely divided by subject matter, creates a unique book-browsing space that seems to exist outside of the space-time continuum for the way in which it can so wholly consume an afternoon. Stay long enough and your faith that there’s an underlying logic to the bookshelves’ progression from “Fifteenth-century Russian History” to “British Water Fowl” to “Erotica” will grow wonderfully, psychotically strong.
Topic-driven pilgrimages aside, a visit to the two outdoor secondhand bookshops in front of crumbling Hay Castle is unmissable. Ringed by stone ramparts, the castle – nearly 1000 years old – provides a striking backdrop as you rifle through scads of books eclectic in appearance as much as theme.
Hay-on-Wye straddles the English–Welsh border, twenty miles from Hereford. Murder & Mayhem, 5 Lion Street; The Poetry Bookshop, Ice House, Brook Street; Hay Cinema Bookshop, Castle Street.