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Book Towns Revisited

July, 2005
By John Huckans

Hay-on-Wye, the original book town and brainchild of Richard Booth, attracts book-tourists from around the world, hosts an annual literary festival and otherwise goes along on automatic pilot. There’s an advantage in being first to come up with a new idea-not to mention the beautiful Welsh countryside, the literary festival, restaurants, cafes, pubs and, of course, some very good bookshops.

Its imitators, however, haven’t been as fortunate. For a while, if you took the press releases seriously, it seemed that book towns were springing up all over Europe and North America. And even though there has been some success in Europe, in North America the idea never really caught on.

In Europe book towns have been subsidized through various programs for economic development and an organization has been formed for promotional purposes. On the IOB website there is some historical background and a brief mission statement quoted here in part:

The Book Town concept was initiated by Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, U.K. It offers an exemplary model of sustainable rural development and tourism. It is one of the most successful new tourism developments and is being followed in many countries. Five European Book Towns: Bredevoort (The Netherlands), Fjaerland (Norway), Hay-on-Way (Wales), Montolieu (France), and Redu (Belgium), jointly have completed the 24 months’ EU-project UR 4001 : European Book Town Network — a Telematics Application based on a Model for sustainable Rural Development based on Cultural Heritage, in cooperation with Vestlandsforsking , Norway and Luton University, England. As one of the results of this project, the International Organisation of Book Towns, the “I.O.B.”, has been founded.

Since Wigtown in Scotland isn’t mentioned (perhaps they opted out of the EU project) the information on the website might be somewhat dated. At any rate, the stated aims or goals of the organization (originally written in a language other than English apparently) are quoted as follows:

  1. raise public awareness of book towns and stimulate interest by giving information via internet and by organising an International Book Town Festival every second year;
  2. enhance the quality of book towns by exchanging knowledge, skills and know-how between the book towns and their individual booksellers and other businesses;
  3. strengthen the rural economy by making propaganda for the existing book towns and by offering a medium (e-commerce) to the book sellers, by which they can offer their books to a universal public, also or specially in the quiet season (“winter economy”);
  4. undertake other activities which can serve the interests of book towns and strengthen independent businesses in book towns, e.g. stimulating the use of information technology;
  5. help in these ways maintaining regional and national cultural heritage and to stimulate the international public to get acquainted with it. [sic]

In North America there are any number of reasons why the book town idea hasn’t taken root. From where I sit and from what I hear and read, there are at least four key factors or components all of which must be in play for the plan to have reasonable hope for success.

The number one requirement is low overhead. Turnover in any large secondhand or antiquarian bookstore is—to understate the matter—somewhat slow, and unlike chain and independent bookstores that routinely return unsold books to the distributor or publisher, secondhand bookstores must live with their buying mistakes. Or, as in the case of the bookseller in Wigtown (see “Letter from England”), dispose of excess inventory in a public bonfire thereby getting some free publicity while regaining valuable shelf space. Growing and largely static inventories require a lot of room and rising real estate prices and rents have driven many secondhand bookstores away from highly populated areas. So without low or at least affordable rents, all the rest is pointless.

Secondly, a book town should be within reach of a large metropolitan area. Almost any place in England, south of the midlands, is not that far from London and Hay-on-Wye is only several hours away by automobile or coach (long-distance bus). In America the distances are great and cheap rents tend to be found in areas where cows often outnumber people. Nonetheless, there are some successful bookshops in the south and central Catskills that have regular weekend customers from the New York metropolitan area.

The third item on our wish list would be out of the question on this side of the pond. Government subsidies of book towns, based on the European model as described on the I.O.B. website and its various links, would be somewhat foreign to the American experience. In this country public money for entertainment purposes, a half billion dollars or more at a time and with little protest, goes to fund new sports stadiums for wealthy owners of professional baseball and football teams. In general our cultural priorities are different—although critics of English soccer fans might dispute the point. “Bread and Circuses” not “Bread and Books” is what the American public wants and in the New World Order it seems logical that an entertained public would be more tractable and easier to control than an educated public.

“Won’t you sign up your name,
we’d like to feel
you’re acceptable, respectable,
presentable, a vegetable…”

For those too young (or too old) to guess the source of the above fragment, there’s an obvious clue buried in the preceding sentence. At any rate, as wonderful and visionary as “EU-project UR 4001” may seem to some of us bookish diehards, this one definitely ain’t gonna happen here.

The fourth desideratum or sine qua non is cooperation and a sharing of work and promotional expense. Lack of this element is the shoal upon which many a would-be American book town has foundered.

At one time Stillwater (MN), Grass Valley & Nevada City (CA) and Archer City (TX) had hoped to replicate Hay-on-Wye’s success, but of late little has been heard of them. I believe there may be two or three bookshops remaining in Stillwater, but in New England and parts of New York towns and villages with two or more booksellers (usually open by appointment or chance) hang from the trees and lie thick on the ground.

Grass Valley & Nevada City (the Gold Cities Book Town) had some initial success mainly because of the efforts of Gary Stollery and John Hardy. Commenting on the history and ultimate failure of the experiment founder Gary Stollery had this to say:

I feel that the successful book towns have all had visionary and passionate business people with unlimited resources at the helm. I had the vision and the passion, but was a business person with only limited resources… during the years 1996 through 2003 the Book Town project had 31 open shops (both new & used) — 13 in Nevada City, 15 in Grass Valley, one in Penn Valley, one in North San Juan, and one at Lake of The Pines. It was good in the beginning, a couple of them did open their own shops, but with the demise of the Book Town, several shops have closed and booksellers have retreated back to the co-op or back to their homes. We also spent time again in Hay, Archer City and Sidney, B.C. promoting the Gold Cities Book Town, but in 2003 all our efforts (and the money to underwrite this project) came to an end. It was a case of everyone wanting to go along for the ride, but no one wanting to help pay for the gas…

Although the Gold Cities Book Town experiment is over, the annual Gold Rush Book Fair run by John Hardy has been fairly successful.

In Paul McShane’s “2002 Report on Book Towns” (see: he describes Archer City as “a town of about 2,000 people, a half hour drive south of Wichita Falls and about a two hour drive north of Dallas-Fort Worth… situated in the vast empty prairie country of west Texas north of the Brazos River, ancient lands of the Comanche…”

Booked Up, writer/bookseller Larry McMurtry’s several building complex of bookstores in the heart of Archer City, was to have been the anchor for a book town, but with the exception of Three Dog Books in nearby Wichita Falls, its fairly remote location a few hours north west of Dallas didn’t attract other booksellers—making it not so much a question of lack of cooperation but lack of other booksellers to cooperate with. As of this writing the future of Archer City as a bookish oasis in west Texas prairie country is very much in question.

North American book towns may have come and gone, but I do detect the beginnings of yet another sea change in antiquarian bookselling. Wearying of the rat race to the bottom that characterizes what much of online bookselling has become, several booksellers have told me they have or are in the process of pulling their inventory from the well-known sites and are planning to create attractive bookish destinations that will be open to the book-buying public—something on the order of “Bookman’s Alley” in Evanston, the Chicago area’s landmark antiquarian bookshop that has never sold books on the internet. And there are some obvious parallels in other areas of commerce—a visitor to a nearby recently opened Bass Pro Shop commented “it’s not just about getting the best price on a package of fish hooks.”