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Books, Cooks and Looks : Great Wales! : Picturesque Hay-on-Wye is a book lover's paradise amid scenery worth writing about

July 07, 1991|JOEL M. VANCE | Vance is a free-lance writer based in Jefferson City, Mo.

HAY-ON-WYE, Wales — It is a bibliophile's hog heaven. It is Mecca for those who wallow in musty printed matter, glory in the paroxysms of dust pneumonia.

Hay-on-Wye, just into Wales in southwestern England, calls itself the Town With a Million Books. Actually, one shop, located in a cavernous old movie theater and appropriately named The Cinema, brags that it alone has 120,000 used books. And there are more than a dozen other book shops tucked into corners and down narrow lanes in this picturesque medieval town.

Couple that resource with the incomparable scenery of the nearby Brecon Beacons National Park and the many activities possible within a few miles--fishing, hiking, pony trekking, bird-watching--and you have the stuff of which dream vacations are made. Especially for book lovers.

Wales is England's forgotten corner, a country within a country, where road signs are printed in both English and Welsh and invading legions have failed for more than 2,000 years to de-Welshify the wild and rugged mountains. Wales is to England what Montana is to the United States: beautiful, tough and remote . . . not to mention extremely friendly.

And there's all those books. . . .

Hay-on-Wye sits at the foot of the Black Mountains on the southern bank of the River Wye, one of England's most famous fishing rivers. I counted 14 major bookstores in the town of not much more than a thousand people. They range from vast barns housing general-interest used books to antiquarian shops specializing in everything from entertainment themes to the military, from maps to poetry. The Hay Print Shop, as its name implies, sells prints, including cartoons, old advertisements and watercolors.

The latter is owned by Richard Booth, a bibliomaniac and British eccentric credited with founding the town's secondhand book trade. Booth set up his first shop in Hay's old fire station in 1962, and proceeded to buy up the town castle and cinema, opening other bookstores along the way. A number of London booksellers followed Booth's lead, and the town eventually proclaimed itself the secondhand book capital of the world. (Protesting the British government's rule over the rural community, Booth declared Hay an independent republic in 1977, crowned himself king and named his horse prime minister, but that's another story.)

The ardent bibliophile can explore the book shops (and a number of antique stores) in one day (although some are closed Sundays) to satisfy his or her book lust. One, the Performance Art Bookshop, carries entertainment memorabilia such as old sheet music and movie fan magazines. A couple of magazines from the 1940s were heavy on photographs of Betty Grable. The Castle Bookshop, one of Booth's stores, claims to stock the best collection of American Indian books in Britain. The Ecology Bookshop specializes in the environment; Five Star Books Ltd. features 20th-Century military books.

While the larger stores, such as Richard Booth's Bookshop Ltd. (known as "The Limited"), have more books, some of the smaller shops have real treasures, including first-editions by famed authors. You won't pay the thumping markups of posh antiquarian bookstores in major American cities, but you will pay the going rate. Hay-on-Wye booksellers aren't hayseeds.

In most shops, the proprietor is more than willing to shoot the book breeze. While they're in the business of selling books, they're in it because they also enjoy books . . . and talking about them. Don't be afraid to strike up a conversation.

Because of my interest in wildlife and the outdoors, I was looking for any books by Sir Peter Scott, a World War II naval hero and world-famous wildlife artist. Son of Robert Falcon Scott, the explorer who perished near the South Pole, Peter Scott founded the World Wildlife Fund and wrote and illustrated a series of lovely tributes to waterfowl, all out of print, as is his delightful autobiography, "Eye of the Wind."

I found two of his books at The Cinema, for which I paid about $10 each. Later I was able to get them autographed at Scott's famed waterfowl refuge, Slimbridge, not more than 75 miles away, across the English border. "They're quite hard to find now, you're lucky," his wife, Phillipa, told me. (Sadly, Scott, who was ill during our visit, died not long ago.)

The Cinema overflows with every genre of popular used book imaginable--science fiction, children's literature, cookbooks, numismatics, architecture, photography, magic, sports, humor, economics, fiction, you name it--but no one hovers or pressures you to buy. Browsing is more than half the sport, and I found no Hay bookstore owners who objected to customers spending far more time browsing than spending money.

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