Adam Ash

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Bookplanet: head to Hay-on-Wye if you love books

In Rural Wales, a Sundance for Bibliophiles – by SARAH LYALL

THE tiny town of Hay-on-Wye in southeastern Wales seems like a curious place to hold a major literary festival. Getting there involves a circuitous three-and-a-half-hour drive from London through traffic-snarled highways and back roads crowded with ancient farm vehicles. Big on charm but low on hotels (there is only one), Hay also has the disadvantage of being situated in some kind of freakish precipitation belt that attracts an unusual amount of rain.

Yet the Hay Festival, which began in 1988 as an insane glint in the eye of its organizer, Peter Florence, has expanded and expanded to become one of the world's best-known and most exciting literary events — the "Woodstock of the mind," as former President Clinton, a participant several years ago, put it. (Think of it as a literary Sundance festival, minus the Hollywood swag.)

For 10 days at the end of May, the town is given over to writers, and its population of 1,500 swells to a remarkable 80,000, as visitors troop to see the likes of Dave Eggers, Kazuo Ishiguro, Don DeLillo, John Updike, Clive James, Julian Barnes, Ali Smith, Patrick McGrath, Jeannette Winterson, Doris Lessing and Jaqueline Wilson, to name a few who have appeared recently.

Not only can these writers engage in ordinary literary-festival activities — reading from their works, discussing their inspirations and answering the inevitable pen-or-pencil-preference question — but they can also be found wandering around town, ordering coffee in local cafes, getting drunk in the bars and buying books in the used-book stores for which Hay is renowned.

So, when we visited Hay in mid-March, two months before the festival, my husband and I were not surprised to see the children's book writer Philip Pullman, the author of the fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials," serving drinks behind the bar in the Blue Boar, a pub-cum-restaurant on Castle Street in the center of town. Well, it wasn't really him, just his nonliterary doppelganger, but this is Hay, and the momentary vision gave rise to the fantasy of an all-writers' cafe lineup: Ian McEwan serving the food; Margaret Atwood as sommelier; Zadie Smith at the grill.

Accommodation is the biggest challenge for Hay festivalgoers, and most visitors are relegated to the many small inns, bed-and-breakfasts and guesthouses both in and outside of town.

That Hay has an absurdly high concentration of used-book stores — some three dozen of them — is due in large part to the efforts of Richard Booth, a zealous used-book seller who opened his first shop in 1961 and has actively encouraged others to follow. Which is the best store? Who knows?

There's one devoted to mysteries and thrillers, one to poetry, one to bee-related books, another to books about music, and another to rare children's books. There are huge ones, like the Hay Cinema Bookshop, and modest-size ones, like the delightfully named Sensible Bookshop.

Trawling through one such shop, let alone a half-dozen, requires fortitude and flexibility of thinking. While I failed to locate the book I wanted — Dickens's "Bleak House" — I did procure "The Dog Owner's Question and Answer Book," by one Don Harper; a very old Penguin hardback of "Flowers for the Judge" by the mystery writer Marjery Allingham; and "Three by Tey," a compendium of Josephine Tey books that contains two of the best suspense novels of all time, "Brat Farrar" and "Miss Pym Disposes."

The town is tiny, built around just a few main streets in the shadow of a large ruin of a castle that dates to the 13th century and has survived multiple sackings and multiple fires. It now houses a two-bedroom rental apartment, a bookshop and a 24-hour outdoor display of books that are sold on the "honesty" system — you leave 30 pence for a paperback, 50 pence for a hardback.

The town is relatively quiet in the off-season, but during the festival — which mostly takes place to one side, in an elaborate city of tents that rises, mushroomlike, out of the wet soil each year — it is literally thronging with people. (The invited writers may sometimes feign unhappiness at the zealousness of the fans, but they would be devastated to be left out of the festival.) You will have to fight the crowds in the streets and in the stores.

Hay may be out of the way, but it is surrounded by delicious, London-quality food. The area around Hay is also rich in walking possibilities, if you don't mind a little precipitation. Bookshops call out to you in little siren voices as you pass by, begging you to browse, and even though you try to be strict, telling yourself that you have no more shelf space at home, that your suitcase is crammed full, that you already have a stack of unread books waiting by the bedside, you end up buying more.


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