Hay on Wye: past its sell-by date?

On our return from an anniversary celebration we made a detour to Hay- on- Wye. It’s years since I had a good mooch around the place that labels itself the “Town of Books”. I don’t count the years when I’ve been to the  literary festival since I spent almost all my time at the site rather than the town.

I knew Hay has seen a drop in the number of bookshops but I wasn’t expecting the decline to be quite so evident. Yes there are still more used book outlets than in any other place I’ve ever been but I’d say there are about half the number there were when I first visited about 15 years ago.

Richard Booth bookshopRichard Booth’s bookshop is still going strong as is the Hay Cinema Bookshop at the opposite end of town. Some of the specialists outlets like Mostly Maps (antiquarian items from around the world; the Poetry Bookshop and Murder and Mayhem are still in business.

But the days when you could walk out of one, and turn immediately into another in the adjacent premises, are no more. In their place have come boutiques and shops selling overpriced scarves, candles and knick-knacks for the home.

I appreciate  why this has happened. Business rates in the UK have risen so steeply in the last couple of years that it’s put a huge strain on most small businesses. Coupled with that is the continuing growth of on line shopping. I heard a statement just this week that online shoppers in the UK spend more per household than consumers in any other country.  Some of those big outlets (no names but you know who I mean) have ginormous premises yet don’t get burdened with the same business rate bill. No wonder the small shopkeeper can’t compete.

Some of them in Hay have  decided that if you can’t beat them, you should join them. So they’ve closed the shop and now trade exclusively on-line.  Good for them but not so good for people who like to browse before they buy. But maybe that was also part of the problem – too many browsers and not enough buyers?

Haye-on-Wye has become what is now apparently called a “destination town”; a place where visitors from far afield head for a leisurely afternoon with lunch and a stroll through picturesque streets or along the river.  Hence the large number of cafes now in the town.

I understand the appeal. But if you are a book lover, then  Hay-on-Wye no longer has the same appeal it once held. It was actually a very disappointing experience even apart from the reduced number of outlets.

Those that do remain were – with a few notable exceptions – jumbled to the say the least. It was hard to find anything because so often the books were shelved completely randomly or just stacked in piles on the floor (multiple trip hazards).  I tried five shops but none of them could deliver up even a single title by Winifred Holtby or Penelope Lively; Olivia Manning I found in one place but it wasn’t in a good condition. And where were the Virago green spines? Nowhere to be seen…..

Added to this I thought the prices were pretty high. I know the owners have to make a living but £4.00 for a very slim novella in not very good condition didn’t feel reasonable given it’s original selling price of £7.99.

I didn’t come away completely empty handed but didn’t buy anything until the very last shop. I added two titles, both from the Library of Wales collection, rather than the armful I was anticipating bringing home.  If you’ve never been to Hay-on-Wye it’s still worth a visit but I fear for me, this is a lady that is now past her best.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 30, 2018, in Bookends and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. Thanks so much for this post! For years I have dreamed of visiting Hay on Wye, and I was completely unaware that the bookstores there had suffered so. What a loss!

  2. I went a few years back and came away with bagfuls – I felt like I’d spent a weekend in Vegas! To be fair I’m not put off by tatty covers and dogeared pages so I’m easily pleased. Sad to hear it’s on the decline though, I like to think of it as a little corner of bookish heaven.

    • I saw one bookshop which was in an alleyway between two shops that just invited people to leave any size of donation. Such a good idea I thought because someone might see value in it and its better than the book going to pulp

  3. Sorry to differ but I still love Hay! Perhaps not as a place to find that rare book at a bargain price, but as a place where one can spend a couple of days happily enjoying the surrounding countryside, lunch in one of the many cafés (including Booth’s), an evening at the cinema, an interesting town to stroll through, and a number of book-related events outside of the Festival.

    It’s in a lovely location. Offa’s Dyke Path runs through the town. I’ve walked this, and Hay is a good place to stop off overnight. There are other, shorter walks around the area.

    When I visited in September 2013 there were various events related to Heritage Open Days: a preview of a play on a local topic, a slideshow by a local historian, demonstrations of country building crafts at the castle and an evening poetry reading by Owen Sheers at Booth’s. Visiting again in April 2016 with a friend, we were treated to an informal poetry reading in the tapas bar, an art exhibition, and a personal guided tour of the castle.

    To be fair, I wasn’t looking for anything particular in the the way of books, but we both came home with some reading treats.

    • Agreed Jenny it does still have all of those delightful aspects. the countryside around Hay is a feast for the eyes…. It was just the dearth of bookshops I was lamenting

  4. Oh, what a shame, I haven’t been for about eight years. I used to love the Sensible Bookshop the best, as the downstairs £1 section was amazing. But I love Cinema and Booth’s too and am glad they’re still there. Also the comment about evening meals is encouraging as we had real trouble finding somewhere to eat last time we stayed. But a shame some of the ramshackle charm has been lost.

  5. This does make me sad!

  6. The last time I went used book shopping I came away disappointed too. They didn’t have any titles I was interested in. Gone are the days of the big book haul.

  7. Oh dear… that is sad. I’ve never yet got to Hay and I’ve obviously missed its best years. Such a shame that it’s turned trendy rather than bookish. And I know what you mean about prices – my local Oxfam is very erratic but their prices have been slipping up recently to silly ones so I’m being a bit more selective…

    • My sister told me today that the British Heart Foundation also runs dedicated bookshops and their prices are reasonable. I’ve never come across one of theirs though have you?

      • Not an entirely book one, no. Our local BHF is reasonably priced but the selection isn’t that great. Leicester has an Age Concern bookshop, however, Which is not only well-stocked but has very reasonable prices there!

      • There’s one in Cheltenham (books and music). It does of course have a larger collection of books than your average charity shop, and the prices are OK. I expect it depends on who is managing any charity shop, what they deem to be saleable and which books they don’t even display.

        Oxfam also have specialist shops in Oxford. We have donated a large collection of unusual and foreign language books from a family house clearance to our local Oxfam, and they will pass them on to Oxford, or so I’m told.

        • That’s probably the one my sister was thinking of since she worked in Cheltenham… Yes I’ve heard that the charity shops do move their items around so if you take something into one place but they think theres a better market for it in another town, they’ll forward it

  8. I spent my childhood less than ten miles from Hay. Before Richard Booth took over the town with his bookshops it was a Hippy destination (the attraction being the mushrooms that grow on Hay Bluff.) Booth revitalised the town to the consternation of many. But it brought a different class of visitor with money to spend. As you say, however, fashions and times change. That phase in the town’s history lasted longer than many would have predicted. Where any of our towns and high streets go next will be interesting to see. Those that can (and Hay is one such) will surely still be able to cash in on more traditional tourism, aided by festivals (music and/or literary).

  9. Ah well, I’ve always wanted to visit, but shall no longer feel sad if I can’t.

  10. I’ve been to Hay six times over the last 14 years and I would agree that there are far fewer bookshops than when I first went. The ones that are still going strong have really smartened up their appearance and their business model: Booth’s, Cinema and Addyman are all very professional. (The rest of the town’s businesses, especially the eateries, have likewise improved in standard. It used to be hard to find a decent evening meal in the town but now one is spoiled for choice!) And of course the successful shops sell a lot online. So there certainly aren’t as many random little shops selling things for 50p or £1 (though the Oxfam shop has some great bargains!), but I like to go and pay that little bit more to support the town as a whole. The same was true for me in Wigtown. I ended up buying somewhere around 15-20 books in each town on my visits last year and this year, spending a fair bit more than I would normally on secondhand material.

    • Those three definitely stood out as the best. At least two of them have branched out from second hand books and are selling stationery as well as new books – Booth’s in fact has a whole display of current and new editions right at the front door. I don’t go expecting to get bargain basement prices but equally I dont want to feel I am being over-charged.

  11. That’s disappointing, Karen. I visited in 2011 and was disappointed too. I had foolishly brought along some non-bookish friends (we were all going back to London following a wedding in Herefordshire) and I remember they bought some antique lamps from a homeware shop while I looked in about a dozen bookshops and came home empty handed. I remember thinking everything was overpriced and tatty and none of the shops had any of the titles I was searching for. How sad you think it’s gone downhill even further. Out of interest, have you ever been to Wigtown? I’m intrigued as to how it compares with Hay…

    • I’ve heard of Wigtown and have a subscription with one of the shops where you get a random book sent each month (so far none of the selections have been of interest sadly). But no I’ve never been….

  12. Times change, and IMO few things represent that change more than the way we shop. I love the bricks-and-mortar bookshops I frequent, but I also love online shopping for books because so much of what I want to read isn’t available in shops. I bought 1001 Books from a retailer when it first came out in 2006 and was immediately frustrated at not being able to buy the books, and was ecstatic when I discovered The Book Depository and Project Gutenberg.

    One of our friends who’s an economist says that it won’t be long before shopping changes even more. These days plenty of people go to a store to browse a book or try on clothes for size or find out the features of an appliance, and then they go home and buy it online. Shops, this friend says, will have all the stock but you’ll pay a fee to enter the store and you’ll only get it back if you buy a product. If he’s right, it will make shopping a very lonely experience, I think…

    • In the UK they are already trialling shops as showrooms. You visit the shop, browse at your leisure, scan the barcode of the item you like and it will be delivered to your home at the click of a button. Hunter Boots in Regent St have been doing this for years. I suspect there are other businesses doing something similar.

      • There’s a bulk goods company here that you have to join as a member before you can go in to look at anything. It’s ginormous, which puts me off completely even if I did think it worthwhile to buy 50 toilet rolls in one go.
        LOL as we all get older, they’ll have to install travelators for us to browse the aisles…

        • I think we have some of those here – they call them ‘discount warehouses ‘ and you can buy catering size packs of everything so fine for a large family but for just a couple it’s not worth it

      • It makes the shopping experience so different. Part of the fun when I was a teen was getting the instant gratification of walking out with some new garment I would wear that night. I do’t want to go through all the hassle of parking in a city centre, choosing the item and then leaving empty handed and having to wait for a delivery that always manages to arrive when I am not at home.

        • Ah, but people don’t go shopping to buy things any more, they go to have an “experience”. Have done a lot of reading / research into this area for my job… it’s fascinating to see how millennials view the world as they’ve grown up with digital / online and know no other way (like us).

        • Any good books on this topic Kim? I’d love to know more….

        • Not that I’m aware of…

        • I was interested by your comment that you’ve been reading a lot on the topic so I assumed you were talking about books but now I think about it, you could just have meant articles on line etc

    • I really hope your friend isn’t right about that pay to enter model. It will mean shops become a service for those who can afford to pay to enter. What next – those shops may then decide you can enter only if you look the part. We will end up with even more of a society of haves and have nots.

  13. piningforthewest

    I was there about seven years ago and was very disappointed. I didn’t buy one book as the few I might have been interested in were pricey. I read a wide range of authors but everyone else must have got to them before I did, if the books had ever been at Haye. I visited a teeny bookshop in Huntly, Aberdeenshire last week and came away with nine books. I also found Wigtown to be a disappointment.

    • Interesting though sad to know this issue isn’t just in Hay. Good to know that there are places where you can still buy reasonably priced second hand copies. I used to go into the Oxfam book shop in Cardiff regularly but they have steadily hiked their prices and now they have passed my test for reasonableness

  14. So sorry to hear this– I was there 17 years ago with my husband and son and we were astonished and delighted, both at the number of shops and the quality of service–in one shop I asked for a book, saying “I don’t recall the name or author, but it was about……” and the woman serving me found it! Guess it won’t be a destination for me any longer.

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