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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.

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