On the border between England and Wales lies Hay-on-Wye. It offers something fresh and unique in distinction to the typical cute UK village – namely: books. Famously known as the “town of books,” the place is dedicated to literature; filled with antiquarian and vintage bookshops. The village draws a range of people – antique collectors and book-loving hipsters alike. But the remarkability of this town is based on more than its endless shelves and countless pages. The literary presence gives a beautiful, romantic feel to the area, based on values of community and local roots. With the stunning countryside around it, Hay-on-Wye holds a genuinely exceptional atmosphere: a bohemian, rustic creativity you will struggle to find elsewhere.
Anyone can list the many bookshops open for you to visit. And they are worth the visit, especially for those with a deep love for reading. But you don’t need to buy books to appreciate this place. Read ahead for suggestions of some particular moments to be found and how to embrace the pleasant, folksy atmosphere of Hay-on-Wye.
So – what does Hay-on-Wye have to offer?
Bookshops in Hay-on-Wye
And not just any bookshops – the bookshops of your dreams. There are those located inside old, stone houses. Some proudly line the high-street and promote their literature outside in wooden boxes. Others are secretive; hiding around corners with low archways and old fashioned front doors. Most have wheeling ladders or narrow staircases up to low-ceilinged attics. All have comfy armchairs.
Hay-on-Wye is the home of tall wooden shelves with books tumbling off them. It’s a place where papers are piled high on messy tables and scattered on the floor – fulfilling every bookshop stereotype and every reader’s dream. This bohemian yet classic essence is the real appeal of Hay-on-Wye. Collectors rave about the literary gems to be bought and sold here. But the gems are the free moments, rather than the expensive books, waiting to be found. You could not buy a single book and spend the day exploring these bookshops.
And, you can not only buy their books but sell your own too. If you need it, most shops offer book repairs. There are also various books signed by the author, first editions, specific versions and ones with particular illustrations. You will have no trouble finding them, but if you want to start somewhere, these are some of my favorite Hay-on-Wye bookshops:
- Hay Cinema Bookshop
- Richard Booth’s Bookshop
- The Poetry Bookshop
- Murder & Mayhem
- Rose’s Books
- Boz Books
There are more bookshops than these – including those specializing in maps, natural history, children’s literature, crime & thriller and first editions of Victorian classics. In reality, once you are in the village, you will wander around and repeatedly stumble across them. After all, half the fun is finding for yourself a single favorite bookshop of Hay-on-Wye. My favorite – Hay Castle’s Honesty Bookshop.
Hay Castle – Honesty Bookshop
The Honesty Bookshop stands out amongst the rest. This bookshop is found in the gardens of the Norman castle that dominates Hay-on-Wye. The historical landmark stands impressively in the background as the books sit freely in its courtyard, out in the open air. Not just a bookshop built in an old, stone building, it is a shop built into an old, stone wall. Rather than just book-full, wooden shelves, it has shelves built into the hedges. The authentic rustic nature of Hay-on-Wye is revealed as books and environment are intertwined – the books literally making up the brickwork of the town. Here, you can delve into the available literature, choose a book and lie tranquilly on the grass in the shadow of the ruined castle.
There is no shop owner, only a sign saying “50p Paperback – £1 Hardback.” You grab a book and leave your money in a small box. This is where you realize the true local loyalty of the town and the trust that comes with a village, countryside community. The prices of the books are low, and the books are full of history and stories. This is the place to take home a souvenir. If you can’t find a book you like, at least take a picture to capture the lovely scene.
Afterward, be sure to climb the wooden stairway and walk among the longstanding, quiet castle walls. When you’re ready, leave the grounds, walk through an old firm door and back to the winding Hay-on-Wye streets.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop offers two impressive creative spaces. The first is a cinema focused on literature-themed films, showing such things as book adaptations and recorded Royal Shakespeare Company performances. In a cute and cozy room, the atmosphere is more comfortable than the usual dark and distanced cinema setting. The second is The Bookshop Studio, offering creative space for independent practitioners. In this open, spacious attic room, yoga and Pilates classes often take place, enhancing the communal atmosphere.
The Hay Cinema Bookshop offers extra creative services. You can buy books for decorative purposes; furnishing or props. Aiding local theater productions, shops give assistance to other creative forces in the area. Furthermore, this bookshop holds poetry society meetings, reaffirming the local love for literature. It also provides writing workshops to help developing writers.
The Poetry Bookshop invites authors to partake in public readings and signings. Throughout the town, you will find art exhibitions. Musical performances are another common occurrence – from classical recitals to folk street buskers. Hay-on-Wye is not restricted to its tight communal sphere. It is a world-famous literary hub and draws many creative individuals desperate to be part of the unique artistic community.
Other things to do
The annual Hay Festival of Literature and Arts is especially renowned. Described as “the Woodstock of the mind”, every year the creative flare of the village is embraced and celebrated by people from all over the country. The festival celebrates all things creative; bringing together writers and artists to share, develop and celebrate ideas and stories. “To inspire, examine and entertain” – the festival has involved novelists as famous as Jeanette Winterson and Salman Rushdie.
Every Thursday, the town holds a local market – a classic feature of any small country village. Enjoy some of the food from nearby farms – locally sourced and fairly produced. There is also various Welsh brewed beer to be tasted in one of the country pubs scattered around the village. And there are actually other shops other than bookshops – those selling gardening tools and plants, homeware and furniture.
Hay-on-Wye is truly and simply a place to be explored. You can catch exceptional moments here. Read in an open attic space, with the sunlight coming down from the ceiling window, shining on a wooden beamed room. Stroll through narrow streets and spontaneously enter hidden book-filled havens. For the perfect gift, souvenir or work of art, buy from one of these overflowing shelves. Or, freely walk through the aisles and browse the collections. Either way – be sure to travel to the enchanted town of Hay-on-Wye.