Travel: There’s a town of bookstores in Wales called Hay-on-Wye, and, yes, there’s ice cream – San Bernardino County Sun

There’s no shortage of storybook villages in the United Kingdom, but a village devoted to storybooks?

There had to be a story there.

Located near the Black Mountains in Wales, Hay-on-Wye is a village with an unusual sales pitch: It’s largely made up of bookstores. There are 19 of them according to the local website, and the shops specialize in everything from general fiction and nonfiction to mysteries, the military and poetry. It also hosts a literary festival in the early summer that attracts big-name writers, though we visited in August after the hubbub had died down.

Most people wouldn’t fly across an ocean to visit a bunch of bookstores. But as a reader and book nerd, I would, and thankfully so would my wife, a fine press printer and maker of books who suggested we make a visit to Hay-on-Wye part of our planned family vacation to England and Wales (which included doing plenty of other things that didn’t pertain to books in London, Bath, Oxford and other places across the English countryside). Our kids came around to the book town idea too, but that may have had something to do with the village’s impressive density of ice cream and sweet shops.

To get there, we left our hotel in Cardiff across the street from a castle and drove much of the journey on the A470, which eventually offers stunning views of Wales’ green valleys and rolling hills, though you can also take a route that leads you to a road sign that says Three Cocks & Hay-on-Wye. Sadly, we missed that Instagram moment. If you weren’t feeling rushed, though, you’d be wise to stop off along the way and take in the landscape. We, however, were on a mission.

I’ve been calling Hay-on-Wye a village, but it’s also a self-proclaimed independent kingdom. It was conceived as such in 1977 by Richard Booth, a local bookseller who dubbed himself the King of Hay and encouraged the town to focus on selling books. My wife had dreamed of coming to Hay-on-Wye since first hearing about it from Booth’s daughter, an innkeeper she met in Montolieu, a French book village that Booth also championed.

The little town is made up narrow winding streets and meandering walkways, and there are plenty of benches on which to plop down and check out your purchases or to nurse a drink or ice cream cone and just take a break.

Not much of a reader? That’s OK, too. The surrounding areas are good for hiking and biking and kayaking, and the town itself has plenty to recommend it beyond its devotion to books. It’s got a ruined castle that is currently under renovation, but you can buy a book outside of it, too. There are a range of restaurants, ice cream parlors and other small stores devoted to local wares, hiking gear or maps. We had lunch at The Granary, enjoying a filling meal at a rustic wooden table to get our strength up for all the walking around we planned to do.

Because, of course, there were all those books to see.

With my two sons accompanying me as my wife took in The Poetry Bookshop, I ventured in and out of around 10 bookstores, which included Murder and Mayhem, Addyman Books (and its annex) and the spacious Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Cafe and Cinema, which may have been my favorite. While there, I picked up a small essay called “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert MacFarlane, the writer of “The Old Ways” and “Landmarks” which detail his travels through the U.K. landscape. It’s a tiny thing, almost a pamphlet, and surprisingly it ended up being the only book I actually bought while we were there.

There’s also a small storefront museum called The Story of Books, which is devoted to printing and bookmakers, that swallowed up my wife and nearly had us staying overnight to visit the next day. There’s a bust of Richard Booth upstairs, should you care to get a look at the king.

We had planned to spend the entire day there, but due to a delayed start, we only spent the afternoon and early evening there. For my wife, it was nowhere near enough time. And for me? Well, maybe. I loved poking around the bookstores, but I was also looking for newer titles while most of these shops (though not all) focus on used or remaindered books.

And, full disclosure, I’d just days before bought a towering stack of exciting new books at Bath’s lovely Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading – which the Guardian newspaper rightly rates as one of the 10 Best Bookstores in the World – and so I could afford to be a little choosy about what I was going to be dragging around for the next few weeks. (Near the end of trip, I bought another stack at the London Review of Bookshop and Cake Shop!)

So I was. To stay focused, I focused my search on just one book: Alexander Baron’s 1949 “From the City, From the Plough,” an out of print novel I’d heard about on the book podcast “Backlisted.” It had been in print as recently as 2010, but was proving hard to find. And I couldn’t locate a copy anywhere in town.

In one of the shops, the bookseller asked if she could help me find something, and I told her I’d come up empty on the one book I was looking for. Hearing this, she gave me a withering look and said, “There are plenty of other books here, you know.”

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