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Europe’s Book Towns

Readers Revive Sagging Village Economies

By Susan Richardson

I’m walking down a narrow sloping street, flanked on both sides by secondhand bookshops. On the pavement outside each doorway are cardboard boxes brimming with bargains begging to be taken home and read. At the bottom of the street, I come upon yet another bookshop with, it claims, more than half a million books on display.

My first day of a self-guided tour of three European book towns began in Hay-on-Wye, snuggled into the Black Mountains in Wales. The vision of one man, Richard Booth, was responsible for transforming the town from a declining agricultural settlement. Since 1961 and the opening of his first bookshop, Booth has persuaded more than 30 other booksellers to set up shop in long-neglected buildings. His almost evangelical commitment to reviving the town can be seen in other isolated towns in Europe—the object of my pilgrimage.

The annual International Festival of Literature gains Hay-on-Wye most recognition. I have timed my book town tour to coincide with the festival: like thousands of other visitors, I have driven on a single-track road through the Black Mountains, past peaks with such singular names as Lord Hereford’s Knob, before dropping down to river level and the center of Hay. Having spent most of the day exploring all the second-hand bookshops, I move on to the festival site in the castle grounds.

There, I find specially-erected tents where authors, plucked from the lunches and launches of literary London, read from and discuss their work. The mood is cheerful and egalitarian: famous politicians, brandishing their memoirs, rub shoulders with the popular novelists who lampooned them in their latest best-sellers. Highbrow academics confess to a passion for thrillers and crime.

Members of the audience linger between readings in the refreshment tent, playing spot-the-famous-author or clutching copies of their own unpublished manuscripts, on the look-out for a literary agent.

Norway’s Book Town, Fjaerland

Compared with the buzz and bustle of Hay’s Festival, the village of Fjaerland, in the western fjord region of Norway, has a sleepy feel. Snow-capped mountains and an advancing glacier front the water, while a variety of boats—rowing, fishing, and the occasional ferry—glides across it. Between hotel and boat quay, along the village’s main street, are its 14 secondhand and antiquarian bookshops.

Although tourists have been visiting Fjaerland and staying in the turreted Hotel Mundal for more than a century, for most of that time it could be reached only by boat. With the opening of the road tunnel through the mountains in 1986, it became much more accessible—just a 6-hour drive on the trunk road from Oslo. But tourism alone could do little to boost the declining economy. An inspired group of locals, drawing on the success of Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye, decided to try and revive the region.

“We are pleased with what we have achieved so far, but it is still very difficult for us,” Kari, one of the book town’s founders, tells me, as I browse in her barn-style bookstore with wooden beams and tiny windows through which the glacial-green water of the fjord can be glimpsed. “Other book towns in Europe can draw on a much larger population.”

The weather also poses problems: “It can be miserable here in winter—it doesn’t get light until 11 a.m.,” Kari explains. “The son of a friend of mine who didn’t want to do military service came to Fjaerland in November to sort and catalogue books instead. By the end of the winter, he wished he’d gone into the army after all!”

In mid-summer, though, both sun and sky are high and bright, and the Fjaerland area offers a wide range of activities, from cruises on the fjord to mountain hikes. I decide to heed Kari’s recommendation and take a guided walk on the nearby Jostedalsbreen glacier.

France’s Book Town, Montolieu

The third and final book town I visit, Montolieu in southern France, also enjoys a magnificent location, perched on the edge of a gorge, surrounded by vineyards and fields of sunflowers, with distant views of the Pyrenees. Its development as a book town was due to the enthusiasm and commitment of local bibliophile Michel Braibant, who, like the community of booksellers in Fjaerland, was inspired by the success of Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye.

The main difference between Montolieu and the other book towns is its emphasis on book making as well as selling. When he began to develop Montolieu as a book town, Michel Braibant was determined that traditional book-making skills would be highlighted and preserved. A nearby 17th century paper mill, defunct for many years, was recommissioned. The greatest innovation, though, was the opening of several artisanal workshops, focusing on teaching papermaking, marbling, printing, and bookbinding. Students can now spend a day or more in the workshops in Montolieu, watching “the birth of a book” and making books of their own. The non-French-speaking visitor is catered to in Montolieu by The English Bookshop, a small but well-organized business run by Michael Hasted, a former Londoner. His wife owns La Plume De Ma Tante, a hand-made paper shop next door. As a book town, Montolieu is clearly thriving. New businesses have opened, self-catering gites and bed-and-breakfast establishments are now abundant, and the local school has expanded. As with Hay-on-Wye and Fjaerland, a much-needed boost has been given to the declining local economy.

SUSAN RICHARDSON writes from Cardiff, Wales.

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