All booked up in Hay-on-Wye

At this literate town in Wales, old books may be the best bargain around

Clutching an armload of books, I was on tiptoe precariously reaching for an intriguing-looking volume on the top shelf of a tiny bookshop.

Watching me do a balancing act while pulling down one book after another, a friend grinned and said, "It's a good thing airlines don't put a 40-pound limit on overseas luggage anymore."

Even a weight limit wouldn't have stopped me, I'm afraid. I had found every booklover's nirvana - a town filled with bookstores.

The picturesque village of Hay-on-Wye, home to fewer than 1,500 inhabitants, showed up on bookworms' radar screens in 1977, when local bookseller Richard Booth unilaterally declared the town an independent republic.

Mr. Booth, who had opened an antiquarian bookstore in the village's castle in 1961, also proclaimed himself King Richard I. The resulting worldwide publicity put Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli in Welsh) on the bibliographic map.

Today, the town, which is on the border with England, not far from Tintern Abbey, hosts a million visitors a year to its 38 bookshops. Looking for a first edition of Dickens? Try Boz Books. Want to replace the tattered copy of "Alice in Wonderland" that you've had from childhood? The Children's Bookshop is the spot to start. But most fun of all is to wander from shop to shop: chatting with booksellers, seeing what's on the shelves, and bagging a bargain on a book you've always wanted to read.

This time of year is always busiest in the Wye Valley town because of the annual Sunday Times Hay Festival of Literature. Big-name authors (Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer this year) come not only to speak, but often just to attend some of the 200 sessions spread over 10 days and to wander around shops stacked high with used books priced from 50 pence to stratospheric levels.

My "finds" were all modestly priced, but I considered them valuable nevertheless. So, instead of tucking souvenirs of Scottish shortbread and Stilton cheese into my suitcase, I crammed it with volumes by P.G. Wodehouse, British printings of Agatha Christie mysteries, 19th-century novels, and beautifully illustrated garden guides.

I had a few momentary doubts as to the wisdom of this when I struggled to lift my just-packed bag and it felt as though I was carrying bricks instead of books.

But the delights of shortbread and other edibles are soon forgotten - I've savored my books over and over.

*For more information: Hay-on-Wye Tourist Information Bureau, Oxford Road, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5DG, Wales; telephone: 011-44-1497-820144; Web: and

Lodging nearby includes Llangoed Hall in Brecon (011-44-1874-75425) and Lake Hotel in Llangammarch Wells (011-44-01591-620202). The Bear in Crickhowell (011-44-1873-810408) has an excellent restaurant and has been named 2000 Pub of the Year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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