A bookworm's paradise in Wales

A town with more bookstores per capita than any other spot on earth

Paul Collins is not only a book-lover, but a book-lover with a passionate preference for forgotten books and authors that have fallen by the wayside. In his own first book, "Banvard's Folly," Collins treated readers to biographical sketches of 13 individuals who enjoyed brief moments of renown before sinking into obscurity. Collins is so enamored of rooting around dusty old tomes that he recently decided to move from San Francisco to a little town in Wales called Hay-on-Wye, a place containing 1,500 inhabitants, five churches, four grocers, one post office, and 40 antiquarian bookstores.

"I like filthy old books," Collins writes. "No, not that kind, though I've seen a few of those too. I mean the kind where the bindings are falling apart, the ones with what bookbinders call red rot - where, rather than properly tanning calfskin with oak bark, the publisher used cheap goatskin and just tossed a vial of acid in at the tannery, then didn't wash it properly afterward. It's always the most ephemeral books that suffered from this slapdash binding, the books never meant to last, and those are the books that I like best."

Having uprooted his wife and toddler son from San Francisco, Collins serendipitously finds the well-nigh perfect position when Richard Booth, the man who first had the idea of turning Hay-on-Wye into a town of books, offers him a job as an expert on Americana.

Amid yellowing, outdated treatises on physics, tattered 19th-century self-help guides, dusty multivolume sets of speeches by such no-longer-read great men as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, there is the occasional small treasure, like a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But Collins in many ways is more moved by the sheer pathos of the countless obscure poets and novelists who managed to find their way into book form, sometimes even paying publishers and editors for the privilege of appearing in print, only to languish unnoticed.

Books are not, however, the only focus of this easy-going, amiably rambling, often witty, personal memoir. Collins also tells us about his adventures in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of British real estate, as he and his wife go house-hunting.

Nor, despite its charms, is Hay-on-Wye anything like a utopia, and Collins soon becomes privy to the various rivalries and feuds among the townsfolk, including the booksellers.

Then, of course, there are the minor irritations that often surprise Americans trying to adjust to life in Britain: odd plumbing, low water pressure in the shower, quirky shopping hours, an uncertain supply of items like bread and milk at the local grocers.

Although raised in America, Collins's own origins are British. His sometimes exasperated but genuine affection for both countries is clearly evident as he describes himself trying to decide whether to stay on in Hay-on-Wye or return to the US.

As if all this were not enough in the way of excitement, during this period his own first book is about to be published. Now he, too, can look forward to joining the multitudinous ranks of authors, famous and forgotten.

Collins feels a special fondness for the Victorians, "so like us in their hope and dread of technological progress, their goals of equality for women, their overarching ambitions for world culture and global markets.... They are us.... The friction between their dreams, which are recognizably ours, and their means, which are so quaint, is what makes the Victorians sympathetic and yet also absurd."

Collins's brand of whimsy is not without wisdom. "But then," he presciently concludes, "I suppose every era looks a little foolish to its descendants. This is because the past is the only country where it is still acceptable to mock the natives. But we should not laugh too hard: for soon enough, we shall all live there."

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.

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