||A Review of: Sixpence House - Lost In a Town of Books
by Michael Hanlon
Imagine, a whole town built on books. And not just on books but on
bibliomania. As computer games start to outnumber reading materials
in some homes, it's comforting to know that somewhere out there,
in Wales, in fact, is a place where books-many of them old, tattered,
obscure, some unreadable even-are revered.
Paul Collins loves Hay-on-Wye, he tells us almost at the outset of
Sixpence House. What bibliomaniac, or even mere bibliophile, wouldn't?
It is, he intones in italics, the Town of Books.
Consider: it has some "fifteen hundred inhabitants, five
churches, four grocers, two newsagents, one post office and forty
bookstores. Antiquarian (his italics again) bookstores, no less."
Scarcely any of its buildings are less than a hundred years old,
not many under two hundred. And stacked in its stores and secreted
in outlying barns are several million books, thousands for every
man, woman and child. Even the town dump, or pit, as it would be
called in Hay, was "very literate," the town's only locally
born bookseller told Collins. For whole collections of books-sometimes
often entire unsellable shelves of theology, massive leather-bound
Bibles-would be tossed among the garbage.
As this new millennium began, Collins, U.S.-born son of British
immigrants, made his third visit to Hay with his wife, this time
with a young son in tow and this time to try to settle. But British
real estate methods-involving endless surveys, inspections, delays,
discouragement and bloody-mindedness-defeated their attempt to find
a home they could call their own.
Sixpence House is the result, an engaging chronicle of those brief,
frustrating months up to the time they left it all behind to return
to the United States. It could have been made to Mayle-order, one
of those picaresque romps among loveable but infuriating peasants
and tradespeople that have become compulsory after sojourns in
Provence and Tuscany.
It almost is. But thanks perhaps to his unabashed love of books and
all who relish them, Collins avoids becoming mawkish about Hay's
truly loveable locals. Humour abounds but doesn't appear contrived.
There's no sense that this is a thinly disguised outline for a TV
series. Of course, it could be a heavily disguised one (my italics,
not his). And that may be a good thing. For there's a helluva part
to be had (are you there, Albert Finney?) in the "King of
Hay", the redoubtable Richard Booth, the young Oxford grad who
started it all when he bought Hay's Old Fire Station in 1962 and
set up shop in it selling books and antiques. He flopped as an
antique dealer but stayed to become Hay-on-Wye's leading citizen,
heralded for turning an obscure market town into a world renowned
paradise for the book-obsessed.
It's rapidly becoming a one-industry town, Collins observes, as
well-established non-book shops, some in the same family for
generations, expire under competition from shopping malls in nearby
cities. And the empty property is soon taken over by yet another
book-lover eager to have a go at the book trade.
Collins worked for Booth while he was there and saw how easy it was
to get started. "Start your own bookstore!" said a sign
in Booth's shop. "Kits from 500." Many have fallen for
it, snapping up the consignments of books that Booth wanted to
The labour in bookshops like Booth's can be hard and dreary. Sometimes
it's nothing but hefting books out of boxes and onto shelves and
hefting books off shelves and into boxes. And then, perhaps, taking
them off to the town's literate pit.
But it's about books and Collins shows what a rich, entrancing world
Hay offers. His enthusiasm and love for it are infectious. It might
be, as the Collins family found, a difficult place to live in. A
wonderful place to visit, though.