Sixpence House

by Paul Collins
ISBN: 1582342849

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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 unload.
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.

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