April 3, 2009

Wrapped Up in Books

I think every single English-language travel magazine has done a feature or focus piece on Hay-on-Wye. The little village on the English/Welsh border has been discovered to death, but not yet by me, so I made sure to make a wee stop in my grand tour of Wales. Given that Hay is a town that sprawls with 25 (twenty-five!) used book shops, my wee stop turned out to not be so wee at all. Depending on today’s exchange rate, I think I walked away for (just) under a hundred bucks. I present you some of my finds:
  • Plays of the 1960s, including Billy Liar.
  • British Boys Annual 1919
  • Short Stories by Dylan Thomas
  • A book in Welsh with a pretty Art Nouveau cover
  • Across the Plains by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1913
  • The Great White South by Herbert G. Pointing 1921
  • A guide to dieting from the 1940s ("No Duck!")
  • The Mabinogion (see below)
Also, about fifty nifty, old-fashioned, vintage post cards, my favorite being a collectors set extolling the charms of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Honestly friends, I think Hay-on-Wye is the most dangerous place on earth--a black hole of endless bookshops that draws you from your path like a band of unkind mermaids lying in wait to drown some poor sailor. You think you're done for the day and headed back to the carpark, but then, "one more bookshop" turns into another hour or so or four. There's no way such a place would be legal in my country.

Hay-on-Wye isn’t that English and it’s not that Welsh. It's somewhere in between, situated quite literally on the miasma of a "border" that everyone keeps referring to but nobody really cares to delineate--at least not since the 1400s. The Welsh have their own type of expressive borders that obviously start with their language and end somewhere on the rugby field. In Hay-on-Wye there is a castle though--a single point in the connect-the-dot border that still remains.

Today the tumbledown castle is a bookshop ("The Castle of Books") and I got the feeling that it's kind of where the whole book theme began for this town. I'm sure it's all on Google, but confession: I am so badly researched on this trip.

Anyway, I was sifting through a dusty pile of old-time photography from some 19th-century Scottish studio when this wonderful old man approached me and struck up a conversation. He commented on each of the books that I had chosen, then offered me a grand discount for the lot. My accent betrays my foreign-ness but when he discovered that I was an Evans, of Welsh descent, he gleamed.

"Ah, then let me give you a free copy of the Mabinogion. It’s a book all about your people!" He led me to the shelf and pointed it out.

And then began his greatest lecture--a tribute to the old and forgotten book, an expose on the new media elite, interspersed with a grand reflection on the phenomenon of Hay-on-Wye. There was just too much to record, but here are a few highlighted quotes:

“You see, the new economy of poverty is the secondhand book. It's what everyone will be trading in soon. We’ve got to discover an economy of poverty—not in currency, but in books!”

"A new book is for the ego, a secondhand book is for the intellect."

“See, it wasn’t the fancy porcelain pots--those were for rich people--it was was the crumpled colored Japanese prints that the pots were wrapped up in that people began reading. THAT'S what started the orientalist movement."

"America is my favorite cocktail!"

"You understand that America sounds like Deutschland to most people's ears."

“The secondhand book is the greatest relic, more than the pyramids."

Scribbling down his wisdom, I asked his full name--to whom may I credit each of these jeweled sentences?

“Put it in Welsh boy!” He shouted, waving his cane in my face, “Brenin y Gelli. That ‘s my name! It means 'King of Hay' because I am a king and I live in this castle." I nodded in agreement.

“Oh bother, if you want my name in English, then you can have it by George," (he really said by George) "It’s “Richard Booth.” He concluded by praising the valor of Midwesterners ("I love their ethnicities!") and his final words to me were a brilliant sum up: "I’m happiest in Nebraska.” It was a strange kind of British ‘I-love-you” farewell.

His mention of Nebraska flooded my pscyche with memories of never-ending road trips, eating cold cereal at concrete reststops and counting the hours to the border, but funnily enough, earlier in the day, in another lovely bookshop down the street, I had bought a collection of 1970s postcards advertising Sunny Nebraska.

(With index finger in the corner of my mouth): hmmmm

1 comment:

Paul said...

ah, I love Hay-on-Wye. always have the intention of spending just an hour or two there, and end up staying all day browsing book shop next to book shop opposite book shop. we're gearing up for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. thanks for the great blogs about Wales. Paul - www.facebook.com/pages/Wales/50488206784