Hay-on-Wye: A town of books or festivals?

Richard Booth's Bookshop Richard Booth's Bookshop is the grandest in Hay

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The annual festival of literature and the arts is taking place in Hay-on-Wye this week, but the event's success masks a struggle for survival among the second-hand bookshops that first made the town famous.

Several shops have closed in recent years, with the competition from online retailers and e-books forcing the remaining businesses to adapt in order to survive.

For some it has meant diversifying their stock, for others it has involved embracing the internet to turn a profit.

Richard Booth's Bookshop is the grandest and best-known of the bookshops that pepper the few small streets branching off from the town clock.

But even this icon of well-thumbed novels and nearly-new autobiographies has had to introduce food and films to keep a healthy base of customers.

Woman at Hay Festival The Hay Festival takes over the small town for 10 days every summer
Elizabeth Haycox Elizabeth Haycox says she is not trying to compete with online retailers
Jim Saunders Author Jim Saunders says Hay remains the envy of neighbouring towns

Alongside thousands of books - not all of them second-hand - the shop also has a cinema and cafe, and offers workshops and events for visitors.

Elizabeth Haycox, the American businesswoman who bought the bookshop from Richard Booth, said it would be pointless to attempt to undercut the online retailers.

"I'm not trying to compete with the internet because you can't. The booksellers, who are no longer here, did. Piling them high and selling them cheap just doesn't work.

"Richard [Booth's] vision was that Hay would become a town of booksellers, each experts in their own specific field."

Selling books

Start Quote

"I think if you took all the bookshops away tomorrow, Hay would still do quite well”

End Quote Jim Saunders Local author

Mrs Haycox said the town was evolving thanks to the success of the festival.

"Hay is a market town, and it's whatever the market will bear. At one time it was sheep, it was butter, it was cheese, it was books. And now maybe Hay is heading for the next thing, which could well be ideas.

"The festival is what has made the change. We no longer have to be a town just about books, we can be a town about ideas."

Anne Brichto, who runs Addyman's Books, said the festival period was like Christmas for her three shops in Hay - but selling her stock online had helped counter a fall in trade in the town for the rest of the year.

"Not so many people actually come to the bookshops of Hay. Over festival time we are very busy but it's only ten days, and we have to spend the rest of the year selling books.

"We're only closed Christmas day, Boxing day, and New Year's Day - the rest of the time we are selling books, and we would love to see people come in this quantity again, which they used to do."

Mrs Brichto said the festival was "a mixed blessing" for Hay-on-Wye, with many visitors staying in the tented site on the edge of the town, rather than visiting the bookshops. But she said the event was still good for the town.

"It still keeps Hay in the news, it is still a very interesting thing for a town that's the size of a large secondary school to have all these people come here. It's very exciting."

Local author Jim Saunders has written about Hay-on-Wye and the other market towns dotted along the Welsh border. He said Hay remained the envy of many of the neighbouring towns.

"I think if you took all the bookshops away tomorrow, Hay would still do quite well. It's in the Brecon Beacons National Park, it's got a reputation as an interesting place to go. It's got nice restaurants and pubs, so it's got a lot of things going for it apart from the bookshops."

The Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts continues until 1 June. You can find more information, and watch some events live on the BBC Arts site.

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