Monday 22 October 2018

Word on the street

From Canada to South Korea, and Japan to Iceland, book towns are thriving, writes Alex Johnson. And Ireland might just have a few contenders of its own...

Fjærland is probably the world's most picturesque book town. Photo: Jean Blanquar
Fjærland is probably the world's most picturesque book town. Photo: Jean Blanquar
Scotland's biggest secondhand bookshop, The Book Shop, in Wigtown. Photo: Shaun Bythell
South African book town Richmond. Photo: Michael Drysdale
Becherel in France. Photo: Jean Blanquart
Book Towns by Alex Johnson

The book is dead, so is the novel. Nobody reads poetry any more. Children never open a paperback. Libraries are out of date. Bookshelves are redundant when you can store all your books on an electronic device the size and weight of a single paperback. It's the worst of times for the printed book, isn't it?

Or is it, in fact, the best of times? Print book sales are on the up, there's an ongoing boom in bookshelf design, letterpress printing is undergoing a resurgence, and there are around 40 book towns around the world. Yes, book towns. And the numbers are growing.

Although I grew up not far from the world's most famous book town, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, until a couple of years ago I had no idea there were so many book towns scattered around the world.

I've always been a keen reader and interested in the history of books as well as the part they play in our daily lives. I've written several books with bookish themes (inventive bookshelf designs, improbable libraries, and famous book lists) and each time during my research, I kept coming across more and more book towns around the world.

Scotland's biggest secondhand bookshop, The Book Shop, in Wigtown. Photo: Shaun Bythell
Scotland's biggest secondhand bookshop, The Book Shop, in Wigtown. Photo: Shaun Bythell

I wanted to find out more about them and discovered that nobody had ever really pulled all the information together, so, rather selfishly, I decided to write the book that I wanted to read…

A 'book town' is simply a small town or village, usually in a rural and scenic location, which is full of bookshops and often book-related industries - while many cities have numerous bookshops, book towns concentrate the outlets in a small area to create a critical mass. The movement started with Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye in the 1960s, then gathered speed in the 1980s and is thriving in the new millennium. Though they all operate independently, many are members of the International Organisation of Book Towns which raises interest in the book town ethos and runs a biennial festival in one of the member towns.

From the beginning, the goal has always been not merely to sell books but to use books to encourage sustainable tourism and help regenerate communities faced with economic ruin. One important reason that most book towns are in bucolic locations is that they tend to offer cheaper business properties which allow book businesses to open their doors.

Halfway between being a full-on book town and a literary festival, Graiguenamanagh in Co Kilkenny has been running its 'Town of Books' Festival since 2003 (this year, August 24-26, www.graiguenamanaghtownofbooks.com). For three days each August, empty spaces in town are turned into temporary bookshops, both new and second-hand with special shops for children and local authors. Around 300 booksellers from Ireland and the UK descend on the town for the event which provides a family-friendly atmosphere of music and locally-produced food and crafts around the main celebrations.

Similarly, the market town of Ennistymon in Co Clare repurposes unused shops as pop-up bookshops for its annual Book Town Festival (May 26-27, www.facebook.com/ennistymonbooktown/). This is run by independent bookshop and arts venue Scéal Eile Books based in nearby Ennis and The Salmon Bookshop and Literary Centre on Parliament Street.

The results of all these book town activists have been impressive. Their rebranding efforts are attracting more visitors who are spending more money on accommodation, eating out and in other shops, gradually rebuilding the local economies. Some even end up buying property. A visitor to Wigtown in Scotland in 1988 who returned 30 years later would barely recognise it.

While book towns are supporting the printed word in a time of technological change and encouraging 'old-fashioned' book buying, they have also encouraged centuries-old techniques such as papermaking to flourish again, with positive knock-on effects on other creative industries locally, particularly artists. At the same time, many of these sellers have also harnessed the power of the internet to run their businesses partly online (though several are also resolutely opposed to going down this path). Several have developed major literary festivals. Hay-on-Wye's is the most famous, but almost all book towns have their own - Võtikvere book village in Estonia may have no booksellers but that has not stopped it running an annual literary gathering each August for nearly two decades, organised by writer Imbi Paju, to celebrate literature and books.

Very few book town projects have failed to stay the course and new locations are in the pipeline. Indian authorities have recently begun what they hope will become a 'book village' network, and efforts to build a network of book towns in Catalonia are well under way. There is talk of a 'Borneo Book Village' in the near future. And some that looked like they were on their way out, such as Bowral in Australia, have happily returned with a new lease of life.

Whether you call it a Boekenstad, Village du Livres, Bokby or Bókabæirnir, from Canada to South Korea and from Iceland to Japan, a growing movement is proving that there is life in the old book yet.

By visiting these and other book towns, you are not only helping to keep books alive, you are helping to keep communities alive too.

Alex Johnson is the author of Book Towns, published by Frances Lincoln, €17.99. thealexjohnson.co.uk

Page-turners: Six of the best book towns

Fjærland, Norway (bokbyen.no)

Probably the most picturesque book town in the world, right next to mainland Europe's largest glacier. Many of its dozen bookshops are in old sheds, ferry buildings and a former pig pen, while there are various honesty 'bookshops' by the sides of the road and near bus stops.

Wigtown, Scotland (wigtown-booktown.co.uk)

The turnaround in Wigtown's fortunes has been remarkable. By the mid-1990s, the town looked in terminal decline. But after beating five other locations to become Scotland's official book town in 1998, it has become a thriving town again, popular among walkers for its beautiful rural location, full of bookshops and home to one of the UK's major literary festivals. Bookshops include ReadingLasses which specialises in books by and about women (as well as serving vegan and vegetarian food) and Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop, The Book Shop.

Clunes, Australia (clunesbooktown.com.au)

Clunes was Victoria state's first gold rush town (one of the bookshops is called The Book Fossicker as a tribute) and it has so successfully preserved its historic buildings that it was awarded the Australian Civic Trust 'Award of Merit' for its use of heritage buildings. Clunes held its first book festival in 2007 and since then has become one of the most successful book towns, its population doubling in a decade.

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Becherel in France. Photo: Jean Blanquart

Redu, Belgium (redu-villagedulivre.be)

Redu was the first book town to be established in continental Europe. At its peak there were 25 bookshops bringing in around 300,000 people a year. Other bookish attractions include René Lefer, who produces handmade recycled paper and runs regular demonstrations at his workshop, and the La Reduiste bookshop run by Anthe Vrijlandt and Johan Deflander since 2015 as a literary vegetarian café and hotel.

Bécherel, France (becherel.com)

Bécherel became France's first book town in 1989. Since then, it has been followed by seven others which make up the Fédération des Villes, Cités et Villages du Livre en France - Montolieu, Fontenoy-La-Joûte, Cuisery, Charité-sur-Loire, Montmorillon, Ambierle, and most recently Esquelbecq in 2007. Bécherell's bookshops have particularly glorious signs and names including La Vache Qui Lit.

Richmond, South Africa (richmondnc.co.za)

Richmond is in the semi-desert wilderness of the Karoo in the Northern Cape of South Africa, surrounded by mountains and plains, and somewhat of a contrast to the lush rural locations of book towns in Europe. Despite its location and size, Richmond's annual Bookbedonnerd literary festival in October attracts some big names. Richmond Books and Prints is also an architecturally interesting bookshop, made up of four Karoo-style houses and various converted stables and outbuildings.

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