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As a town, Hay-on-Wye’s roots can be traced back nearly a thousand years. As a book town, this rural settlement of 1,900 people, located 60 miles due north of Cardiff as the crow flies, and straddling the perforated edge separating England and Wales, first appeared on most maps in 1961. This is when Richard Booth, a local academic and antiquarian, founded what is believed to be planet Earth’s first book town. In the decades since, additional book towns have sprouted up in far corners of the globe, idyllic utopias capable of providing book lovers with not only destinations worth visiting but also, the most efficient and economical ways to add to their ever-growing TBR piles!
By definition, a book town “is a small, preferably rural, town or village in which secondhand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated.” In some special cases, such as in Fjærland, Norway, the villages themselves are ghost towns save for the thousands and thousands of used books living within. Here are ten of the most evocative, historic, and intoxicating book towns, from India to upstate New York, places where the smell of paper is every bit as fragrant as the wildflowers sprouting around the corner or the saltwater lapping up on shore nearby.
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Norway actually has two book towns, but this is the first and most dramatic. Founded in 1995, you will find four kilometers of used books set on the banks of a river, tucked up against glaciers in picturesque western Norway. The dozens of buildings-cum-bookstores in Fjærland are prime examples of reutilization, as abandoned ferry waiting rooms, banks, grocery stores, and a post office now serve as the seasonal home of thousands of used books. The most photogenic aspect of this literary nirvana is the small outdoor shelf Sjølvplukk (pick-your-own) that calls like a siren from the sea. The bookshelf is, “The country’s most honest bookstore,” and much like the adorable little lending libraries popping up on front yards and city streets across the country, you’re expected to leave something behind–a small payment–for your new book that you can start reading while seated on the bench beside Sjølvplukk.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid is the largest bookstore in Argentina, housing more than 180,000 titles, in what is without a doubt one of the most stunning retail locations on the planet. This grand theater, built in 1919, still has its stunning fresco paintings on the ceiling but the stalls and boxes where once sat well-dressed theatergoers are now filled to the brim with books, records, and much more, and attracts more than a million visitors each year. But a book town needs more than one bookstore, and so this is far from the only bookshop in the South American capital. In fact, no city in the world has more bookstores per person (25 for every 100,000 residents), and when you add in legendary bookish cafes, outdoor book markets, literary walking tours, and an annual book fair, Buenos Aires is easily the planet’s largest book town.
Few book towns have as strong a historical connection to the printed word as Montereggio. This Tuscan speck on the map of Italy, like a delicate drop of balsamic upon a slice of parmeggio reggiano, sits less than an hour’s drive north from the port city of La Spezia and is the curious home to the one and only Italian book town. And it’s appropriate that it should be here because Montereggio has a history of traveling book salesmen dating back to the Renaissance and the birth of moveable type. These men brought literature to every corner of the country and today, in August, the small town’s Book Festival spills out into the streets and piazzas, which are dedicated to publishers and booksellers, with some of the most important Italian authors visiting and participating in the literary festivities.
WHERE: New York
Much like the original book town in Wales, a single man and his own love of the written word created a rural haven for books by literally stuffing them, spine out, into open crevices and in unused buildings around this small town of just 300 residents. This otherwise agrarian community in the Catskills, three hours from midtown Manhattan, is now home to seven charming bookshops, all of which can be found on Main Street and one of which operates on the honor system by accepting only cash or check deposits. Hobart is also home to the annual Festival of Women Writers, and hosts author readings, signings, and literary lectures throughout the year.
Yes, there is a bookshop here in this Portuguese book town, located in the Church of Santiago, a 13th-century temple that is now the bookshop Grande Livraria de Santiago. What sets Óbidos apart from other literary enclaves, however, is that this literary project initiative from the town’s City Hall and the legendary book store Ler Devagar in Lisbon, has seen books thoughtfully and appropriately added to countless businesses around this medieval hilltop town situated only 45 minutes from the capital city. This means that the art gallery sells art books, the interior design center offers up books on homes and design, and history books will be found in the municipal building, while the market naturally will sell you books on cheese and wine with your gooey Serra da Estrela, firm wedges of São Jorge, and bottles of Dão red. Finally, it’ll be fitting to literally book a stay at The Literary Man Hotel, a 30-room property housing tens of thousands of books (most on shelves in the gorgeous restaurant) that can be your home for the night while visiting this enchanting Portuguese book town.
WHERE: South Korea
Some book towns are nestled among glaciers, others crop up in and around existing retail businesses. Nearly two decades ago, something completely new and innovative began just 6 miles from the North Korean border, near the Demilitarized Zone. Here sits Paju Book City, the most bizarre and beautiful of all the book towns on the planet. Paju Book City has bookshops, a plethora of book cafes, annual book festivals attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, and publishers, making it, on the surface, exactly like any other book town but the thing is, Paju Book City has nothing else in it. By design, every building, business, and the 10,000 people working in Paju are dedicated to making, publishing, selling, and promoting Korean books. It is very much a city made by and made for books. Finally, you will not want to miss the imposing and impressive 26-foot bookshelves housing over 50,000 donated titles which can be searched with the help of volunteers.
The concept of a book town is unusual in and of itself, but none may be stranger than this Danish village. Inspired by their Scandinavian neighbors in Norway, Torup, a Denmark community divided into two parts (one old, dating back to the 11th century, one new, an eco-village with wind turbines, solar panels, organic bakeries, and sustainable homes) is home to a sprawling, thoroughly charming book town. Fifteen years ago, a handful of book carts were positioned along a road. A book cafe in a greenhouse at the local health food store (on the eco side of town) was soon added to the self-service book carts, as was a workshop for emerging authors. Should you visit Torup now, you’ll find over a dozen book carts, and additional bookstores-in-miniature outside the church, in garages, an old horse stable, a resorted train station, and even as you walk into a supermarket (where Girl Scouts might sell their tasty wares here in America).
This Australian village just a short drive north from Melbourne is home to 1,700 people and is the only book town that can claim to be both an original gold rush site and a famous film location (some of the original Mad Max was shot here). The gold is still here (actual nuggets and literary treasures alike) as is the impeccably preserved architecture, buildings that now welcome guests looking for valuable, rare, and small press books. But bookstores aren’t the only place you’ll be able to peruse the stacks in Clunes—the wine shop and grocery store also sell books year-round, and even more pop-up bookshops appear during the annual festival which plays host to over 50 book traders, author events, and live music. While not a permanent fixture, one of the most charming aspects of Clunes is the regular presence of the Itty Bitty Book Van, a renovated 1960s caravan hosting storytelling sessions and book swaps at schools.
Once famous for Mother Theresa, the city formerly known as Calcutta is now a prominent book town thanks in large part to one half-mile stretch of College Street that’s recognized as the largest secondhand book market in the world (although a cyclone did significant damage in 2020). You’ll not only pass the universities that give this famous street its name but also hundreds of bookstores and India’s biggest publishing houses. The bookstores themselves range from recognizable indoor retail outposts to photogenic ramshackle stalls constructed from a mixture of bamboo, canvas, and metal. If you search long enough, you’ll be able to find almost every single title that has ever been sold in Kolkata, including rare books for a song, books dating back hundreds of years, first editions, and so much more. If you’re prepared to bargain, you can fill your shelves back home for pennies on the dollar in this thriving, energetic book town.
Finally, we come to the forest of Germany, a small but significant town less than 30 miles due south of Berlin. No other book town has transformed quite so dramatically than Wünsdorf. Now home to over 300,000 books, this pleasant, green patch of eastern Germany once housed Nazi commanders who ran their monstrous campaigns from an underground bunker, German Olympians who trained and lived here during the 1936 Games, and later, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and their families. Nicknamed “Little Moscow” during the Cold War, this contemporary forest village of books and German charm was then filled with schools, shops, and a massive military base set among the pine trees. There are still abandoned swimming pools and forgotten theaters that hopefully will soon also be stuffed with literature as this book town grows, so that hope and love and stories, things far more beautiful than the pain and suffering coordinated from these barracks by Nazis and Russians for far too long, can continue to take root.