Take me to book town

A ‘book town’ is, loosely, ‘a town or village with a number of used book or antiquarian book shops’ as well as, commonly, associated literary festivals. Many are members of the International Organisation of Book Towns (IOB). The IOB concept was developed and launched by the late bookseller Richard Booth. Mr Booth’s business was in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, which has been a designated book town since 1961, boasts over twenty bookshops (hoping they survive Covid-19) with a population of around 1,500 people, and is home the Hay Festival (Gŵyl Y Gelli), an internationally renowned literary event that lasts ten days each year.

You can find a list of the Organisation’s aims on is website, and a list of membership towns here, across Europe and in Asia, Africa, USA, and Australasia.

The UK has several ‘official’ book towns: the above-mentioned Hay-on-Wye in Powys Wales (since 1961) and Sedbergh, in Cumbria England (since 2003). Then there is Wigtown, was designated as Scotland’s national book town in 1998.

I’ve just returned from a long weekend spent in and around Sedbergh. Whilst not as generously furnished with bookshops as Hay, it is, nonetheless, something of a bibliophile’s paradise. Non-essential shops have been open in England (Wales and Scotland have separate Covid-19 guidance) since 12 April, so the timing was good to be able to browse – and to support the local economy of small businesses.

Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word by journalist and blogger Alex Johnson is an illustrated tour in book form of (unsurprisingly) forty-five such designated settlements. As Mr Johnson urges: ‘At  a time when libraries are becoming an endangered species and independent bookshops struggle against the rise of e-books, book towns are beacons of hope in the fight to keep the traditional book alive. Please visit them and buy a book or two.’

That’s easy to do in Sedbergh – unseasonably cool weather notwithstanding. There is an unhurried feel, you are encouraged to take your time browsing. When we visited, the book cafes were still closed due to Covid-19 regulation, but I managed to spend plenty of time browsing the shelves in shops, particularly in the huge Westwood Books store.

Just one final thought thought, though. In her article on the concept of book towns, Katarzyna Gralak characterises the typical book town as ‘very attractive in terms of landscape and culture. Often, they are sites of important historical significance, rich in monuments, located in beautiful scenery and peaceful environment…’ That makes sense because these places already are tourist destinations, and want to boost their attractions for existing and new visitors. However, the idea of making a small town that’s less aesthetically pleasant or (generally speaking) wealthy into a specific form of ‘book town’, increasing access to books, bringing together existing schemes that promote engagement in reading, could be an interesting one.

18 thoughts on “Take me to book town

  1. A most enticing post which I must resist – I could almost open a shop myself and my time is running out 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a sort of dream, isn’t it, to own and run a little bookshop in a lovely town. In defiance of the hard economic realities, of course…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if any other nations have official/designated book towns. It’s a fine and unusual idea.


    1. There are several in North America https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-travel/4-book-towns-in-north-america/ The one in Hobart NY looks completely charming.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael Graeme May 4, 2021 — 6:34 pm

    I don’t visit Sedbergh very often, and must admit to not linking it with the idea of a book(ish) town. I shall be sure to explore more closely next time I’m there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, although I had a good poke around in several bookshops, ans Westwood’s could take up half a day, there aren’t as many as you’d expect – maybe in part because the ‘book cafes’ were closed?


  4. Booktowns? I love it. I want to go. I want to…
    Might Paris be called a booktown?
    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paris must be the ultimate place for all (okay, most?) cultural forms. Time Out has a guide to the best 100 bookshops in Paris – the best 100! There are many English bookshops alone. How many places to buy books must there be? Heavenly.

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      1. I wonder how many have survived lockdown. Any bookstore in Paris I find along my way I walk into. There are also the bookboxes along the Seine. I know many of the “owners”. Who handles what type of books. I do a round of the boxes maybe twice a week when in Paris. Bliss.

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        1. Yes, with so many bookshops in peril, like many small businesses, all the more reason to buy from them – rather than what my son calls ‘LexCorp’.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yeah. Though I must confess they have been my salvation this past year. The only English bookshop is an hour away from here. Plus lockdown? I’ve bought a lot of books on-line. Sorry.


            1. Me too! As so often, balance will have to be the key.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Hopefully our trip to Paris this July still holds. I will buy many books from humans, not machines.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Fingers crossed for you, and for us all. It is all starting to feel in the balance once again.

                  Liked by 1 person

  5. Is this really a thing? Sounds like a slice of paradise to me. I have to say that it worries me to see fewer and fewer bookstores around, but I’m not surprised. I’m very aware of the fact that it might not be the most lucrative of businesses with the move to e- and audio- books. Book cafes are definitely one of the things I miss the most about Europe. I seem to have a hard time finding them in the US. Lived in different cities, never really came by one. It makes me think that it’s a sign that I should open one. Maybe one day… When I don’t depend on money as much… People prefer to go to Starbucks and read on their phones. How weird is that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a great idea – though Sedbergh doesn’t have as many book outlets as I expected. Of all the businesses that may or may not survive the pandemic, bookshops seem particularly vulnerable as many were already struggling. We had two in town but one closed recently. Yes, I think a lot of bookshops do combine with another business, such as a cafe. Maybe that’s the way forward.

      Liked by 1 person

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