10 Book Towns Where Literature Is Alive and Well

Book lovers are bound to find hidden treasures in these literary enclaves.

Bookstalls at Hay Castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
Bookstalls at Hay Castle in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.

PA Thompson / Getty Images

A book town is a general term for a small town or village with an abundance of bookstores, typically with a distinct literary culture and community. The idea has been formalized by the International Organization of Book Towns, which launched in 1998 based on the model of Hay-on-Wye, Wales, but book towns have also been around in various forms for much longer than that.

Below are a few book towns around the world, from rural towns and villages to big cities and even planned communities.

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Photo: Simon Schultz/Flickr

Hay-on-Wye was the original "book town." Today it's still filled with bookstores, many selling used materials and specializing in certain subjects. Some retailers have expanded to include antiques and collectibles on their shelves as well. The book town movement was started in the 1960s by Hay resident Richard Booth, who had the idea to promote his economically struggling town as a destination for book lovers and collectors.

The eccentric Booth once bought a local castle and claimed Hay-on-Wye was an independent country (and he was the king). Whether serious or stunt, the resulting publicity helped the book town idea gain media attention. The castle still stands, and now it has bookshelves outside its gates. In addition to the shops, the town holds the annual Hay Festival, which draws hundreds of thousands of attendees and features 1,000 events with authors, artists, and musicians. After attending in 2001, former U.S. President Bill Clinton called it "Woodstock for the Mind."

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Photo: Antonio Tajuelo/Flickr

Jinbocho is an example of an urban book town or book district. This Tokyo neighborhood is home to several universities that first opened in the 1800s. Bookstores, selling both new and used tomes, dot the streetscape, and the borough is also home to a number of Japan’s top publishing houses.

The highest concentration of stores is around the intersection of Yasukuni and Hakusan avenues. These range from bookstores with large foreign language sections (or stores that sell English language books exclusively) to used sellers hawking everything from rare antique volumes to well-worn paperback manga series. These retailers sometimes sell their wares right out on the street, and you can pick up something and head to one of the district’s many cafes to spend some time with your new purchases. Jinbocho is often referred to alongside more-rural book towns, although it is not an official member of the International Organization of Book Towns.

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Photo: Oliver Dixon

Like Hay-on-Wye, Wigtown, Scotland, has its own literary festival. The Wigtown Book Festival takes place each autumn, and there's another children-oriented event in the springtime. Wigtown’s book history is shorter than Hay-on-Wye’s, but in many ways, it's similar. The Scottish village was economically struggling before reinventing itself as a destination for bibliophiles. The effort began when it earned the right to call itself Scotland’s National Book Town in the late 1990s.

Did Wigtown’s reinvention work? The village of 1,000 still holds its festivals annually, and more than a dozen booksellers are still in operation, with most focused on secondhand books. One of the main employers in the pre-book era, a nearby whisky distillery, has reopened, and tourists have taken an interest in Wigtown’s bird watching, trekking and sightseeing opportunities in addition to the books and cultural events.

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Paju Book City

Photo: AEPM/Flickr

Paju Book City, about an hour-and-a-half outside of Seoul, South Korea, is a member of the International Organization of Book Towns, but it's somewhat different from its U.K.-based peers. First of all, Paju was planned and developed by Korean publishers with the help of the government. The goal was to create an oasis of culture where industry stakeholders could work for the "common good" instead of competing with one another.

Some publishing houses sell their own products — sometimes in ground-floor bookstores below their offices. The city also has used bookstores with titles in Korean and in foreign languages such as English and Japanese. The neighborhood, which is near the border with North Korea (the so-called DMZ), also has exhibit spaces and art galleries. Most booksellers have cafes where you can page through your new purchases while sipping a coffee. One of Paju’s highlights is the Forest of Wisdom, a 24-hour library with donated books that anyone can look through. The collection here is so large that volunteers sometimes have to scale ladders to get books for readers.

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Photo: Lysippos/Wikimedia Commons

Saint-Pierre-de-Clages is located in a Francophone area in southern Switzerland. The region, which is dominated by the Rhone Valley, is known for its vineyards and its long history, which dates back to Roman times. The village is characterized by well-preserved buildings from the 1700s and 1800s. It's known as Village Suisse du Livre (the Swiss Village of Books) because it has more than a dozen booksellers. Saint-Pierre’s annual book festival draws more than 100 additional vendors and about 20,000 attendees.

Smaller literary events and literature-themed cycle tours through the surrounding valley are on the agenda, but books aren’t the only attractions here. The town is built around an 11th century Romanesque church, which remains a major tourist site and gives the place its Medieval appeal. The numerous wine cellars in the area are also on the itinerary for many visitors.

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Photo: Arch/Wikimedia Commons

Bredevoort began its book town development in the 1990s. The goal of the initiative was to bring new interest to the central areas of this Dutch village, which has a history that dates back to the 12th century. Book dealers now operate shops in this old town area with most offering antiquarian and used volumes. Every third Saturday of the month, additional sellers descend on Bredevoort’s main square for a monthly book market.

Larger market events are held several times per year during the spring and summer. A majority of the books sold in the shops and market are Dutch, but dealers will also usually have a wide range of German and English books. (English is widely spoken in the Netherlands.) Because of the town's history, the buildings and gardens are also on the agenda for tourists.

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Photo: Jean Housen/Wikimedia Commons

Redu is one of the oldest book towns in continental Europe. A villager named Noel Anselot visited Hay-on-Wye in 1979, after it had well and truly turned into a book town. He returned to Redu, in the Ardennes area of Belgium, with an idea to turn the tiny hamlet (population 500) into a book-themed tourist destination. Anselot contacted booksellers throughout the region and offered them space to set up shop in his town. His efforts proved successful. Within five years, 17 booksellers specializing in everything from antiques to comic books had established outlets in Redu.

In addition to permanent booksellers (there are now about two dozen shops in the town), Redu has an annual book festival and a book night in summer with fireworks and stalls that stay open throughout the night. The village has embraced its book-related identity. Artisan papermakers, book-repair and binding experts and even charity-minded book exporters mean that the literary scene goes well beyond retail in Redu.

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Photo: Matt Sachtler/Wikimedia Commons

Fjærland is Norway’s book town. Located deep in the country’s fjordlands, this village of 300 is a base for people who want to explore the surruonding scenic area and hike on the nearby glaciers, which are only a 10-minute drive away. The historic center of Fjærland is called Mundal. It features a glacier museum and a number of book dealers situated around a century-old wooden guesthouse called Hotel Mundal.

Books are sold in so-called book cafes and in converted boat houses, barns and even in a bus stop. The book town, which is Norway’s "official" book town, operates during the warmer months, so readers should come between May and mid-September. During this time, tourists can also take fjord cruises, kayak trips through the nearby delta (a haven for birdwatchers), glacier treks and even try to swim in the (admittedly cold) glacial waters.

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Photo: Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons

Clunes, Australia, was a successful gold mining town during the second half of the 19th century. It's now a town of about 1,700 people, but much of its architecture is still standing from its 1800s boom days. It is a relatively young book town. The idea started here a decade ago as a way to take advantage of the well-preserved heritage buildings. Local officials decided to invite booksellers to come sell their products inside these buildings as part of a one-time book festival. The first event was a success, and it is now held every May and is called the Clunes Booktown Festival.

The festival is what put Clunes on the map as a book town, but bookshops operate here throughout the year, and there is a monthly series of literary events held on the third Sunday of each month.

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Photo: Lauratmathein/Wikimedia Commons

Many modern book towns were planned using Hay-on-Wye as a model. The literary scene grew more organically in Hobart, New York. A New York City couple opened a bookstore as a retirement hobby in this town of 500 in the early 2000s. They used their personal book collection to stock the shelves. Other independent retailers found their way to the town in the following years, and Hobart’s Main Street now has five booksellers.

Rather than competing, the stores have each found their own niche. In fact, they offer a "book passport" that visitors can pick up at any one of the shops. They get a stamp when visiting each of the other shops and receive a coupon when they've collected all the stamps. The shops also promote readings, lectures, two annual book sales and an annual Festival of Women Writers.