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.