Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: Sixpence House

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books
by Paul Collins
published by Bloomsbury
copyright 2003
rating: 3 out of 5

I discovered this book while surfing the internet for books about books - my current reading frenzy. While I had never heard of this book before, the summary from Goodreads was enough to intrigue me:
Paul Collins and his family abandoned the hills of San Francisco to move to the Welsh countryside-to move, in fact, to the village of Hay-on-Wye, the "Town of Books" that boasts fifteen hundred inhabitants-and forty bookstores. Taking readers into a secluded sanctuary for book lovers, and guiding us through the creation of the author's own first book, Sixpence Housebecomes a heartfelt and often hilarious meditation on what books mean to us.
Oh my goodness - what is not to like about a story like this?

I first heard of Hay-on-Wye when I read Lewis Buzbee's memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, last spring (reviewed here). I simply couldn't imagine a small village with over 40 used bookshops. It sounds like a bit of paradise to me. I even did a little internet research and discovered that there is an annual book festival each year where thousands of bibliophiles descend upon this little hamlet for several days and partake of bookish festivities - and there is even a facebook group devoted to lovers of the festival. Yep, I am pretty enthralled about the possibility of someday visiting an entire town devoted to books.

So as you can imagine, my expectations were high - in fact, perhaps they were unrealistic. I think I was looking for a book that would transport me to a Utopian world, and that was neither the author's purpose nor the village's claim.

It seems that I can divide the book into two parts: when the author talks about the town of Hay-on-Wye and the evolution to its rise in the biblio-kingdom; and the other part where he talks about his life as an author, the ups-and-downs, struggles and victories of having his first book published. Obviously my main interest lie with the town - and I found myself skimming through the rest. It isn't that I am not interested in the publishing process, but for some reason I wasn't interested in his story. To be honest, I think it was in large part due to the fact that his setting totally overshadowed his character --- so to speak. Perhaps if he had written two books, each with a more narrow focus, I would have enjoyed it more.

There were parts of the book that I enjoyed immensely, and I bookmarked several passages that caught my attention. I thought that the subject matter was not only captivating, but the author's writing style was a perfect blend of accurate description with subtle humor.

For example, the author and his wife try desperately to find a house to purchase in this quaint town, but since everything is over a century old - and there are few who choose to leave the village - the choices are slim to none. Their last opportunity to purchase a home is when the Sixpence House is put on the market:
We have one last hope for a home in Way: Sixpence House.

We have shied away from the Sixpence before. It is a desanctified pub, huge and rambling and hundreds of years old, thumped down squarely into the middle to town. Everyone in town, it seems, knows about the Sixpence House. Here is what they know:
  1. It is a dump.
  2. Everyone who buys it tries to sell it again, except that
  3. They can't sell it.
Corollary to this:
  1. It has a cellar full of water, and, oh, yes,
  2. It is a dump. (page 148)
After reading this description I discovered that perhaps my romantic view of a city of books in the Welsh countryside is perhaps a bit unrealistic. Ultimately, they do not purchase the house and instead decide to return to the states, a rather sad ending for someone like me who had hoped this quaint village was the equivalent of heaven on earth.

There are, however, some lovely descriptions of the town and the bookstores and the people who live-and-work-and-breath books there.
Hay-on-Wye, you see, is The Town of Books. This is because it has fifteen hundred inhabitants, five churches, four grocers, two newsagents, one post office.....and forty bookstores. Antiquarian bookstores, no less. And they are in antiquarian buildings: there are scarcely any buildings in Hay proper that are under a hundred years old; not many, even, that are under two hundred years old. There are easily several million books secreted away in these stores and in outlying barns around the town; thousands of books for every man, woman, child, and sheepdog - first editions of Wodehouse, 1920s books in Swahili, 1970s books on macrame, pirated Amsterdam editions of Benjamin Franklin's treatise on electricity, and maybe even a few unpulped copies of John Major's autobiography. (pages 22-23)
While I enjoy good used bookstores and the thrill of the hunt to find that perfect book that I don't know exists, but once found, know I can't live without... I wonder if perhaps this town would be a bit overwhelming for a suburban girl like me:
Not every book at Booth's is a lost treasure. You have to sift through a lot of rubble first. (page 101)
I suppose it depends how much "rubble" one would have to sift through. Some of the titles that the author references in his book, which he found and enjoyed --- I would not be the least bit interested in reading.

And yet there are many out there who seem to visit this quaint village in the middle of nowhere and decide to plant roots a stay awhile - becoming a fixture in the town's business scene:
One could fairly say that Clare and Diana, though not rooted in the town's past, are the faces of its future. For a town that once subsisted on butter and wool - selling it, not eating it - Hay has seen a great many changes in its economy and its populace. With the exception of the bookseller Derek Addyman, almost nobody in the town's book trade is actually from Hay. It is a town composed of refugees from London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, the states, anyplace but the Welsh countryside. The town bookbinder came from Illinois, the copy shop owner from California, and even Diana herself - to my shock, for I cannot think of anyone more English than Diana - was born in Chicago. Hay is a town of travelers who stopped; it is where urbanites come to hide from their home cities and from the tentacles of big-city traders and publishers. (page 103)
After reading this book I have decided that I would still like to visit this unique, quaint, antiquarian town --- but perhaps I do not aspire to take up permanent residence. I would recommend skimming this book for the shear purpose of daydreaming about a town of books - and realizing that the dream is a reality on the "other side of the pond."


  1. This sounds fascinating Molly - I would love to go there - my Dad has been many times and often comes back with interesting things. Will look for the book!

  2. BLOGGER ROAD TRIP! What I wouldn't give to visit this place! But usually our romanticized view of things is not quite the way it works out. I always fondly talk about how simple and peaceful it would be to live in the country, live off the land, blah blah blah. (But the first time my Internet doesn't work? Disaster!)

  3. Oh, I'd love to go there, too. Can you imagine how fascinating the people who live there are?

  4. Oh wow -- I'm so there! What a great place.

  5. OK... when do we organize the trip? ;-)

  6. I want to go too. I like used book stores too. For me, the olympic-level master of people watching, they tell me a lot about the readers of an area. Every area has different types of books. I'll bet this little town's bookshops have some real gems.

  7. So far I seem to be the only one who's actually been there. I read this book before Denis and I went to the UK. As it happens, we had problems with the rental car, and Denis had to go to another town to get everything taken care of. This left me on my own in Hay-on-Wye, which could be a dangerous thing for a bookaholic. I loved wandering the streets and looking in the shops.

  8. Now I really want to go there! Such a shame, we just have a new mortgage and there's no way it be possible for some time, but I will always keep it in mind. THanks for letting is all know about it.

    Cathy you are really lucky - were the shops good? new or old books?

    Ill will add this to my wish list with a link back to your review.

  9. The village and festival sound like heaven for a book lover to visit! I have had this book on my TBR shelf for awhile and look forward to reading it.

  10. I checked this book out of the library last week after reading the description. Like you, I thought the idea of a town full of books would be Utopia :-) I would love to be able to visit their festival. I like Sandy's idea... Blogger road trip :-D

    By the way, I've linked your review on The Welsh Reading Challenge's suggested reading page. LOL, you could sign up for the challenge, you only have to read one book and you've done that ;-)

  11. Becky-- Some of the shops didn't interest me at all, which was good in retrospect since I didn't have time to visit them all. Not all of them were open either, which was a bummer, but it wasn't peak season. Ahhh, but there were three bookshops that I definitely didn't want to leave! Oh...most of the books are used, by the way.

  12. I just happened upon your blog from another and saw that you did a review of Sixpence House, which had me all excited as you are the only one I've ever come upon who has read it. I loved your review.

    I had heard about Hay-on-Wye from my brother-in-law, and English teacher, who had visited there some years past and told me I really must go. The book caught my eye and it was a delightful romp, if rambling at times. The best part, however, is that it led me to two of his other books, which you might enjoy.

    Not Even Wrong is his own story of the realization that his own child is autistic, which comes about as he is doing research for another book. There are hints of this in Sixpence House, that I thought about only afterwards. It is a fascinating read about how he deals with it amid his research.

    The other is The Trouble with Tom, which is about Thomas Paine, the patriot, and what happens to him, or rather his body, after he dies. It is fascinating. I lent it to a friend's husband, who loved it more than I and has actually become a scholar of sorts of Tom Paine.

    If you can't go abroad, you might try a trip to Stillwater, MN which has some wonderful used and antiquarian bookstores, though the economy and ebay has had an effect. The self-proclaimed King of HOWay, whose name I of course can't remember, even went to Stillwater to anoint the book town. All good fun. Now, I've rambled on as much as Paul Collins. Thanks for a good review.


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