Book Towns of Norway and Great Britain

Readers’ Paradises and Tourist Attractions


Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

~ Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1868 translation)

Road to Tvedestrand Bokbyen

Traveling along the south E18 on an early trip to Norway, I spotted the sign for Tvedestrand. Following the town’s name was the symbol for culture sites in Norway and, then, Bokbyen.

I thought it over and asked my companion tentatively, “Book Town?” When he affirmed that I had so much Norwegian right, I persisted: “What is that?”

He shrugged. “A town with books.”

In a nation of readers such as Norway, this is about as helpful as saying, “A town with people.”

This year my travels in Sørlandet brought me closer geographically to Tvedestrand, but I still haven’t managed to get a driver to turn off for a visit. That bokby bit had begun to nag at me, though, especially after visiting Halfdans Bokhus. My companion being no more helpful on the subject, I set about my own research.

And so Pandora’s Box opened yet again.

Not “A Town with Books” – A Book Town

It may seem a fine semantic point, but Tvedestrand is not just a town with books. It is indeed a book town – Norway’s second of three, and the largest in Scandinavia, with, reports Agderposten, half a million books in a town of about 6,000 inhabitants.


Tvedestrand in 2000. Photo by Wikimedia user Kristianb. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

The Book Town by the Skaggerak” was opened as such in June 2003 by Lars Saabye Christensen, author of the first Norwegian contemporary “real literature” novel I read, The Half Brother (winner of the 2002 Nordic Prize for Literature). Modeled on the first-ever book town in the western hemisphere – Hay-on-Wye in Powys, Wales (below) – the village devotes a large segment of its stores to secondhand, rare, and new book dealers who celebrate and promote what Christensen calls “delight over books” (gleden over bøker).

Here the devotee of the written word can lose herself in shops that specialize in secondhand children’s books (Snipp, snapp snute), history and politics (Bjørndahls bokmølle), writings in Nynorsk (Nynorsk antikvariat), and local and national history and polar expeditions (ExLibris antikvariat), and also prowl establishments with a wide range of other offerings.

While some of the shops open only in summertime, others have hours throughout the year. Most seem to consider coffee and a place to sit and read to be essential. Tvedestrand Bokbyen ved Skaggerak also hosts literary activities year-round and small festivals in the summer.

Book towns throughout the world share certain characteristics:

  • small populations, making the book industry the central commodity
  • a natural and/or cultural environment that makes them appealing
  • in many cases, the deterioration of a prior industry that supported the local economy

The Norwegian book towns receive support from governing organizations and memberships as well as tourism, which has undoubtedly helped them through the book trade’s roughest patches of late. Both Tvedestrand and Fjærland also make good use of the Internet, with Web sites not only providing a place for book orders but tools for networking and profiling the bookshops and offering news, event calendars, and links to other local businesses and tourist sites.


The Fjærland fjord, on which the town sits. Photo from Wikimedia Commons user China Crisis. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license.

Smaller and quirkier than its south-coast relation – it has only around 300 inhabitants – the first bokby in Norway, Den norske bokbyen Fjærland on the west coast, stocks 4 kilometers (roughly 2.5 miles) of books in unique old buildings, thus preserving both the books and the structures. The town started modestly as a book town in 1995 and has grown in both size and attraction, mirroring some of the oddities of the founding town of Hay.

The shops appear less formal than those in Tvedestrand, having served in their early lives as a ferry waiting room, grocery store, and local bank, among other roles. Arnold, in a former boathouse and stables, houses historical and contemporary documents. Gamle-Posten (Old Post Office) specializes in fiction, comics, and books in English. Odin, the ferry waiting area, caters to highly literary and poetic tastes, while the largest bookstores in the village, Tusund og ei natt (Thousand and One Nights) and Bok & bilde (Books & Pictures), cover pretty much everything, with the biggest collection of religious literature in Norway at the first and LPs at the second.

A map on Den norske bokbyen‘s Web site shows all the locations, in English and Norwegian. The Norwegian version provides shop descriptions and pictures, but English-speakers should beware using online translation software. (I believe tek bokbyen imot båe deler comes closer to meaning “choose [giving them to] the Book Town instead of chucking them” rather than “take the Book Town against the sunken rocks.” And I’m a little worried about those “haddock books” at Thousand and One Nights.)

Fjærland is open from May through September, with the Solstice Book Fair (boknatti) at the end of June offering a great time for travelers to drink in the beauty of the area while selling off their books themselves – and, undoubtedly, acquiring others.  The village’s location along a branch of the Sognefjord, near arms of Jostedalsbreen (the largest glacier in continental Europe) and the Norwegian Glacier Museum, complement the book town’s tourist appeal in the summer months.

The Norwegian book towns – including the third at Lilleputthammer, a children’s book town integrated into the family theme park in Hafjell – receive solid support in a strong national economy. Norwegians’ tendency to be avid readers also constitutes a benefit, as it should for the other book towns in Scandinavian countries (Torup Bogby in Denmark, Bökens Stad i Mellösa in Sweden, and Sysmän Kirjakylä in Finland), for the literacy rates and passion for reading cross the region’s national borders. Tvedestrand is slated to host the 2014 International Organisation of Book Towns (IOB) Festival; Fjærland hosted it in 2006.

Yet, while the bookstores have enhanced the towns’ industry focus and desirability, neither Tvedestrand nor Fjærland suffered terrifically in its local economy before adopting the model. This is better illustrated by the model book town and its successor in the United Kingdom.

From Welsh Marches to High Roads of Scotland

In Powys, Wales, in the thrilling landscape of Brecon Beacons National Park, lies the old market town Y Gelli (the grove), more familiarly called Hay-on-Wye. With a population of around 1,500, the town’s history since Norman times has been one of upheaval and agitation on both sides of the border. Its castle was rebuilt three times (and burned three times). At one point, the town boasted 34 public houses for its never-large population.

Murder & Mayhem in Hay-on-Wye

Murder & Mayhem, Hay-on-Wye’s house of true and fictional crime. Photo by Susan Troxell.

Today, it nourishes around 25 booksellers within its boundaries and bears the reputation of the first (Western) book town in the world, and global capital of the secondhand book trade.

Hay came by its reputation through the charisma and determination of native son Richard Booth, progenitor of the Book Town movement and author of the village’s reputation as a haven for bibliomaniacs, bibliophiles, and bibliosophs. In the early 1960s, he recruited some of the stronger men of Hay to scour closing U.S. libraries and book auctions, stocking the town’s old fire station with loot for his own bookshop and setting up locals in charge of others. Booth later traveled to other towns to promote the book town model as one that would strengthen rural economies while maintaining the region’s cultural heritage.

It worked in Hay-on-Wye, in spades. Bolstered by Booth’s publicity antics, such as pronouncing himself king of Hay and declaring the town’s home rule on All Fool’s Day in 1977, the town’s reputation soared. (In 2000, Booth also sold, and apparently still does, titles for peerage to the new kingdom). At one point in Hay history, the village could count over 40 bookstores, as American writer Paul Collins documents in his witty account Sixpence House.

Today, Hay’s booksellers still run a diverse gamut, from Ashbrook Garage (focusing on motoring and motor racing and all things automobile) and Murder & Mayhem (true crime and crime fiction) to Rose’s Books (rare children’s books) and Mostly Maps (self-explanatory). One of the best known is the little Honesty Bookshop outside the castle, where books priced at £1 or less sit almost exposed to the elements, available on the honor system. (Fjærland’s version fell under winter storm Dagmar at the end of 2011, but the town replaced it this summer.) The Broad Street Book Centre accommodates sellers with a range of specialties, while Addyman Books and the Addyman Annexe delight as much by their appearance as their stock.

With half a million annual visitors and over a million books, the small Welsh market town has undergone a major rejuvenation. The annual Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts draws nearly 80,000 people to the beautiful landscape around the Brecon Beacons for 10 days at the end of May/beginning of June – a significant boon to those providing food and accommodations. In 2012, featured writers included Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel, and national British press organizations sponsored the gathering.

Honesty Bookshop at Hay-on-Wye

Honesty Bookshop, where all books are purchased on the honor system. Photo by Susan Troxell.

In 2005, the BBC reported Booth’s announcement that, at age 66, he would sell his bookstore and move to Germany. The shop remains, however, as does his legacy to the town in the form of its active literary life.

At the start of the millennium, the book town model attracted study as a viable form of tourism, as evidenced by the EU BookTownNet research project. In the UK, however, it had already spread to Scotland, where the village of Wigtown after a national search won the honor of serving as Scotland’s book town in 1997.

The scenic town on a harbor in rural Dumfries and Galloway fit all the criteria of a book town, and especially the economic ones. The town’s creamery and distillery, its main employers, had shut their doors (the distillery, Bladnoch, has since reopened), and the young people of the town were departing for better economic opportunities elsewhere. Thus the conversion into a book town emerged from conscious planning – a considered attempt to save a dying village by constructing a “literary oasis.”

It succeeded magnificently, with a growth to 20 bookshops and the institution of the Wigtown Book Festival. Citizens of neighbor towns declared it “a different place” to BBC reporters and watched its redevelopment with envy. Five years along, the town of then 1,200 residents (the population wavers around 1,000) savored the arrival of new accommodations for tourism, the openings of pubs and restaurants, and the astonishing growth to over 20 of the number of bookshops and stalls along the streets.

The Bookshop at Wigtown

The Bookshop at Wigtown, Scotland’s largest secondhand bookseller (and, unintentionally, the blog’s smallest picture). Photo by Shaun Bythell.

Wigtown’s bookshops follow the pattern of the other book towns in encompassing both the specific focus- science fiction and fantasy at Transformer, women-focused studies and literature at ReadingLasses, and Celtic folklore and mythology at The Byre – and the general, as at The Bookshop, Scotland’s largest seller of secondhand books.

Having just concluded its 14th festival, the town retains ample reason to be pleased, although the number of booksellers has fallen to roughly half that at its peak. In the UK as in the United States, the 2008 recession hit booksellers and tourism hard. More, however, all booksellers face the challenges of giant Internet marketers such as Amazon and of e-books gaining an increasing foothold among readers.

Thus, the director of the Wigtown Book Festival, Adrian Turpin, told the BBC this autumn, “It is impossible not to come to the conclusion that the economic model on which book towns were set up has completely changed.” But he is by no means ready to declare the end of the book town, seeing the exchange of ideas in a literary setting, as much as the sensory experience, as critical to the way book towns will restructure their message.

What About U.S.?

In the same year that Wigtown started its new life, the New York Times ran an article on how Larry McMurtry – author of the famous Lonesome Dove series – decided to call it quits on writing Westerns and return to open skies of his hometown, Archer City, Texas, to try to build it into a book town. Citing Hay-on-Wye as a model, he had then already stocked his store, Booked Up, with 100,000 volumes and was busily collecting more and buying up property in town for expansion. With Archer City roughly a two-hour drive outside Fort Worth in a state used to long rides, he hoped some of the city booksellers would relocate to America’s new paradise for readers.

Interior of Murder & Mayhem, Hay-on-Wye

The interior of Hay’s Murder & Mayhem suggest the creative possibilities for specialty stores – as well as the abundance of stock. Photo by Susan Troxell.

This August, The Atlantic was but one of several media outlets to cover “The Last Book Sale” – a nod to the movie The Last Picture Show based on McMurtry’s 1966 novel and shot in Archer City, where McMurtry ultimately gathered nearly half a million books. By the end of the month, Booked Up had sold off three-quarters of its stock. McMurtry is curtailing his engagement in the book trade, suffering from health problems at age 76.

Reading the account of Archer City’s brief era as a book town, a few things stand out. The book town model doesn’t seem to have expanded far beyond McMurtry’s own giant store, so the town boasted no mix of specialized and general literature. Nor did the local antiques/junk dealer, at least, seem to feel integrated in the experience, and the engagement of other businesses in the community is unknown.

Booked Up’s Web site lacks sophistication or ease of use, much less linkages to shops or potential tourist sites. (Archer City’s own Web site likewise highlights few attractions.) Also, McMurtry doesn’t seem to have sold through the Internet, refusing ultimately to list any of the final auction offerings online, and no overriding organization formed to network any local book dealers and other businesses in the town of around 1,800. While a writing teacher at the University of North Texas declared to Time that he would continue to bring his classes on pilgrimage to Archer City, no book town festival or series of workshops has greeted them, or will.

In an excellent look at book town culture, “Book Towns Revisited,” John C. Huckans points to factors of geography, unfamiliarity with government support for such ventures, and high overhead that have played a role in the stumbling U.S. experience. As far as I can discern, two book towns still operate here – Stillwater, Minnesota, the first in the nation, and Hobart, New York (which seems to engage in a model more like that of Norway and the UK). Yet Huckans notes rumblings in the secondhand trade that point to a possible move toward bookselling sites as tourist destinations. And even in its twilight, McMurtry’s stab at turning Archer City into a mecca for book lovers and collectors tickled the imagination of some of the out-of-town dealers who came to the Last Book Sale.

Book towns, like the whole secondhand book trade, must shift with the times, as must any business. But book lovers, at heart, are explorers and adventurers. Though they face a market whose changes feel like riding the rapids, in the end the stable point is gleden over bøker – delighting over books.