The new b-towns

Ways to imagine spaces for just books and us

Every trend betrays some of the anxieties of its times, and so it is with the current fascination with book towns. In his celebratory and fabulously illustrated volume, Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word, Alex Johnson is conscious of the concerns that are behind these new common spaces springing up around the world. He defines a book town rather loosely, as I suppose one necessarily must: “A book town is simply a small town, usually rural and scenic, full of bookshops and book-related industries.” The model for this repurposing of small, scenic sites into book districts is Hay-on-Wye in Wales, but it took a long time from that moment of inspiration in the early sixties, and from the growth of Hay as a destination site, for the concept of book towns to catch on globally. It took the crisis of the book as we know it, in the retail model (with deep discounts online undermining independent and chain bookstores) as well as technology (with e-readers putting not just sellers on edge but also upturning the publishing industry, especially in the West).

Bookshops and boarding

Writes Johnson: “In hamlets, villages and towns around the world, like-minded booksellers, calligraphers, bookbinders, curators, publishers and architects are coming together to ensure a future for the printed book, defying the e-book onslaught, and providing a new future for fading communities.” The proximity of publishing and retail enabled in book towns harks back to a time when the engagement between different sectors of the book trade was more intimate and contributory. The scattering of bookshops in homes and establishments within a circumscribed space stands in contrast to the sameness of the big book chains and the algorithmic recommendations of online stores. Many bookshops in these b-towns also offer boarding, with some placing beds among the shelves, with guests hopefully inhaling arguments for the importance of independent bookshops in the circulation of ideas.

The most famous of the ‘new’ book towns is Wigtown in Scotland, with one of its retailers, Shaun Bythell, writing the hugely popular The Diary of a Bookseller, about the joys and challenges of running the biggest secondhand bookshop, and another local establishment, The Open Book, drawing long waitlists for a chance to live on the premises and run the store for a fortnight. The Open Book too might be out with a biography of itself soon — the lodgers are expected to keep a diary of their bookselling experiences. Johnson explains how book branding has changed the local community. Wigtown, which makes for achingly scenic photographs, was in economic decline by the mid-nineties with a downturn in its whisky distillery and creamery industries and with properties facing demolition. In the time since its makeover, the town is booming sufficiently, and “the distillery has reopened”.

In contrast with towns that have been refurbished, the South Koreans just built a new city. Besides, Paju Book City is the only member of the International Organisation of Book Towns (now, that’s that’s a high table for India to aim at) to have nothing besides the book trade: “Every single building and person here is dedicated to making, publishing, selling, promoting Korean books (the cafes do sell coffee too).” Located near the Korean Demilitarised Zone, its presence also carries its own message of higher pursuits than conflict and nuclear rivalry. Being new, and given the attention to architectural detail, Paju strikes another contrast to the other book towns: while their environs have a nostalgic appeal, Paju does not carry the weight of local economic and real estate legacies. It appears to be looking ahead.

Adapting the concept locally

In a short section, ‘Beyond the Book Town’, Johnson sets us off imagining how the book town concept can be modified to suit local conditions. There is, first, the extremely scenic Bhilar in Maharashtra, where strawberry cultivation drives the economy. Last year, it became India’s first Books Village (Pustakanche Gaon), but instead of books being up for sale, in homes and establishments across Bhilar books have been made available to be borrowed. Most of the books are in Marathi, and it will be crucial to see how this plan grows organically. Given the lack of neighbourhood libraries across India (as elsewhere), a “book area” based on borrowing is perhaps a concept whose time is now.

And what about towns that don’t have to declare themselves book towns, they are already and characteristically so? “There are now twenty official UNESCO Cities of Literature dotted around the globe, but if only one could be awarded the honorary title of ‘Book Town’, Buenos Aires would be a strong contender. It has more bookshops per person than any other city in the world.”

Here, another trend of the future may be visible: librerias a puertas cerradas (or “closed door bookshops”), where the owner’s personal collection (“not for sale”) co-mingles with the volumes that can be bought. No algorithm can beat that.

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