For years I’d heard of a Welsh village filled with bookstores. Even as recently as a year ago, a coworker of mine shared with me his account of visiting this seemingly mythical place, complete with a photograph of him surrounded by books at one of the village’s many shops. I’d even heard there was a book about this purported bibliophiles’ mecca. Then one afternoon while cruising the shelves of my public library I came across a copy of Paul Collins’ 2003 memoir Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. Upon inspection I realized that yes, this is THAT book about THAT bookshop-filled Welch town. So of course, I grabbed it.
Sixpence House is the story of Paul Collins, his wife and infant son and their adventures in Hay-on-Wye, a town of 1.500 residents and some forty bookstores. During their relatively short time in Hay Paul gets a job managing the American literature section at a local bookstore, fails miserably as a house-hunter and eventually applies for membership in the House of Lords. In telling his family’s story of life abroad he leavens his narrative with exerts from obscure and forgotten books, almost all of them from 19th century. Even though he meanders frequently while telling his family’s story, I never found his writing disorganized or hard to follow. I found Sixpence House charming and entertaining to read.
After reading Sixpence House, it’s obvious that Collins possesses a love of old books. Therefore, Sixpence House makes a great follow-up to books like The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession and A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict. Since it’s also one writer’s perspective on life as an American (even though Collins holds dual citizenship, which of course the United States legally speaking does not recognize) living in the United Kingdom, it’s a good book to read alongside The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British. But most importantly, if you like books, especially old ones, you can’t go wrong with Sixpence House.