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Blaenafon - The Booktown Experiment Fails

It took most of the morning to nerve myself to phone Joanna Chambers of Broadleaf Books in Blaenavon. I'd heard reports that more shops had closed, which had to be bad news - but Joanna sounded amazingly bright.

She told me the she and Browning Books (the children's bookshop) are the only remaining bookshops and that the Booktown project had collapsed with James Hanna's departure at the end of February. Apparently he had been unable to persuade Torfaen Council to directly fund the project, which it was said no longer enjoyed the support of the community.

Far from seeing this as the end of Blaenavon as a regional centre for secondhand books, Joanna sees only opportunity. 'There's considerable interest in the town because commercial property is still so cheap. You could buy Jo Wyburn's shop (Chatterton's Books) for 75,000 ', she says'. 'A shop with a flat above, where else could you get that for the money?'

Joanna also thinks that shops are more likely to open in the town now that James Hanna has left. 'People had been led to believe that in order to open a shop here you had to buy the Booktown package', she said.

There is some evidence to support Joanna's view. In April a Chepstow bookdealer will open in the old 'Booktown' office (Blaenavon Books). As well as books, the shop will sell antiques and collectibles offered by a number of dealers. In May or June a long awaited bookshop will open, when the renovations and the owner's relocation are completed.

Joanna is keen to stress that the shops that are now opening are not startups, that the owners already run successful businesses and that they were attracted to the town by it's unique character, history and landscape.

I've never doubted that Blaenavon could, and would throw off the grey shroud of its past and reinvent itself for the twenty-first century. Few other places enjoy the advantages of a unique industrial heritage, set in glorious countryside, at the gateway to a National Park.

Relieved of the burden of trying to live up to the title 'Booktown', Joanna is confident that a nucleus of four bookshops will have the potential to attract others. But bookshops will only ever be one part of a retail mix aimed at visitors to the area. She also believes that visitors will finally start to see the visible benefit from the local council's considerable and continuing investment in the town's infrastructure.

The quick fix 'Booktown' hasn't worked in Blaenavon - and lets face it, there are few in the trade who believed it would - but hard work and commitment to the town almost surely will. If anyone is in it for the long haul, it's Joanna. 'I just love it here', are her parting words.

It should be noted that the Blaenavon Spring Festival is unaffected by these changes and it will be staging a number of book related events between Friday 24th March and Sunday 2nd April.

Mike Goodenough

Previous Articles:
Blaenafon Booktown - Now We Are Two 13.05.05
Blaenafon Revisited 01.11.03 & 26.10.04
Blaenafon Booktown - A Book Buyer's View 04.07.03


Blaenafon Booktown 01495 793093  website
Blaenavon articles by Maev Kennedy in the Guardian:
02.06.2004: Chapter eleven: May concern
01.05.2004: Chapter ten: April is the cruellest month
23.03.2004: Chapter nine: Winter of our discontent
02.03.2004: Chapter eight: From fetes to the fates
31.12.2003: Chapter seven: 'A couple of bob for Christmas'
22.12.2003: Chapter six: Nothing going on but the rent
04.11.2003: Chapter five: Local poet scores on first try
13.10.2003: Chapter four: Grishams Grishams everywhere
02.09.2003: Chapter three: Blood, sweat and tears
30.07.2003: Chapter two: 'We can't have too many witches'
30.06.2003: Chapter one: First day
28.06.2003: Books open new chapter for Plywood City
10.03.2003: Books could help town to turn over a new leaf

ic Wales Ex-iron town delves into books
ic Wales New 'book town' booms
The Independent Town opens 10 new bookshops in a day
BBC News Bookish Blaenavon opens new chapter
International Organisation of Book Towns

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