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Blaenafon Booktown Revisited

Original Article

I thought I'd take another look at Blaenfon Booktown as I was passing, in a manner of speaking. For those who don't know the area, everywhere in this part of Wales is a long way from everywhere else, mainly because of all the lumpy bits and the roads that mostly don't go over them. Because of this you have to pass quite a lot of places in order to get to where you really want to be.

I was on my way to Brecon which, on a clear day you can literally see from Stroud (well the Beacons anyway) but is at least a two hour car journey away. A bookseller there had bought a collection of art reference titles he thought I would be interested in, "the sort of books you like" he'd said. I don't have to be asked twice.

It was early afternoon by the time I'd worked out a shortish route and laboured my way up the mountain road, under a pewter coloured sky that promised all sorts of unpleasantness.

The town's tiny central car park is just up the hill from "Broadleaf Books", easily the most attractive bookshop in the town. The owners have succeeded in creating a shop which literally draws you in off the street, even when unaided by persistent drizzle. The stock seemed more interesting and less remaindery than on my first visit, and I found a handful of books.

"The Left Bank" immediately opposite, yielded a few cinema titles from a stock that's strong on fiction and videos. The owner is refreshingly honest about his lack of knowledge and seems determined to discover what his customers want.

As before, James Hanna (Blaenafon Books) the Booktown's instigator stood in a shop full of unopened boxes of books. A different shop it's true, but the demands of the Booktown appear to leave little time for personal bookselling. Buying in bulk and sufficiently cheaply, the quantities of books needed to support the more inexperienced shopkeepers, is not a task I envy him. "Three more bookshops by the end of the year and not an empty shop left to rent" was his response to my "How's it going".

Time was pressing and the drizzle heavier, so I made off up the road to the next shop. "Browning Books" stocks exclusively children's books but will order new titles on any subject. It was warm and friendly with an imaginative Halloween window display, but I left empty-handed. "Chatterton's Books" was so close I nearly didn't get wet, and I bought a couple of books to boot.

There are a number of shops with books in them rather than being proper bookshops. I'll try anywhere, but on this occasion found nothing.

How do the booksellers feel about their first half-year trading? The ones I spoke to appeared happy with what they were doing, and said that business had been, if anything rather better than they had hoped. They were well aware of the towns sort comings and the dangers of bigging it up too much. And of course they are all busily listing books on the Internet to get them through the dark days of winter.

What was my overall impression? The shops were warm and the owners friendly; which I can tell you, as one who spends a lot of time visiting secondhand bookshops, makes a pleasant change. The stock is in most cases no worse, and in some cases rather better, than the average secondhand bookshop. I will certainly visit again, the next time I'm passing.

Mike Goodenough 01.11.03

Update 26.10.04

Unable to visit personally, I asked Joanna Chambers of "Broadleaf Books" how she viewed the closure of four of the town's original bookshops. Her view was that they failed for much the same reasons shops close anywhere - lack of commitment and patience to build the business. She says that new shops are replacing those that have closed, and that the town is continuing to improve it's retail base, with gift shops and a cafe recently opened.

Other Articles:
Blaenafon - The Booktown Experiment Fails 17.03.06
Blaenafon Booktown - Now We Are Two 13.05.05
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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