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 Book Shops > Blaenavon - Now We Are (Nearly) Two

Blaenavon - Now We Are (Nearly) Two

The journey up the valley from Newport to Blaenavon simply saps my spirit. The communities that line the road melancholically mimic the colours that were once their substance, the wealth that created and sustained them. Even the pure brightness of an early May morning is no match for the bone chilling miles of colour-drained pebbledash.

When we arrive I'm so hoping to be pleasantly surprised, for the Booktown to have worked some kind of magic and to have opened out like a spring flower in the grey soil. I want the critics to be wrong.

There's no getting away from the fact that the town still looks tired. There remain a significant number of empty properties and many others that shabbily contribute to the town's run down air. On the corner opposite the closed Corner House Book Gallery are buildings swathed in scaffolding, but this is the only obvious sign of activity. The claim made on the website that every shop in the town centre should be occupied and open for business by this summer seems optimistic, to say the least.

The Blaenavon Book Town website also claims that there are ten 'Bookshops', which simply isn't true. There really are only five shops, which I would describe as 'Bookshops', that is shops that mainly have books in them. Otherwise, The Railway Shop has some books, as do a pub and a café - but that's about it. Unfortunately, the currant Booktown leaflet claims that there are thirteen bookshops, an appropriately unlucky number, inflated by bookshops that never actually opened.

It's clearly a subject that exercises Joanna Chambers of Broadleaf Books, which is still the best bookshop in the town. She thinks that the exaggerated claims are counter-productive, encouraging over-expectation and almost ensuring disappointment. But she also feels that five existing shops form a firm base on which the Booktown can grow, albeit with a lot of nurturing. The extent to which this will happen remains to be seen, now that James Hanna is embarked on another similar project at Atherstone in Warwickshire.

Joanna has very clear views about James Hanna. She says he was a brilliant publicist and that without him, she simply wouldn't be there - that none of it would have happened. However, she is concerned both about the future of her own Book Town and for those being sold a similar Book Town package.

She certainly doesn't share James Hanna's view that any knowledge or experience of the secondhand book trade is unnecessary to succeed in a Booktown. If anything, she sees it as the principle reason that Blaenavon has less shops now, than it had a year ago. Put simply, the novices have upped and left and no new 'professional' booksellers have been lured to the town to replace them.

Having to find the money to buy out her own business partner, who it transpired didn't share Joanna's vision or commitment to the long haul has been difficult and has brought this issue very close to home. Despite this she remains optimistic, with, I think good cause, as we left her shop with a small box of books.

Keith runs Blaenafon Books, James Hanna's shop, which doubles as a Book Town office and tourist information provider. I asked him about the closures and enquired about future openings, but I left not much wiser and having failed to buy a book.

Browning Books continues to take the business of selling children's books seriously and do the usual range of new local interest titles.

Chatterton's books have morphed into Quality Books, which seems to contain the stock of three different booksellers. One of them, A Warren of Books in Abersychan is providing military history titles, and there's transport, history, some literature and general stock.

Serendipity Books purports to specialise in spiritualism and the occult, but seem to have a lot of fiction and miscellaneous secondhand books, which were the only ones I looked at.

So there you have it. For some visitors, Blaenavon Booktown amounts to a couple of reasonable bookshops in a rundown town in the middle of nowhere. Others still see it as a brave attempt at book lead urban regeneration.

Does it live up to the Booktown hype? - No. Could it grow into a successful town by exploiting its industrial heritage, proximity to glorious countryside and, of course books? - Yes.

As we leave the town on the Abergaveny road and descend into the Blorenge, the views are breathtaking and the countryside spectacular. Blaenavon has still to throw off the grey mantle of its past and reinvent itself for the twenty-first century. After two short years they are still just at the beginning of that process, one can only wish them luck.

Mike Goodenough

Previous Articles:
Blaenafon - The Book Town Experiment Fails 17.03.06
Blaenafon Booktown - Now We Are (Nearly)Two13.05.05
Blaenafon Revisited 01.11.03 & 26.10.04
Blaenafon Booktown - A Book Buyer's View 04.07.03


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

BBC News Bookish Blaenavon opens new chapter
International Organisation of Book Towns

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