The Venn diagram of book lovers and globetrotters actually has a lot of overlap — both are just trying to experience the world, whether from an airplane seat or an armchair. Does that sound like it describes you? If so, you might want to start planning your next vacation now. Welcome to the world of book towns.
It sounds simultaneously head-scratching and heartwarming — a beautiful tourist destination in a city made up almost entirely of bookstores. In Alex Johnson’s new book “Book Towns: 45 Paradises of the Written Word,” readers discover that such places can be found all over the world, from Jimbochu, Japan to Hobart, New York. But how does an entire town develop such a specialized industry?
First of all, a picturesque environment is basically a must-have. Book towns are tourist hot spots and they can only thrive if tourists want to go in the first place. Second of all, they generally need to be somewhere far away from any major cities, so the kind of money you make from secondhand books goes a little bit farther. Finally, you need to have a plan made with an equal mix of determination, business-savvy, and a love of books. Because while it might be a business decision to turn your town into a book town, it’s a decision that doesn’t guarantee fame and fortune.
The transformation of a normal village into a book town is usually spurred by economic necessity, but with well over 40 examples of book towns around the world, it’s a strategy that seems to pay off. They work because they collectively draw huge crowds to browse, so even though everyone and their neighbor are in the same business, the atmosphere is one of mutual support instead of competition. The result is a peaceful, scenic place where a visitor can experience the world even if their nose is in a book.
Book towns are a relatively new phenomenon. The first one, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, popped up in 1977, and the actual International Organisation of Book Towns (IOBT) didn’t start until the year 2000. Still, you’d have a task ahead of you if you were to try to hit them all. Here are a few:
- Clunes, Australia was once a gold-rush town and transformed into a movie set for movies like “Mad Max” and “Ned Kelly.” Since then, it’s swiftly built itself up into a major book town surrounded by the rugged Australian outback.
- Fjærland, Norway is everything you could hope for in a Nordic getaway, plus miles upon miles of secondhand books. No better place to crack open a classic than overlooking a peaceful mountain lake.
- Hobart, New York isn’t a member of the IOBT, but it certainly deserves an honorable mention. The self-described “book village” is home to only 500 people but a whopping five independent bookstores.
- Paju Book City, South Korea boasts a ratio of 20 books for every person, but there’s a catch. Unlike many of the other literary destinations, nobody really lives in the city at all — they commute there to work.
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