I cannot help it; I am drawn, time after time, to books about books. I have been a bibliophile for as long as I can remember, and love to read about other people’s adventures within the world of books. It will come as no surprise, then, that Paul Collins’ Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books – a memoir of moving his family to the Welsh book town of Hay-on-Wye – was high on my to-read list.
I found it a lovely touch that every review adorning the hardback edition of Sixpence House was written by a bookseller. They say, variously, that this book includes ‘remarkable wit’, is ‘viscerally funny and intellectually engaging’, and is ‘an astonishingly entertaining book that touches on everything to do with books.’
In 2003, Collins and his family left their house in San Francisco to move to the ‘town of books’ in Wales, a place to which they had made ‘yearly pilgrimages’ beforehand. The small market town of Hay-on-Wye boasted just 1,500 inhabitants – ‘a large population of misfits and bibliomaniacs’ – but an astonishing 40 antiquarian bookshops. Collins, along with his partner Jennifer and young son, moved into a sixteenth-century apartment above a rambling bookshop.
After a few weeks, he begins to work for Richard Booth, the ‘self-declared King of Hay’, and the owner of the world’s largest ‘and most chaotic used-book warren’. Collins is tasked with the impossibility of organising the American fiction section in the bookshop, which he describes as ‘a rambling monstrosity of half-opened shipping boxes, bindings ripped to shreds, of unguarded treasures left tossed in spiderwebbed corners. There are something like half a million books in this building – but nobody’s really counting any more.’ At this point in time, Collins is awaiting the publication of his first book in the United States.
Sixpence House is rather a quirky book, complete with a set of incredibly precise chapter headings. These range from ‘Skips a Tiring Train Journey and Alights in the Welsh Countryside’, to the final chapter, entitled ‘Ends with a Subtle Hint of Further Mishaps in the Future’. The whole is relatively entertaining, and I appreciated all of the anecdotes of bookselling which he provides. Extracts from the more obscure antiquarian books which Collins finds have been placed throughout too.
Collins’ humour throughout is dry and sarcastic, and sometimes a little deprecating and derogatory – particularly on the subject of the British. He is rather scathing of the people around him; he writes, for instance, ‘… Britain is a realm of nice stammering fellows: Hugh Grant has immortalized them for all posterity’. He reverts to stereotyping Brits a lot – their love of tea drinking, and a supposed penchant for incredibly dated kitchens ‘distinctly of 1950s vintage; you half expect an Angry Young Man with a Yorkshire accent to step out and start yelling about working down in the bloody mines‘. I’m not sure why. Comments of this ilk continue throughout the book, and do make it feel rather dated.
Those who enjoy Shaun Bythell’s memoirs on bookselling in the designated Scottish book town, Wigtown, are sure to enjoy Sixpence House. Both authors have a similiar pessimism about them, and aren’t shy with how they refer to the people who provide them with a living.
The Sixpence House of the book’s title is a tumbledown pub in the centre of town which Collins attempts to buy. After many setbacks, the family decide that sadly, it just isn’t worth it, and they end up moving back to the United States. Still, what Hay offered them was an adventure, into a town which has, quite literally, built itself around the book trade.
I would certainly be interested to see how much the Hay of today differs from what Collins depicts; after all, almost twenty years have passed since Sixpence House‘s publication. I have still not visited Hay, which seems a little shameful for a bookworm to admit. Fingers crossed I’ll get there one day – hopefully with an empty suitcase in tow to fill with treasures.