Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Feb 2019

Book Towns: forty-five paradises of the printed word by Alex Johnson

Is there any bleaker time of the year than those freezing days at the end of January and the first half of February? Just about everything seems to have entered a state of suspended animation and the news bulletins obsess about the wretched weather. In my opinion, snow and low temperatures in the depths of winter are hardly news.

Like just about everyone else, all I can think about is the summer and planning a holiday in the sun. I’m not personally a beach-holiday type – lounging around pools or (God forbid) being imprisoned on a cruise would be torture and so the traditional glossy package holiday brochures have very little to offer me.

If you’re of the same mind as me, I could have the perfect alternative holiday guide for you – Alex Johnson’s Book Towns. The idea of a Book Town is a simple but clever one based on the notion of creating a critical mass – provide enough shops all in one place to make it worthwhile for collectors to pay a visit and spend time in all the venues. And it’s an idea that has been pretty successful right around the globe. We here in Britain are probably most familiar with the grand-daddy of them all – Hay-On-Wye – but we also have Wigtown in Scotland and Sedbergh in Cumbria. But Alex Johnson’s book came as quite a surprise to me in terms of just how many places elsewhere in the world claim the title of Book Town and you have something like 40 locations to start planning for – and be prepared to literally travel to the other side of the world.

Johnson gives each location an informative but mercifully brief overview of how each town emerged and developed as a book buying destination and what becomes evident immediately is that what constitutes a ‘book town’ can vary enormously – from a very loose coalition of shops to something that is much more planned and which embraces a lifestyle or a shared philosophy. To be honest, I’m not really bothered about whether the town is a ‘book town’ or not as long as the shops are there. In a world where bookshops are struggling to keep their heads above water, any bit of branding that helps them keep their doors open is ok by me.

The landscape orientation and large letter-box size of the book will also give you a clue that actually much of the attraction of this publication lies in its photography – which is positively sumptuous in that travel-book, touristy style. This is picture-postcard stuff and you won’t find anything too innovative in terms of the choice of images but it’s none-the-worse for that.

So, finally, the inevitable question. Which book towns are top of my list for a visit? There are some really beautiful ones in France and Spain and would not be beyond my reach – but would there be enough English language books there to merit the trip? Australia and New Zealand don’t pose a language problem but I’m never likely to make it there (unless someone is prepared to fund a first-class plane ticket) and would India and Japan be just too much of a culture shock? Perhaps, the USA is the way to go and I went immediately to read the entry for Stillwater& Twin Cities in Minnesota only to find that actually the book town idea seems to be in trouble here with shops closing hand over fist.

So that leaves me with Scandinavia – not that I speak Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish. But, mercifully, these hugely cultivated communities often speak English better than I do and finding English language books in their shops isn’t a problem. So I’m thinking that Borrby in Sweden might be the place for me:

“As well as various secondhand bookshops (including one specifically for children’s books), galleries and publishers, many of which are gathered in the central Bohuset building, there is also the  Sprakkafe book café in the old railway station.”


This is a travel book to treasure. Book towns will no doubt come and go and constantly morph into different shapes – but as I said earlier, I don’t really care how they change as long as they keep going.


Terry Potter

February 2019


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