As a biblioholic, how could I resist a book subtitled: Lost in a Town of Books?
Paul Collins, his wife, Jennifer, and their one-y.o. son, Morgan, sell their apartment in San Francisco and move Hay-on-Wye in Wales (I won't attempt the Welsh version of the name). Paul and Jennifer discovered Hay on a previous visit and had returned several times. Hay has a population of 1500 and boasts forty bookstores--most of them selling antiquarian or used books.
Paul has just finished his first novel, but publishing has been delayed because the latest Harry Potter book has literally used up all the supplies of paper available. So while Paul waits for his novel to be published, he goes to work for the self-proclaimed "King of Hay," Richard Booth. Richard bought the old castle and is personally responsible for turning Hay into a booklover's destination. He buys books by the containerload, mostly from the U.S. and puts Paul in charge of the "American section."
The problem is, Richard is an anarchist at heart. Paul tries to make order out of the chaos of books in Richard's store, but just as he begins to get a handle on the mess, Richard changes his mind about how the books should be organized and tells Paul to start over. Paul learns from the other employees that this is not unusual behavior.
And then there is buying a house. Paul and Jennifer want to buy something in Hay proper. They want something old, a house that has been around for awhile. But British real estate laws are not quite as straightforward as they are in the U.S. (especially in California). Home-buying turns out to be a quirky as the plumbing.
Interspersed with all the drama of every day life and learning to live in a different country are Paul's musings on books. He and Jennifer have about two thousand when they leave San Francisco, but there are always more. In a town with so many booksellers, there are gems to be rediscovered; books that are well-written, insightful, funny, and forgotten. Paul finds a book of verse by Princeton students that includes the first published poem of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He finds a book by Leopold Louth, which includes a review lauding him as "our most arresting humorist since Kingsley Amis." Louth wrote three books during the 1950's and then disappeared. Paul reads one, Cabbage in the Grass, which he deems a very good book, yet when he tries to track down the publisher to reprint the book, he comes to a dead end.
Sixpence House is full of these little nuggets of information about books no one reads now. Paul wonders over inscriptions written on the cover, on the arcane art of bookbinding, on the eccentricities of the rest of the villagers. He notes the difference between the British and the American views of the world, usually without the customary snobbery of "British is better." (In the case of showers, it isn't.) Paul appreciates that the pace of life in Hay is different, in part because of its history--when you're looking at 1000 years, what's 10?
I've now added Hay-on-Wye to my list of places I want to visit. And I've got to pass this book on to my sister, who lived in Reading (just outside of London) with her family for a couple of years.
On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.