Tacky it may be, but those who are collectors of books are also their buyers and therefore should not sneer at a new book from Alex Johnson called Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word, published by Frances Lincoln.
It is, the blurb says, the first such directory and includes both official and unofficial members of The International Organisation of Book Towns.
According to their website, the organisation has four key aims:
1. Raise public awareness of book towns and stimulate interest by giving information via the internet and organising an International Book Town Festival every second year
2. Strengthen the rural economy and enhance the quality of book towns by exchanging knowledge, skills and know–how between the book towns and their individual sellers and other businesses
3. Undertake other activities which can serve the interests of book towns and strengthen independent businesses in book towns, e.g. by stimulating the use of information technology
4. By these means, help to maintain regional and national cultural heritage, and to raise international public awareness of such heritage
Most of the towns described (and photographed) are European but there are also Paju in South Korea, Sidney in Canada, Stillwater in Minnesota, Jimbocho in Japan and Kolkata in India. It would take an adventurous sort of bibliophile to discover them all. Johnson himself remarks on the isolation of many of these towns, located far off the usual tourist trails: "I perhaps rather naively, had no idea that so many were in really rather remote locations. Richmond in South Africa is miles from anywhere and you have to be very keen indeed to go there, it’s not an obvious stopping off point to somewhere else at all."
The author has also commented that the 'book town' status does not necessarily protect the town or its book shops and libraries from budget cuts and closures. He says of Hay-on-Wye, the very first Book Town, initiated by resident Richard Booth, "they’re having real problems keeping the town’s library open, which seems astounding - there’s a strong pressure group campaigning hard to protect it but the way things are going in the UK, no library anywhere is safe."
So let us show our support. Which book town to visit first?
Our choice is Fontenoy-la-Joûte in France where the oldest of the ten bookshops is called A La Recherche du Livre Perdu. Moreover it’s twinned with Chinguetti, 3,506 km distant in Mauritania, where a UNESCO collection of scientific and Koranic texts is held.
We suggest that this is a book that the bibliophile on holiday should keep well away from his or her spouse. The best approach would be along the lines of, “Oh do look at that signpost, darling, Fontenoy-la-Joûte, doesn’t that sound romantic! Shall we try it for lunch? A few snails and a glass of Pouilly-Fuissé, what do you say?”