>Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins, Bloomsbury: 2003
Sixpence House was one of those bookstore serendipity finds: a mis-shelved book that suddenly caught my eye, demanding to be purchased despite a strong possibility of being doomed to languish in the ‘to be read’ pile for months. I no longer recall when or why I decided to purchase this book. Perhaps it was the blurb claiming “a bookworm’s answer to A Year in Provence“; it would have been the ‘bookworm’ that enticed, not the reference to Mayles’ memoir. More likely, it was the idea of a ‘town of books’. Having never heard of the Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye, I must have been intrigued by the idea of a small village with 40 bookstores.
Collins’ memoir retells the story of his sojourn in Hay-on-Wye with his wife, Jennifer and infant son Morgan. It was a journey that began with a grand idea to live in an “old, old house with old, old books” in the countryside where one could live a writerly life. And buy books. Lots of them.
Collins is a good storyteller, but he doesn’t so much tell the story of his life in Hay as much as he tells the story of books he has read. Interspersed with the tales of daily life in Hay — being trapped in the lesser-frequented pub unable to make a polite exit without offending a lonely bartender, searching for an old house to buy, meandering through the many bookstores in Hay — is Collins’ homage to the many obscure books he has read throughout his life. There is an aptly quotable book suited for almost every occasion. A walk through a cemetery leads to a passage about 19th century burial practices. Peering in the window of a small, eclectic shop on the street takes the reader into a description of a novel about a man exhibited at a zoo. A visit to a bookbinder provides the opportunity for Collins to muse about books worth saving and books remarkable not for their content but for the stories of their existence — the faked memoirs, the book made famous for the pornographic text bleeding through the marbled endpapers, the poorly written stories unworthy of the intriguing titles given by editors.
The books that populate Sixpence House are as much a part of the town as the people who live there. In describing a ‘town of books’, Collins lovingly describes a universe of reading and writes a book that many bibliophiles would enjoy.