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Book Towns Are Made for Book Lovers

What makes a book town?

It can’t be too big—not a city, but a genuine town, usually in a rural setting. It has to have bookshops—not one or two, but a real concentration, where a bibliophile might spend hours, even days, browsing. Usually a book town begins with a couple of secondhand bookstores and later grows to offer new books, too.

But mostly, they have a lot of books for sale.

Hobart, New York, is a perfect example of how having one bookstore in a small town is nice, but having many bookstores together makes a place special—a destination. Since the 1970s, book towns like it have been springing up all over the world. There are now dozens of them, from Australia and Finland to India and South Korea.

In the forthcoming Book Towns, journalist Alex Johnson catalogues these most charming of tourist destinations. He spoke to Atlas Obscura about the pleasures of out-of-the-way places defined by their books.

A bookshop in Bredevoort, Netherlands.
A bookshop in Bredevoort, Netherlands. Archmedus/Book Towns

What makes a good book town?

Well, they’re all very picturesque. That’s one of the reasons they generally get picked. They’re away from cities, so rents are low. I think the main thing that makes a book town, what you need, is somebody really keen or a few people who are really keen to push it forward. Often, they’ve been in places where economically things have been a bit slim, or the population’s been decreasing as the younger people move away into the cities.

Hay-on-Wye, in Wales, was the first one, and it started in 1977. How have book towns changed over the past few decades?

I think

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