Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books
By Paul Collins
By John Glassie
(The Dallas Morning News, August 2003)
To bibliophile Paul Collins, there was perhaps no better place to try and settle down than a village out in the Welsh countryside called The Town of Books. But in this memoir, a charmingly successful chronicle of the failed attempt, the book-lover's fantasy turns out to be much more appealing than the reality of the thing.
The Town of Books is a real place. Otherwise known as Hay-on-Wye, it boasts "1,500 inhabitants, five churches, four grocery stores, two news agents, one post office...and forty bookstores," writes Collins. "Antiquarian bookstores, no less." The ratio of musty books to people in Hay is probably several hundred thousand to one.
The possibility of finding happiness there is also real enough for someone like Collins. He's a scholar and a devoted rescuer of odd (and amusing) old titles such as Things Not Generally Known, a 19th century work by one John Timbs, and Robinson Crusoe, In Words of One Syllable, an 1867 volume by someone named Mary Godolphin. Collins's own first book, Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck, was about to be published at the time. Why not move to the Town of Books, he thinks, to write more books about books?
So, with his wife and child, Collins packs up his San Francisco home -- and his own collection of a few thousand volumes -- and imagines their future in Hay. "We'll live in an old old [sic] house with old old [sic] books," he tells his wife. "I'll write books and play piano in the parlor, you'll write books and paint in the garret, and at night... we'll drink Horlicks and listen to the BBC."
It quite doesn't work out that way. Collins does a discouraging stint working among the never-ending piles of the biggest, dustiest, craziest old-book store in town -- where it's easier to assess the sheer weight of the inventory than any of its content. (The store is owned by an eccentric Oxford grad who opened the town's first bookshop in the sixties and later declared himself "King" of Hay.) "There are something like a half a million books in this building," Collins writes, "but nobody's really counting anymore."
A young writer taking a job in such a place, he says, is "like a pregnant woman taking a job at the morgue."
Meanwhile, Collins and his wife try desperately to live out their romantic notion of buying a lovely old Welsh house. After a number of disappointments, they come this close to a foolish purchase: the rotting old pub of the book's title. And it's just at this point that they snap out of the dream.
But Sixpence House is a humorous as well as rather large-scale metaphor for Collins's own desire to immerse himself in the yellowed page. And it's a perfect device for sharing his pleasure in old bookshop finds such as The Journal of a Disappointed Man, and Miss Nonentity, and Creative Chemistry, published in 1921, which states that "a man can live in a boiler factory, or in a cubist art gallery, but he cannot live in a room containing hydrogen sulphide."
Collins demonstrates great fondness for the forgotten, if ever known, authors of these books -- not least because he knows there's a chance he'll wind up like them one day.
In the end, however, the prospect doesn't seem to bother him so much. He does not, as it turns out, want to live in Hay. But if his books ever make the trip there, they won't really die. They'll live on, waiting, at the bottom of a pile.