004 Judging a Place by Its Cover: a Photographic Portrait of the Town of Books by an Addict

Prabda Yoon
Writer and publisher

 I've not met a bookstore addict more intense than myself. And believe me, I'm not boasting; I find it annoying and I've wanted to kick the habit many times. So far, not so good.
 When I'm not traveling, I go to the same bookstores in my city almost daily. I often pick up the same books, simply for the pleasure of touching them again. I know the locations of the books almost as much, and sometimes probably more, as do the staffers. When I go abroad, however, the madness escalates. Have you ever known anyone who, upon arrival in a city at the break of dawn, heads straight to a bookstore and waits around for it to open, instead of checking in at an accommodation first? I didn't think so. Until more reliable evidences surface, I'm going to say that I'm the only person in the world who's done it.
 This is not to imply that I'm such a great reader; I am not. I know people who read and write much more passionately. My addiction is about being in the space where physical books are displayed and sold. I'm not really sure why.
 If I remember correctly, it started at about the same time I became seriously interested in art. (I was interested in reading and writing well before that, but it didn't have much to do with bookstores.) There were times when, bored of classes and feeling that I was not being taught what I needed to know, I would spend more time in bookstores than in school. In Manhattan, where I lived for 6 years in the nineties, some big bookstores stayed open quite late. So, much too often, I would make myself comfortable in one of those stores until they closed. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I lived in bookstores more than I lived in my apartment. I should've just camped out in the parks for sleep instead of paying the rent every month to not be in my apartment.

A bookstore in Hay-on Wye

 Over the years, several people, united only, perhaps, by the knowledge of my addiction, had mentioned the English town Hay-on-Wye to me. You'd love this place, they said; it's a bookstore town, almost every store in the place is a bookstore! Strangely, that too-good-too-be-true information never really registered with me and I made no effort to find out more about Hay-on-Wye. I generally dismissed the recommendation as a possible miscalculation, or a weak presumption, of my taste. Why would they think that I'd appreciate a town in which every store was a bookstore? Do they see me as some kind of freak? Denial: a classic symptom of an addict. As a result, Hay-on-Wye was never put on my Must Visit list, and I probably never even believed its existence in the first place, preferring to regard it as some made up, fantasy realm, like Narnia.
 Well, it turned out Bookstore Wonderland was real and I eventually had the chance to experience it firsthand a few years ago. I even had the privilege of having an audience with His Majesty "King of Hay," Richard Booth, who singlehandedly turned the small rural town into a world-renowned bookstore town (or "Town of Books") in the seventies.

(King) Richard Booth, with his crown, in his office

 To be accurate, most of the bookstores in Hay-on-Wye are secondhand books bookstores, but that doesn't undermine its unique accomplishment and, for book lovers, spectacular town layout, where, with few exceptions of restaurants and guesthouses (because, admittedly, even addicts have to eat and sleep sometimes), literally every store is indeed a bookstore. In fact, if Hay-on-Wye were filled with only the usual bookstores--imagine a small town where all the chain bookstores line the streets--it might be a rather horrendous sight, and most likely quite boring, instead of this charming, somewhat romantic, tourist attraction. Hay-on-Wye manages to thrive as a bookstore town precisely because every one of its store has different kinds of books to offer. There is a store that sells only poetry books, a couple of joints specialize in mystery fiction, and of course there are several "upscale" establishments dealing in rare editions, collectables and antique books. Richard Booth's own castle (yes, he really does lives and works in a castle) is itself a huge secondhand bookstore, containing perhaps the most eclectic collection of titles and genres, though it seemed to me to be also the most disorganized, which somewhat fits Booth's unconventional, playful character. The madness of King Richard!

The frontyard of Hay Castle Bookshop, Richard Booth's castle

 I stayed at a small guesthouse that was, unsurprisingly, furnished with many well-stocked bookshelves, in every room. I used the opportunity of being surrounded by so many famous titles by so many "acclaimed" authors, and with cover designs that looked very "retro" and "classic" in comparison to contemporary book cover designs, to make some improvisational photographic art. I selected some titles from the shelves and placed them in various spots of the house, where I felt the compositions added some sort of narrative, however abstract, to the books and their covers.
 In my mind, this was an homage to Hay-on-Wye itself, a different kind of approach to touristic photography. It would have been fine and practical to take photographs of the stores and the streets and the pleasant nature of an English countryside, but often there's something more to a place than the patterns on its skin. I wanted to somehow capture the atmosphere, the "feeling," of being in that particular place at that particular time; something personal yet not of or about myself. The photographs are portraits of some of the books I met in Hay-on-Wye.

prabda04_04.jpg L:Portrait of CHEKHOV, A BIOGRAPHY

prabda04_05.jpg L:Portrait of HIROSHIMA BY JOHN HERSEY


 For a bookstore addict, was being in the renowned "Town of Books" a blissful experience? Was it ecstasy? I spent about 3 days in Hay-on-Wye, and true, I was never bored of going into the same stores everyday. I had a pleasant time, yet, to be honest, it didn't feel much different from being in a place with only a few, even just one or two, good bookstores. Perhaps like reading a book, what really matters is the text, not the book itself. Being in bookstores and being in a town made up of bookstores are quite different things, and my addiction is not in the latter. Abundance is not really the point; having and having a lot amount to the same result, if what one seeks is simply the satisfaction of having.
 As you might be able to guess by now, I possess a lot of books myself. My bedroom, especially, is highly flammable. Still, I go out of my house to look for more places with a lot of books. Why? It's hard to say, but I guess it's my way of waiting for Godot.

prabda01-01.jpgPrabda Yoon

Born in 1973, a Thai writer and publisher based in Bangkok. He has published numerous novels, short story collections, and essay collections. In addition, he has also translated modern English-language classic literature such as The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange into Thai. In 2002, his short story collection, Kwam Na Ja Pen (English: Probability), won the SEA Write Award.

Apart from working in Thailand, Prabda has regularly written for Japanese magazines and exhibited artworks in Japan. He has written 2 screenplays for films starring Tadanobu Asano and he is presently collaborating on various art projects with Japanese contemporary artist Kohei Nawa. His literary works have been translated into Japanese, of which the most recent is the novel Panda.

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