Support our mission

With its cobblestone roads, bikes and brownstone homes bedecked with flowers, Bredevoort is the quintessential Dutch village.

But there is one element that sets it apart from the others — books.

Fewer than 2,000 people inhabit this tidy town, but, incredibly, there are roughly 200,000 tomes on the market in Bredevoort’s two dozen bookstores.

“You have to specialize,” said Ruud Wilstra, one of the bookshop owners.

A couple of hundred miles to south in Redu, Belgium, it’s the same story, only that town is a mere quarter of the size of Bredevoort.

“It’s crazy,” bookshop guide Xavier Al Charif said of the volume of volumes.

Crazy or not, it is what defines a “Book Town,” or “booktown,” as some prefer. Leave it to people who embrace — and live off — the written word to disagree as to whether the term should be one word or two. For this story, it shall be one.

Regardless of the wordplay, a booktown is customarily a small town with a disproportionate number of shops selling secondhand or antiquarian books. Often there are retail activities that complement the core industry. Some are related, such as printing or book binding, while others, like restaurants and hotels, are not. And typically, the town regularly hosts book fairs for novices and collectors alike.

Europe has been the cradle of this concept for nearly half a century, ever since a young bookish Brit named Richard Booth authored the idea in 1961. In just a decade or two, he and his followers transformed Hay-on-Wye from a little Welsh village into a worldwide attraction aptly called the “Town of Books.”

Today, from Malaysia to Minnesota, at least 30 communities call themselves booktowns. There might well be more, and there might well be fewer. It depends on the definition.

Some, for example, consider Jimbocho, a neighborhood in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo, to be a booktown. Located in Tokyo proper, it has a population density of more than 30,000 people per square mile. In contrast, Redu’s total population is about 450, according to Miep van Duin, one of 22 bookshop owners in the Belgian town.

Van Duin serves as board secretary of the International Organization of Booktowns. Twelve towns are listed as members of the club, including Redu, Bredevoort and Hay-on-Wire. Another is Montereggio, Italy, host of the next international booktown festival in May 2008.

The group does recognize other communities, even if they are not dues-paying members — towns such as Mühlbeck-Friedersdorf in Germany and Fontenoy- la-Joûte, one of several in France. But accredited or not, authentic booktowns, at least the type Booth envisioned, exist in non- urban settings, be it a harbor town like Tvedestrand, Norway, or the Swiss Alpine village of St-Pierre-de-Clages.

“For a booktown to be successful, you have to offer something else on the side,” van Duin said, referring to complementary businesses. “In Redu, we have found a good compromise.”

Striking the right balance between books and byproducts has been at the heart of an academic debate within the movement for years. Some people advocate an unqualified focus on books, while others take a more pragmatic approach.

Redu became the world’s second booktown in 1984. The man behind the effort, Noël Anselot, learned a lot from Hay-on-Wye and Booth, but in the end he favored “a more purist” view, van Duin said. She tends to side with Booth’s broader approach — but only to a point.

Books “make us special,” van Duin said. “If you don’t focus on books, it makes you like any other tourist community.”

Last month, Bredevoort held one of its most popular events of the year, the semiannual private sellers market. (Another occurs in October.) For a modest fee, a person can set up a stand and peddle some pages. About 180 permits were issued, according to Dagmar Holweg of the local information office.

Additionally, the town hosts smaller book fairs the third Saturday of every month, larger exhibits in May and August, and a clearance sale on Easter Monday.

Due to the Internet, “book sales in shops are down, just not here but everywhere, in America, too,” Wilstra said. “But the fairs are still going all right.”

For Americans, English-language books and products are the natural draw. In Bredevoort, the main provider is The English Bookshop. In Redu, it’s van Duin’s shop and De Griffel, a neighboring establishment.

Bill and Monica McQueen drive up to Redu from Luxembourg a couple of times a year. Last month, they stopped in at van Duin’s shop, called De Eglantier & Crazy Castle. Van Duin keeps her English-language collection on the third floor.

Redu “is easy to get to and it’s quaint,” Monica said. “We got a really good nutrition book last time we were here.”

With the McQueens expecting their first child, they missed Redu’s grandest event of the year. Held in early August, the “Night of the Book” festival is a time when shops stay open late, streets are packed and fireworks fill the midnight sky.

“It’s very pleasant and fun,” Philippe Evrard, a bookshop owner in Redu, said in his best English. “There is music in the streets. Books are not only serious.”

International Organization of Booktowns

Hay-on-Wye, Wales (1961)Redu, Belgium (1984)Bredevoort, Netherlands (1993)St.-Pierre-de-Clages, Switzerland (1993)Fjærland, Norway (1995)Wünsdorf-Waldstadt, Germany (1997)Wigtown, Scotland (1997)Sysmä, Finland (1997)Kampung Buku Langkawi, Malaysia (1997)Montereggio, Italy (1998)Tvedestrand, Norway (2003)Sedbergh, England (2003)

Other Booktowns

Bécherel, France (1988)Montolieu, France (1989)Stillwater, Minn. (1993)Fontenoy-la-Joûte, France (1993)Sidney-by-the-Sea, British Columbia, Canada (1996)Damme, Belgium (1997)Mühlbeck-Friedersdorf, Germany (1997)Grass Valley and Nevada City, Calif. (1998)Cuisery, France (1999)Montmorillon, France (2000)Southern Highlands, Australia (2000)Mellösa, Sweden (2001)Vianden, Luxembourg (2002)

List of other booktowns comes from multiple sources, including IOB, The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia and Wikipedia


stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up