Bookish Blaenavon opens new chapter

It worked for Hay. Now a run-down industrial town is looking to become south Wales’ literary capital.

Blaenavon is trying to reverse its declining fortunes by becoming an unlikely Mecca for book-lovers, and this Saturday will declare itself “Booktown”.

Ten new bookstores have just opened behind boarded-up shopfronts in the Torfaen town afflicted by industrial decline and a shrinking population in recent years.

It is already pulling in tourists from across the world, say backers, who are betting that book power will prove a money-spinning draw to revitalise the town.


Local people supported plans in February to roll out the project, part of a network of 50 international Booktown projects trying to kick-start underperforming economies.

Moulded by coal and steel, Blaenavon was once home to 25,000 people, but now numbers just 6,000.

Despite World Heritage Site status putting it alongside great landmarks like Egypt’s pyramids, the forecast of 250,000 annual visitors has not materialised.

But project leader James Hanna says Blaenavon can emulate Hay, the original Booktown, where an annual festival and 39 bookstores attract 50,000 visitors a year.

‘Shining example’

“It’s a good way to reverse declining economies – a tourist draw,” the Hay-based American – a bookseller since the age of six at home in Mississippi – told BBC News Online.

“Hay was primarily a farming economy, now it’s a thriving tourist economy – it’s a shining example.

“Blaenavon needs economic revitalisation – the place was once known as ‘plywood city’ because of the number of boarded-up shopfronts.”

But, working with Torfaen council, he was given favourable rent options on those properties and has helped 10 new booksellers – half of them local – set up behind their now-revamped facades.


Bookworms could make a day of it, added Mr Hanna, picking up lunch and a few books in Blaenavon, then driving 30 miles north to Hay for dinner.

“They’ve already been coming from everywhere – from Cyprus, for example, just about everywhere you can think of,” he said.

“It’s mind-boggling – the town is being revitalised.

“It has gone so incredibly well, we plan to open half a dozen more bookstores, a gallery, coffee shop and bistro.”

Visitors will follow in the footsteps of the town’s miners – many keen readers and book hoarders – according to Mr Hanna, who was busily painting shelves before Saturday’s official launch.

Torfaen Council chiefs recently forecast the plan would be a “an exciting, win-win situation” for the town.