• 05 May - 11 May, 2018
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Focus

Book towns started with Hay-on-Wye; now there are communities around the world that celebrate the written word. In this extract from a new book, the author picks 5 to leaf through – and visit

Lilleputthammer, Norway

All book towns sell children’s books, and some booksellers focus entirely on titles for young people, but there is only one children’s book town – Lilleputthammer in Norway. Lilleputthammer is a small adventure park for families. The main section is a miniature copy of the main street in the city of Lillehammer, Storgata, with all the houses built as they looked in the 1930s but at a quarter size. There are more than 40 shops, two hotels, three cafes, two bakeries, a police station and a cinema. Within this is the Children’s City of Books – six houses devoted entirely to books.

The books are divided into different houses according to the ages of the readers and then again into categories such as animals, fairytales, environmental protection, cowboys, crime, nature and outdoor living.

Óbidos, Portugal

Obidos is a beautiful, historic hilltop town with a wall that encloses a compact medieval centre filled with cobbled streets and traditional houses. The town – just over an hour north of Lisbon – was previously best-known for its annual chocolate festival. Then José Pinho, owner of Lisbon bookshop Let Devagar (Read Slowly), had the idea to change Óbidos into a book town.

The Literary Man hotel, home to 30 guestrooms – and 50,000 books. Photograph: Francisco Manuel Mendes

Óbidos stands out from most other book towns in that it didn’t open new bookshops; many stores have simply added bookselling to their business. So, the local art galleries sell art books, the Óbidos organic market has shelves of cookbooks behind its fresh fruit and vegetables, and the museums stock history, interior design and heritage titles, according to their individual focus.

Montereggio, Italy

The history of bookselling in the hilltop village of Montereggio in Tuscany goes back centuries. Indeed, the first printing press was operated in the town by Jacopo da Fivizzano in 1471 and the first bookshop was opened there in the late 1490s. Over the next 100 years, local residents – sometimes entire families – began to operate as itinerant booksellers, toting huge wicker baskets of books around the fairs and markets of central and northern Italy.

A street book stall during the town’s book festival. Photograph: Associazione Le Maestà di Montereggio

In 1952, Montereggio hosted the inaugural Premio Bancarella, Italy’s leading literary prize.

As well as books, the roaming salesmen and women also sold knives and other tools from their baskets. As the number and weight of the books increased, the sellers turned to using carts pulled by hand or horse. Today, this history and the town’s ongoing book activities are supervised by the volunteers of Le Maestà di Montereggio, founded in 2013.

Bellprat, Catalonia, Spain

In many ways, this small village is the ideal book town. It is in a beautiful rural setting in Catalonia’s Anoia region, yet only 90km from Barcelona. It has an appealing medieval centre and its population is enthusiastic about throwing open its doors to book-loving visitors. Bellprat is also the first book town in Catalonia (the second in Spain, after Urueña).

Lucas Daglio and Guada Boocles

This is very much a community-run book town. From simple beginnings in 2008, when it was set up by the L’Associacio d’Amics de Bellprat (Association of Friends of Bellprat), it now offers visitors more than 20,000 books for sale. This is impressive given the population of the village is under 100.

Paju Book City

It stands alone among members of the International Organisation of Book Towns in that while it has bookshops, book cafes and publishers, it has nothing else. Every single building and person here is dedicated to making, publishing, selling and promoting Korean books.

Forest of wisdom library

It is also in the most unlikely setting of any book town: a reclaimed marshy flood plain near the Demilitarised Zone, just half a dozen miles from the border with North Korea. Indeed, its location was a guiding principle by the founding publishers, who wanted to emphasise the importance of the common good above self-interest. While at its heart was a commitment to print, the plan was to build somewhere as an antidote to the perceived over-development of Seoul.