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Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books

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Paul Collins and his family abandoned the hills of San Francisco to move to the Welsh countryside—to move, in fact, to the village of Hay-on-Wye, the "Town of Books" that boasts fifteen hundred inhabitants—and forty bookstores. Taking readers into a secluded sanctuary for book lovers, and guiding us through the creation of the author's own first book, Sixpence House becomes a heartfelt and often hilarious meditation on what books mean to us.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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About the author

Paul Collins

16 books263 followers
Paul Collins is a writer specializing in history, memoir, and unusual antiquarian literature. His ten books have been translated into a dozen languages, and include Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (2003) and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars (2011). He lives in Oregon, where he is Chair and Professor of English at Portland State University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 435 reviews
1 review1 follower
December 11, 2007
Why do I read these books? It is like a sickness.

Paul Collins says: Are me & my wife the only Americans who don't own or drive cars? (YES PAUL YOU ARE JUST THAT SPECIAL AND DIFFERENT. ALSO YOU ARE THE ONLY AMERICAN NAMED "PAUL." TRUE FACT.) Paul Collins says: 890 square feet would "barely accommodate" a 1-bedroom apt. in the USA. Paul Collins says American grocery stores are never ever ever out of anything ever. Paul Collins says EVERY AMERICAN HAS DIAMONDS FOR TEETH AND BATHES IN PEARLS DISSOLVED IN WINE, ALSO CIGARILLOS GROW ON TREES AND OUR KITTENS ARE MADE OF CANDY, BUT WE WEEP BECAUSE WE ARE MERE SUBLITERATE BABOONS IN COMPARISON TO THE ENGLISH, TO OUR GREAT AND EVERLASTING SORROW.

I say: PAUL COLLINS YOU ARE AN ENORMOUS TOOL. I know, I am aware, this is an longstanding centuries-old literary pose where you go WELL GOSH, I am an American and I am ten feet tall and annoying, isn't it funny, and wow look at the British with their tea and literature, and it has no connection to reality and is not supposed to, it is just supposed to make you chuckle indulgently at various national foibles or whatever the fuck, but FOR FUCK'S SAKE.

Apparently he is some kind of editor for something to do with McSweeney's. Isn't self-awareness supposed to be some kind of hallmark of those people?

Plus, he is the kind of prick who, at a bookstore, takes a book he wants to buy later and,instead of putting it on hold like a civilized human, he wedges it way the fuck behind other books in the wrong section, so nobody else can find it later. AND HE ADMITS IT. For this alone he must die.
Profile Image for Megan.
94 reviews22 followers
July 8, 2021
The shortest version I can possibly give you is that Sixpence House is the latest -- and last -- bust in the long line of books I read because Nancy Pearl recommended them with great enthusiasm. I reject her as a competent adviser on what to read next, and vow never again to pick up any book just on her say-so. I have spent the last two years dutifully listing books to read based on her wildly popular Book Lust series, but no more. It is time to realize that when, out of the 150 or so books I've let her coax me into, I've only loved 2 and 48 were all right or not half bad, it is time to throw out the recommender with the dish water. If you have had the opposite experience with Nancy Pearl, by all means, read this book, because you'll probably really like it. I personally found it intolerable.

There seem to be two sorts of people in the world who write books about books -- the sort who love books for their own sake, and/or who love reading, who have been brought closer to people in their lives by reading, and who are compelled to write about the experience from the sheer exuberance in their beings for this activity. The sort who have written books like A Gentle Madness and Howards End is On the Landing, The Lifetime Reading Plan or Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.

The other sort are a bunch of pretentious snobs, the kind Rifftrax would mock with nasal "Hmm-yesss"es and haughty sighing giggles. They seem to write books about books only to demonstrate to the world their facility for trivia, to look down their almost certainly pointed noses at the rest of the world, to jump up and down and point and say, "Look! I've read this obscure book that I bet you've never even heard of!" Huh. You know, I guess they would really be . . . the bookish equivalent of the hipster. People like the inexplicable Murray Browne (The Book Shopper) or Tom Raabe (Biblioholism). People like the arrogant twerp who wrote this book.

Hang on, I have reasons for calling him an arrogant twerp. Maybe he's not this way in real life. Maybe he just comes off this way in his incoherent, rambling, nonsensical book in which he can barely get through a chapter without informing you that at the time he wrote this book, he was waiting on another book to go through publishing, and by the way, he wrote a book -- and did you know, he also wrote a book? He writes books, you know. Yep. That's what he does, all right.

Sixpence House is a convoluted blog in book form from back before there were blogs at all, a kind of rambling journey about a fellow and his wife and toddler picking up and moving their lives into the Old Country, their search for a home in the "town of books" (Hay-on-Wye, a village in Wales in much the same way Cincinnati is in Ohio -- as half the town is actually in England -- boasting 40 antiquarian bookshops as its claim to fame). Rambling journeys can be fun; I'm not here to bash those. I enjoy a good ramble, a good stroll along a twisting stream with pretty trees and wildlife and whatnot. But some rambles are bad for you. Take, for example, the gently rambling Bolton Strid, a harmless-looking river that in fact is immeasurably deep. Every single person who has fallen into the Strid has disappeared forever (via). I feel that comparing Sixpence House to this stream makes an accurate comparison: it looks like an easy jump to get on the other side and some harmless nature scenery along the way. What it actually is, well, is much worse.

When a British person makes condescending and snide comments about the US, I accept it with the gentle tolerance of a teased sibling who knows we've both got our share of faults. On the other hand, a San Franciscan with a superiority complex, who is too good to drive a car and whose wife still breast-feeds their walking, toothed toddler, well, when he starts making condescending and snide comments about his own country, dedicating an entire chapter of his book (subtitled Lost in a Town of Books, by the way) to criticizing American TV and IQs by way of praising their British counterparts, well, I kind of feel the need to invite him up to Bolton for a little picnic on the Strid there and maybe let him get too close to the . . . no, I'm teasing, of course; I'm too petrified of drowning myself to even make the joke.

The point is, this book barely seemed to have a purpose, except maybe as a vehicle for the other guy's other book, whatever it is. He devotes enormous swaths of chapters to the detailed description of unrelated conversations, in depth quotations of random books -- even complete plot summaries of these random books. These would not be amiss, really, in a book about "being lost among books," but when combined with his flitting memories, House Hunters International-esque experiences, a detailed account of his toddler's first Welsh experiences, and, well . . . I call it a pre-blog blog. All of that stuff would've been appropriate in some other medium, but honestly, by chapter 12, I couldn't take it anymore.
Profile Image for Peggy.
267 reviews66 followers
August 14, 2007
Sixpence House is ostensibly Collins’ story of attempting to move his family from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye, a small Welsh village with 1,500 inhabitants and 40 bookstores. Hay-on-Wye is an interesting place, and in the right hands, that story could be enough. Luckily for us, Paul Collins is an inveterate reader and collector of obscure tidbits. The story of the move and his time in Wales thus becomes a framework from which to hang some of the most fascinating asides it has ever been my pleasure to run across.

This sounds somewhat disjointed, and in lesser hands it could easily be so. But Collins has a knack for making these asides tie in to the story he’s telling at the time, even if the connection is tenuous at best. Plus, the asides are so much fun, you forgive the author for reaching just a bit here and there

The framework of the book details Collins and his family’s attempt to buy a house in Hay-on-Wye, and if you’ve ever harbored a dream of owning a 200-year-old stone cottage in a sleepy British village, you should pay special attention. Collins describes the process in hilarious detail, from the ins and outs of British real estate laws to all of the problems inherent in dealing with a moldering stone building in its dotage. The family looks at so many houses that they tend to run together in the reader’s mind, except for the eponymous Sixpence House, a former pub with water in the basement and canting floors that they pin their hopes on.

By necessity, the story of their house search is also the story of the Collins family getting to know the inhabitants of Hay-on-Wye. As you might expect in such a small town with such a large number of bookstores, the good folks of Hay-on-Wye are a tad eccentric. The main character, Richard Booth, considers bookselling an anarchistic profession, which is obvious by the cavalier attitude towards sectioning and shelving in his stores. Booth, the self-styled King of Hay, looms large over this small town, but there are plenty of other characters in town, like Martin Beale, the solicitor who wrote a book about a murder that happened to one of his predecessors, or Violet, the elderly proprietor of the Hogshead which serves what is apparently the most godawful cider known to man. These are “characters” in the southern sense of the word and might strike some as too much, but Collins’ fondness for them is palpable and mitigates the preciousness.

Collins is a writer with an attraction to the eccentric and the oddball. He picks up antique books on every subject imaginable, and somehow manages to glean something unique from every one. I can think of no greater compliment for a writer than for readers to be so fascinated with the topic at hand that they seek out information not covered in the book on their own. Darned if Collins hasn’t gotten me jonesing to read books like Dr. William Hammond’s 1883 A Treatise on Insanity in Its Medical Relations or Riccardo Nobili’s 1922 The Gentle Art of Faking. Collins really brings home the idea that any book, no matter how old or shopworn or unappealing-sounding, has treasures buried within for the careful excavator.

It is this idea that is the heart and soul of the book. Collins has a companionable voice and he sounds reasonable enough as the story unfolds. But that reasonableness is a facade: a seductive trap for the unwary bibliophile. Without your realizing it, Collins pulls you further and further off the path. It’s just a small detour; a quick side trip to see something really special, and before you know it, you’re somewhere far away from where you thought you were going. Collins’ gift is that you don’t care that you end up someplace different from where you wanted to go. The journey is enough
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,733 reviews477 followers
February 13, 2017
Paul Collins and his family moved from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye, a small Welsh village with 40 antiquarian bookstores. Although Collins was born in the States, his parents were British and he had family in the area. He and his wife were looking for a place in the country to raise their toddler son. Their search for a home took them to many stone houses--money pits that were hundreds of years old and in questionable condition.

Paul worked in a large antiquarian bookstore while he was going through the editing phase of his first book. While he was sorting through the piles of books, he would come across amusing stories from the old tomes. Collins felt that he was pulled by both his American and British roots when his family had to finally decide whether Hay-on-Wye was going to be their home, or if they should move back to the States.

My favorite parts of the book were those about his family's experiences in Hay-on-Wye, and the book dealers and villagers that they met. I also enjoyed his comments about the publishing industry. While some of the anecdotes form the antiquarian books were humorous, I really did not have a good frame of reference for stories by obscure authors from small towns in the 1800s. Since the book was a mixed bag for me, I gave it 3 stars.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,669 reviews2,658 followers
September 21, 2020
I listed this as one of the landmark books in my life because, as I was getting ready for my year abroad in England in the late summer of 2003, it was one of the books that whetted my appetite for traveling, and particularly for visiting Hay-on-Wye. (We first went in 2004; this past weekend was our seventh trip and the occasion for my new profile photo.)

In 2000 Collins moved from San Francisco to Hay with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. His parents were British and he’d enjoyed trips to the Book Town before, so it wasn’t a completely random choice. The place suited his interest in the oddities and obscure figures of literature and history. In fact, he’d just finished writing Banvard’s Folly, a fun book containing 13 profiles of thinkers and inventors whose great ideas flopped. (I should reread it, too.)

As he edits his manuscript and hunts for the perfect cover and title, he is also unexpectedly drawn into working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who was responsible for creating the world’s first book town and crowned himself King of Hay. Booth hired him to sort out the American Studies section – but if you ever went in the pre-2007 Booth’s you’ll know how impossible it would have been to make order out of its chaos. He comes across lots of interesting books time has forgotten, though (I first learned about W.N.P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man from this book; why have I still not read it?!), and muses on counterfeiting, cover designs, bookbinding, and the sadness of the remainders bin.

Renting an apartment above Pembertons, which no longer exists but was at that time the town’s only new bookshop, Collins and his wife look at various properties and fall in love with a former pub. But when the survey comes back, they realize fixing all the damp and rot would nearly double its £125,000 price tag. (That sure looks good these days! The B&B next to the Airbnb flat where we stayed this time was for sale for over £700,000. Cusop Dingle is full of large, posh houses – Collins’s landlady referred to it as the “Beverly Hills of Hay.”) Buying one of the new-build houses on the edge of town just isn’t their dream.

In the end, after six months or so in Hay, they admit defeat and move back to the States. So in a sense this is – just like Banvard’s Folly, the book being shepherded into publication within it – a book about an experiment that turned out to be a noble failure. It’s warm, funny in a Bryson-esque way, and nostalgic for a place that still exists but a time that never will again. I loved spotting familiar landmarks, even if the shops have changed hands or are no longer there. This was probably my fourth read, but it all still felt fresh. An enduring favorite of mine.

(I’d be intrigued to know what Collins would make of Hay 20 years later. In 2000 it had 40 bookshops; now it’s only 12, with online sellers, book-related businesses, and shops further afield pushing the listings in the annual leaflet to 26. Whereas then Collins felt they were the only young family in town, it’s very much a hipster place now and we saw many groups of teens and twentysomethings. A tapas bar, boutique stores, turmeric chai lattes … it’s not just a musty antiquarian book lover’s paradise anymore, and that might sadden some like Collins. Yet gentrification and the Festival may be the only things that have kept the town alive. Richard Booth died last year, but the book town vision should live on.)
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,546 reviews602 followers
May 16, 2018
[2.8 stars] Of course, I liked this book! Or at least the idea of it! After all, it is set in the Welsh bookstore town of Hay-on-Wye where Collins, his wife, and young child have moved.
Unfortunately, Collins writes with detachment and doesn't really let the reader into his life. He quotes extensively (and indulgently) from obscure 19th-century journals and magazines he has fun finding. I was disappointed at how little this book was about bookstores or literature.
Profile Image for Trisha.
703 reviews42 followers
August 16, 2008
This is a book for people who love to read and if they also are enchanted with Wales and wish they could live there, it's even better. Paul Collins is a writer who evidently has been doing quite well because he was able to afford to move with his wife and young son from California to the little Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye, known as the town of books. It's true. I was there about 15 years ago and it was like dying and going to heaven. There were dozens of used book stores - most of them housed in ancient, dusty buildings with winding staircases and hidden away nooks and crannies filled with all sorts of interesting old books. But back to Sixpences House, the name of the rundown, centuries old, former pub that the author ends up almost buying. What's great about this book, in addition to being about a tiny village in Wales, is the way the author keeps inserting little quotes and tidbits of information from the many obscure and often completely quirky books he keeps stumbling across. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book about books and only wish I could afford to go back and spend a month or so in Hay-on-Wye!
Profile Image for Katherine.
744 reviews93 followers
December 1, 2018
What a delightful book! Though if you asked me what it's about I'd stumble around looking for the right words because it's a little hard to pigeon-hole. Not only is it a book about books, beloved and forgotten, it's also a peek into a unique location (Hay-on-Wye, where books go to die), a book about writing, an adventure of contrasts between what's American and what's British, as well as a completely engaging memoir. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and often laugh out-loud funny, I loved every moment I spent reading this charming book. A definite keeper.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,812 reviews343 followers
January 12, 2014
Paul Collins moved his wife and baby from San Francisco to the small Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. He wanted to give his son the chance to grow up as he had – in the country, free to roam the hills, exploring as any boy would love to do. But Hay-on-Wye is not just a small Welsh village. It is “The Town of Books” – with only 1500 residents and forty bookshops (almost all of them specializing in used / antiquarian books). This is a memoir of their family adventure.

Collins was born in America, of British parents. He had frequently traveled to England and Wales and was familiar with Hay-on-Wye. Still, living in a place is different from visiting it, and Collins soon finds himself immersed in the world of books in ways he hadn’t anticipated. His memoir includes thumbnail sketches of some of the eccentric inhabitants – including Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay, who bought the ancient castle ruins and turned it into the least-organized bookstore imaginable. (Although Collins does cite one of my own local favorites – Renaissance Books in Milwaukee WI – as “the closest thing the United States has to Booth’s.”)

There are passages that would merit 4 stars, but overall the book gets 3 stars from me. I enjoyed it, and some references to obscure, long-forgotten books make me want to hunt those volumes down and read them, but I wasn’t particularly moved by this book.
Profile Image for top..
492 reviews95 followers
January 13, 2020
บันทึกกึ่งๆ ชีวประวัติ ของนักเขียนหนุ่มพ่อลูกอ่อน เล่าถึงการตามล่าหาบ้านใหม่ในเฮย์ พร้อมๆ กับกล่าวถึงหนังสือเล่มนู้นนี่���ั่น ซึ่งเกือบ 90% นี่ไม่รู้จัก มีความจิกกัดสังคม ซึ่งบางอย่างมันก็แลดูเป็น 'มุก' เฉพาะสังคมในอเมริกัน/อังกฤษ ที่เราเข้าใจได้ไม่ทั้งหมด (ถึงแม้จะมีเชิงอรรถเกือบทุกสองหน้าก็เถอะ)
Profile Image for Karen.
372 reviews4 followers
January 9, 2016
Had to force myself to finish. Was really no point to this book. Found the writer to be egotistical & self absorbed in his own intellect & self professed quirkiness
Profile Image for Denny.
97 reviews10 followers
September 16, 2016
This book was a fun read. I need to go to this town that has 40 used bookstores!
Profile Image for Phuwong.
160 reviews
September 16, 2019
เรื่องราวการตามหาซื้อบ้านหลังใหม่ของครอบครัวชาวอเมริกันในเมืองหนังสือเล็ก ๆ ของอังกฤษ ให้ภาพบรรยากาศที่น่าไปเยือนสักครั้ง แต่เป็นการอ่านที่ค่อนข้างน่าเบื่อเพราะเป็นบันทึกการหาซื้อบ้านเสียส่วนมาก ประกอบกับไม่ค่อยรู้จักหนังสือที่ผู้เขียนกล่าวถึงในเรื่อง ส่วนตัวจึงค่อนข้างผิดหวังกับการอ่านครั้งนี้
Profile Image for Phair.
2,070 reviews41 followers
March 7, 2010
This started out really good with a breezy style and cool chapter headings in the style of old novels. Much ruminating on the state of reading, books, literacy and popular culture with more interesting quotes than I cared to write down in my journal. I particularly recall the author's discussion with a realtor who told him that too many visible books in a house actually decreases its sales appeal!! Not in my eyes, that's for sure.

Unfortunately the book became something of a let-down with too much about the author's insecurities as a writer and his family life and nowhere near enough about Hay-on-Wye. I was vastly disappointed to learn that much of the town's book stock is imported by the container-full from the US. Still want to visit there one day.
Profile Image for M. D.  Hudson.
177 reviews107 followers
October 16, 2011
When booksellers and bookmen get around to writing their book about books, I have come to find, they often fail to trust their materials – books. Rather than books, bookmen (to use the old fashioned, sexist term) feel compelled to tell us about famous people they’ve met, engage in literary criticism, or persist in telling us about themselves at tedious length. And “Sixpence House” is another example of the failure of the genre. “Sixpence House” is not the worst book-on-books book I’ve read, but it is a missed opportunity. And I am sorry to say this because its author, Paul Collins is my kind of guy when it comes to books – rather than being attracted to rare first editions and pristine dust jackets, he is drawn to the obscure, the forgotten, and the bargain. He is straightforward in his interest in the dusty corners of book collecting, and he quotes from his finds – wonderful lost bits of literary and quasi-literary and just weird disjecta membra that can be found in ancient periodicals and utterly forgotten volumes. But like I said, he doesn’t trust his material. Books co-star (at most) in “Sixpence House,” sharing space several other things I care very little about, in descending order: English food, English real estate transactions, the author’s short story collection, the author’s toddler son’s endless toddling and funny noises, the author’s wife’s jigsaw puzzles and interior decorating ideas, the author’s (and his wife’s lockstep) political-environmental views and snarky cultural-social commentary.

The tale is this: Collins, his wife and toddler, sell their place in San Francisco and move to Hay-on-Wye, a hamlet on the English-Welsh border that has become a “book town” – more than forty used book stores. I thought the book would be an account of setting up shop there and their adventures in the book trade. Not so. They move there with vague plans to do exactly this, they look over some houses to buy (a process described in a great deal of detail, which wasn’t bad, but not really of interest to me), can’t find one, and so move back to Oregon or someplace where it rains a lot. The Sixpence House of the title is one of the properties they look at and don’t purchase. I’m not entirely sure what they planned to do to make a living – “write” seems to be the plan. During their stay, the author visits some bookstores, pubs, and real estate offices, all of which we are told about.

This book is such a disappointment about half the time. The author’s toddler stories interested me about as much as cute baby stories told by people I don’t know usually interest me, which is to say not at all (so let me tell you about my cats…). The socio-political commentary is not only NPR ideal market segment predictable, it is often by turns arrogant and nasty. I cringed at the little at his high-toned description about how he and his wife don’t drive or own cars and how this demonstrates their overall goodness and virtue and how this is only possible in a few choice USA cities, while the rest of us bake the planet in our SUVs. “Back in America, I sometimes wondered whether my wife and I were the only people in the country without cars, without licenses even; she’s never had one, and I neglected to renew mine years ago. When People would tell us that something was nearby, Jennifer and I would look at each other and silently think, yes, it’s nearby, for car people….” A little of this goes a long way with me. The problem with this coming from this sort of guy is the remarkable fact that the car-less often seem to need to hitch rides in other people’s cars and, even worse in a carbon-footprint sort of way, it seems they are criss-crossing the globe in jets all the time (Collins mentions he has been to England a multitude of times). Even their little oops!-changed-my-mind trip to Hay was, finally, just a rather extravagant waste of resources by a couple of Westerners trying, vaguely, to “find” themselves. Other moments of cultural commentary – both English and ‘mericun – too often veer from the sharply-observed to the supercilious and even nasty. By the end of the book I was making my own nasty observation – just where exactly do the Collins’ family get their money? Nobody seems to work except the author, for a couple weeks at one of the local bookstores. They sold their place in San Francisco, which no doubt brought in a lot, but where did that place come from? SF has about the highest real estate prices in the country – I know one person who lives there and she has a trust fund. Collins mentions an advance for his short story collection, but I find it impossible to believe a first-time short story collection advance amounts to very much. I suspected a trust fund, which doesn’t matter at all, except when the trust fund kid keeps poking fun at the peasants toiling in the fields (and closing their shops and pubs at hours inconvenient to him) around him.

However, despite myself, I did mildly enjoy Collins’ observations on English people and ways of life. The bizarre food -- I laughed out loud when he reports spotted someone purchasing a tin of “Mr. Brain’s Pork Faggots in a Rich West Country Sauce” (p.192) -- the absurd utilities, the medieval real estate transactions all add up to a young-man-abroad kind of travelogue of a fairly predictable sort. Collins tends towards the merciless when describing other people, and although this keeps him from finding Mr. Chips on every pub stool, it comes off rather harsh and unsympathetic finally. Perhaps the most compelling character in the story, the eccentric, energetic, competitive, anarchic, disorganized and stroke-ravaged Richard Booth, who created the Hay-on-Wye used book phenomenon and lives in a disintegrating, fire-ravaged castle looming over the town. Booth hires Collins as his “American expert” for his bookstore and although Collins gives a dispassionate, unsentimental portrait of this strange man, Booth comes off more of a crank and bad businessman than fascinating eccentric.

But back to the books. As with his more general cultural observations, when it comes to books Collins reveals a snobbishness that can be quite harsh – he describes contemporary dust jackets and how they are designed to appeal to certain types of readers. This goes from pages 111-113 and it is meant to be funny, I think, but it comes off just mean. The terms “uneducated readers” and “crap” are used. But he generally handles books more delicately than this. In fact Collins is, like I say, my kind of bookman (I mean this as a compliment, I think). While he loves the old, weird, neglected stuff, he does not wallow in Love of Books rhetoric that so often ruins books about books – no rhapsodies on glorious smells and the crinkly ivory pages and whatnot. And no bragging about pristine F. Scott Fitzgerald dust jackets, thank God. In fact he does a great job with the grubbiness and even filth that attends any pile of books, whether in a neglected shop or your own shelves (or floor). His selections from his reading are witty and interesting, but too few and far between. His ruminations on the fact most authors wind up utterly forgotten, persisting only in used book shops and the bottom of boxes in estate sales is well done, melancholy, and true. His asides are promising:

“Look at all these dead shelves. For every book you recognize there are twenty that you don’t. Usually this heartens me – what an adventure to read those twenty! But no I just feel kind of blue about it. Even writing and publishing a bad book, a boring and stupid book, takes gargantuan effort. And for what?” (p. 123)

In a couple of places Collins describes dispassionately the fact that the booksellers of Hay will burn books – lots of them, in bonfires. The charred pages will even drift across town sometimes (to his credit, Collins does not make a Holocaust comparison). One dealer even tried to figure out a way to sell old books as fuel for wood-burning stoves (the packing and rendering was too expensive to be practicable). Collins’ lack of sentimentality on this point was bracing and admirable (I so, so, so wanted to like this book more than I did). The typical booklover’s book would make knee-jerk Nazi comparisons and generally weep and wail about these books consigned to the flames. But the fact is, a lot of books are simply unsellable; in fact you cannot give them away. The books come into Hay from the USA by the shipping container load, and as ramshackle, unprofitable, and chaotic as they often are, used book dealers are in business. There is simply nowhere to store six copies of Frommer’s Guide to Italy, 1982. Two hundred years from now they will be rare, but now who would want them? (and even if one person does, the other five copies will go a’begging, taking up shelf space for the rest of the proprietor’s natural life span, unless he does something about them).

I completely agree with Collins’ take on the best-managed, best-organized bookstore in Hay (I ran a few paragraphs together here – Collins’s has a weakness for single-sentence paragraphs that are meant to be dramatic):

“The Cinema Bookshop is better run than Booths’s: the hundreds of thousands of books here are priced and categorized, and related subjects are in proximity to each other. A proper modern cash register is at the front of the store, and a magneto-whatever exit gate will shriek if you try to steal their stuff…Yet I have never bought a book in the Cinema Bookshop. Not one. The titles themselves are curiously inert. Booth’s, in its wide-armed embrace of everything that avalanches upon it, has become a de facto library of the forgotten, with both everything you could want and everything that nobody could ever want. But the Cinema Bookshop is a used-book store run as if it were a new-book store; all the books are correctly priced, and there are no shocking bargains here. There is no surer way than that to suck the fun out of book hunting.” (pp. 106-107)

As good as this is, I do wish he had described Booth’s in a contrastingly positive way. He prefers Booth’s squalor, but it seems to be a grudging preference. Mostly, when describing Booths he complains about the squalor and filth, or the way the employees fail to appreciate his efforts to tidy up when he is employed there.

But dammit, there is good stuff in this book. Compellingly, Collins fleetingly addresses the loathing – and even self-loathing even – that comes from an immersion in old books, a topic that keenly interests me. Yes, I “love” books – but I also hate them as well. Why is this? My own dusty piles sometimes bring me great satisfaction, and yet I hate them sometimes too, or they fill me with melancholy. Sometimes nothing is more conflicting for an aspiring, probably already failed, versifier than to contemplate a folio volume of Abraham Cowley’s poems, sixth edition, published in 1684. As a book person, I love the antiquity of it, the crooked type and long-s’s and the archaic spelling (and the fact I lucked into it on eBay and only paid $40). But there is something desolate and futile about all those lines of Cowley’s execrable verse. For about a hundred years it was a given that Cowley was better than Milton (thus the availability of Cowley’s folio works). Then came the long, slow slide. Such reputations! Such oblivion! As for the death of reading culture, Collins says early in the book:

“You see, literary culture is perpetually dead and dying; and when some respected writer discovers and loudly proclaims the finality of this fact, it is a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It means that they have artistically expired within the last ten years, and that they will corporeally expire within the next twenty.” (p. 3)

Yes! And yet throughout “Sixpence House” we are treated to Collins’ worrying and fretting about the final stages of getting his collection of short stories published, which he describes in worried, fretting young author ways. There’s nary a whisper about the likely endurance of any first story collection, or his own slim volume’s chances of winding up on a remainder table, or being chucked into the flames of some desperate used bookseller’s inventory-reducing bonfire forty years from now (if used bookstores still exist then). Collins’ obtuseness about his own literary activities gives the book a blinkered, even selfish cast. His fresh-out-of-the-workshop writing advice he shares doesn’t help the situation (real writers (like Collins) don’t wait for inspiration but instead work really, really hard, you know).

As compelling as parts of the book can be, Collins doesn’t really develop them (often returning to cute baby stories instead). This gives the book an air of superficiality and sketchiness, a feeling of lost opportunity. Perhaps in thirty years he can re-write the book and give it some heft. The kid will be grown up by then, Collins will own a house and he can stick to the books.

This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for booklady.
2,322 reviews65 followers
August 14, 2021
While I love reading and browsing bookstores is one of my favorite occupations, I seem to be invariably disappointed with books on books. This is probably for many reasons, the foremost being each reader, no matter how similar his/her interests seem on the surface, is seeking subtle differences with every book opened, every word read.

Paul Collins writes about his move to Hay-on-Wye, a little Welsh town which has become a repository for old books, quite literally, the "Town of Books", boasting 1,500 inhabitants and 40 bookstores! Sound like heaven? Well that is what Paul thought when he moved there with his wife, Jennifer, and their toddler son, Morgan.

The book is part travelogue, part catalogue of old books. And for Anglophiles and bibliophiles it has a lot to offer. What I enjoyed most was the description of Hay during this recent turn-of-the-century time frame. I was reminded of my all-too-few forays to Wales in the early 80s in search of castle ruins. Along the way, I fell in love with the quaint towns, the laidback pace of life, the 'soft' weather and the breath-taking scenery. I can definitely understand Collins desire to want to move there.

His descriptions of books were less interesting to me as they were for the most part of books so obscure and random, I would never be able to find them even if I were so inclined, but generally I wasn't. So in one sense this made it a 'safe' book for me to read. I did not come away with a long list of new titles (a couple to be sure!) to search out, but it was also disappointing for that reason as well.

As a memoir, it was so-so. Some parts of it seemed genuine, other parts contrived to make for good reading. I cannot help questioning his sincerity in applying to be a peer in the House of Lords.

3.5 stars An enjoyable read for lovers of books, Wales, and trivia.
Profile Image for Bobparr.
993 reviews68 followers
December 12, 2019
Il pregio di Collins è, credo, la leggerezza.
Racconta una dose di fatti suoi - come d'altronde fara' poi con il libro sull'autismo di suo figlio - con candore, disincanto e ironica accettazione. Un uomo che umanamente stimo per le scelte, per il coraggio, per la curiosità. Questo libro, nello specifico, fa senz'altro venir voglia di visitare il Galles e parla sufficientemente male degli americani che quasi li rende simpatici. Non c'entra molto, ma la cadenza mi ha ricordato i libri di Chris Stewart - altro bell'esempio di ciuffo d'erba in cerca di prato in cui attecchire.
Nov 2019: seconda lettura.

Sempre singolare rileggere i libri.

Ora noto il fastidio per questa montagna di libri assolutamente inutili, démodé, e inutili (l’ho già detto?), e questo chiacchiericcio attorno ad essi, e citazioni che dal secolo scorso - anzi, dal secolo ancora addietro - fanno sorridere ma non stupiscono.
Storia di un trasloco mancato, a margine confronto tra gli inglesi e gli americani ed il loro modo di vivere. L’inglese vince a porta vuota, a questa lettura. L’ironica accettazione c’è ancora, ma è un poco strascicata.

Non so se è sempre bene rileggere i libri.
Profile Image for Rosemarie.
184 reviews159 followers
November 13, 2017
I wish this book had been more about books and less about the author's personal experiences. The rating should be 2.5 stars.
Profile Image for Marina.
678 reviews163 followers
July 19, 2017
Recensione originale: https://sonnenbarke.wordpress.com/201...

Avevo molte aspettative su questo libro. Paul Collins, uno scrittore americano che sta per pubblicare il suo primo libro, si trasferisce con la famiglia a Hay-on-Wye, Galles, noto come “il paese dei libri” in quanto conta una quarantina di librerie per poche migliaia di abitanti. Le premesse, dunque, c’erano tutte: che curiosità conoscere le avventure di questa famiglia in un paesino così caratteristico! Un libro sui libri (o almeno, sulle librerie)! Quanta bellezza!

No. Niente di tutto questo.

Per carità, Collins parla moltissimo sia di libri (soprattutto vecchi libri bizzarri e introvabili), sia delle librerie di Hay, sia dei librai di Hay. Questo non si può negare. Ma parla anche moltissimo della sua ricerca di una casa da comprare a Hay e delle differenze tra inglesi e americani. Ecco, a chi può importare di queste due cose? O meglio, un libro umoristico sulle differenze tra inglesi e americani potrebbe anche essere simpatico, ma che me ne importa della ricerca della casa da parte della famiglia Collins? No, sul serio.

Peraltro, le differenze fra inglesi e americani sono viste in modo sì umoristico, ma dopo un po’ irritante. Gli inglesi sono dei piccoli esserini bizzarri che gli americani faticano a comprendere, sia nel bene che nel male. Da notare tra l’altro che Paul Collins è americano fino al midollo, ma i suoi genitori e tutti i suoi parenti sono inglesi. Collins ha anche un passaporto britannico accanto a quello americano, solo per scoprire alla fine del libro che questo è impossibile e tendenzialmente illegale, perché gli Stati Uniti non ammettono la doppia cittadinanza.

Inoltre, una delle cose più interessanti e irritanti è che la famiglia Collins si trasferisce in questo piccolo villaggio gallese con la ferma intenzione di restarci ma, visto che fa fatica a trovare una casa da comprare, decide di tornare a San Francisco?! Ma mi state prendendo in giro? Tornare “a casa” solo perché non si riesce a trovare una casa da acquistare che sia esattamente come la vogliono loro?! Non può essere una cosa seria, davvero.

Il libro inizia bene, continua annoiando e finisce irritando. Insomma, oserei dire, un fallimento su tutta la linea. Non lo boccio totalmente solo perché alcune parti, in cui Collins parla di libri, sono davvero carine e anche divertenti a tratti. Tuttavia non lo consiglio.
Profile Image for Tejas Janet.
234 reviews33 followers
August 3, 2016
This book about the author's year-long stay, circa 2000, in the small Welsh village of Hay is quirky, reflective, and highly entertaining. With his wife and young son, Paul Collins moves to Hay, a "book town" that is home to 1500 residents and 40 book stores - one book store for every 37.5 people! While there, the author is finalizing his first published book, and hoping to make Hay his long-term home.

These pages reveal his abiding love and knowledge for dusty, old tomes from earlier centuries as his peripatetic musings introduce the reader to the town and its bibliophilic inhabitants. Though he meanders pleasantly from subject to subject, a pattern emerges that reveals contemplative reflection on the lives of books themselves - from how they come to be written, published or not, preserved or not, to how some succeed, fail, or wind up as obscure footnotes in books destined to some day make their way to a place like Hay, a sort of retirement home for old books.

Through often humorous, always thoughtful anecdotes and delightfully obscure book references, the author shares this special year in his life and helps us see more clearly not just Hay, but the wider world, and perhaps even our own selves in it. His writing is a wonderful blending of memoir and history. Loved this book. Five stars.
Profile Image for jennifer.
280 reviews16 followers
June 12, 2011
Collins moves his family from San Francisco to the book town of Hay-On-Wye, Wales. The young couple plan on buying a house and raising their son there as Paul awaits his first book to be published. In the meantime, he works for "The King of Hay" in one of the towns many bookstores, meets the Hay Festival organizer and many of the locals and attempts to find a house that won't fall down on them.

This is my second read of Sixpence House and I love Collins' writing and also his perspective, as an American whose parents are English.
This book was my introduction to Hay-On-Wye and to book towns when I first read it a few years ago. But it isn't all about books- it covers the strange methods of British real estate, the realization in a grocery store that he is no longer in the land of plenty and a visit to his dying grandmother. But a lot of it is about books. Yea!
Profile Image for Emily.
893 reviews149 followers
October 4, 2009
Perhaps the two stars are because this wasn't very interesting. Perhaps they're because I'm jealous. The author was just casually browsing in the biggest used bookstore in Hay-on-Wye, fell into conversation with the owner, and just like that was offered the job of organizing the American fiction section. That would never happen to me, and it's not fair. hmmf.
Profile Image for Colleen.
1 review4 followers
December 21, 2007
A very pleasant, comfortable read. Like a conversation with a really nice, interesting dinner guest. Old books, old houses, Wales, and lots of quotes from obscure literary works.
Profile Image for Kirsty.
2,703 reviews175 followers
January 29, 2021
I cannot help it; I am drawn, time after time, to books about books. I have been a bibliophile for as long as I can remember, and love to read about other people's adventures within the world of books. It will come as no surprise, then, that Paul Collins' Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books - a memoir of moving his family to the Welsh book town of Hay-on-Wye - was high on my to-read list.

I found it a lovely touch that every review adorning the hardback edition of Sixpence House was written by a bookseller. They say, variously, that this book includes 'remarkable wit', is 'viscerally funny and intellectually engaging', and is 'an astonishingly entertaining book that touches on everything to do with books.'

In 2003, Collins and his family left their house in San Francisco to move to the 'town of books' in Wales, a place to which they had made 'yearly pilgrimages' beforehand. The small market town of Hay-on-Wye boasted just 1,500 inhabitants - 'a large population of misfits and bibliomaniacs' - but an astonishing 40 antiquarian bookshops. Collins, along with his partner Jennifer and young son, moved into a sixteenth-century apartment above a rambling bookshop.

After a few weeks, he begins to work for Richard Booth, the 'self-declared King of Hay', and the owner of the world's largest 'and most chaotic used-book warren'. Collins is tasked with the impossibility of organising the American fiction section in the bookshop, which he describes as 'a rambling monstrosity of half-opened shipping boxes, bindings ripped to shreds, of unguarded treasures left tossed in spiderwebbed corners. There are something like half a million books in this building - but nobody's really counting any more.' At this point in time, Collins is awaiting the publication of his first book in the United States.

Sixpence House is rather a quirky book, complete with a set of incredibly precise chapter headings. These range from 'Skips a Tiring Train Journey and Alights in the Welsh Countryside', to the final chapter, entitled 'Ends with a Subtle Hint of Further Mishaps in the Future'. The whole is relatively entertaining, and I appreciated all of the anecdotes of bookselling which he provides. Extracts from the more obscure antiquarian books which Collins finds have been placed throughout too.

Collins' humour throughout is dry and sarcastic, and sometimes a little deprecating and derogatory - particularly on the subject of the British. He is rather scathing of the people around him; he writes, for instance, '... Britain is a realm of nice stammering fellows: Hugh Grant has immortalized them for all posterity'. He reverts to stereotyping Brits a lot - their love of tea drinking, and a supposed penchant for incredibly dated kitchens 'distinctly of 1950s vintage; you half expect an Angry Young Man with a Yorkshire accent to step out and start yelling about working down in the bloody mines'. I'm not sure why. Comments of this ilk continue throughout the book, and do make it feel rather dated.

Those who enjoy Shaun Bythell's memoirs on bookselling in the designated Scottish book town, Wigtown, are sure to enjoy Sixpence House. Both authors have a similiar pessimism about them, and aren't shy with how they refer to the people who provide them with a living.

The Sixpence House of the book's title is a tumbledown pub in the centre of town which Collins attempts to buy. After many setbacks, the family decide that sadly, it just isn't worth it, and they end up moving back to the United States. Still, what Hay offered them was an adventure, into a town which has, quite literally, built itself around the book trade.

I would certainly be interested to see how much the Hay of today differs from what Collins depicts; after all, almost twenty years have passed since Sixpence House's publication. I have still not visited Hay, which seems a little shameful for a bookworm to admit. Fingers crossed I'll get there one day - hopefully with an empty suitcase in tow to fill with treasures.
Profile Image for Mandy Eve-Barnett.
Author 14 books91 followers
July 6, 2019
As a Brit I loved the 'images' the author described. A town of books is a writers dream and Hay-on-Wye is the place to visit.
Paul Collins uses extracts and quotes from long lost authors & books to good use throughout the story and takes you on a journey of this writing life.
Profile Image for Lindaharmony.
99 reviews6 followers
March 8, 2017
This is an almost-good book. The first and last three chapters are charming, but the 14 chapters in between seem to just mark time.

Paul Collins moves with his wife Jennifer and toddler son Morgan from San Francisco to Hay, a town in Wales they had visited many times. Hay boasts a small population of a few thousand and 40 book shops, the perfect place for two writers to settle down.

About half way through, I wanted to abandon it, but I soldiered on because Collins spent a lot of chapters describing forgotten volumes in the second-hand book store where he worked, and I knew this book was destined for a similar fate. I felt a macabre responsibility to make it to the end.

This passage describes a book he found in the shop but aptly describes his own:
"The frustrating thing about failed books by talented writers is that they have wonderful passages in them that will never be salvaged, never raised up from the water depths of obscurity."
80 reviews
February 26, 2008
I’ve had a couple of unsatisfactory reads lately , although they were at least unsatisfactory for different reasons. Sixpence House I have been looking at since it came out in hardcover, but it didn’t make the purchase list until available in paperback on a day when I was in the mood for retail therapy. I should have paid attention to the instinct that stopped me from buying it in the first place. It’s the story of the short period when the author and his family moved to a town in Britain that is known for the concentration of bookstores selling old books, and it could have been interesting – in fact, the first few chapters, before the family gets established in the town, were interesting. But then the author gave in to the temptation to focus on the quirkiness of the town’s inhabitants, encountered while the family was trying to find a house to buy – and I lost interest.
Profile Image for Rhonnie Cough.
371 reviews14 followers
June 18, 2013
I really thought this was a novel when I picked it up, because of the title and cover. I liked a couple things about this book. Some of the book trivia was interesting, learning about Hay in Wales was nice, and he is a good writer. It is the kind of book that definitely takes you someplace else very charming, and so reading it has a good feeling. But it's also one of the most pretentious books I've read. He has an attitude of -- because I read books I'm so much better, because I read THESE books I'm so much better, etc. Also, the generalizations about America and Americans are hilarious. According to him, everyone here has a concealed weapon, is dumb, doesn't read books. It was ridiculous and SO unique for a liberal American to move to Europe and then bash America. I like comparisons because every nation gets it wrong, but be tasteful and realistic and don't paint with a broad brush.
Profile Image for Glenna Barlow.
311 reviews54 followers
December 3, 2017
what a perfectly charming book. the author is witty and peppers the narrative with amusing anecdotes and passages that he's collected from various books that he's rescued over the years. of all the books i've read about books and book-lovers this one seems to ring the most true. truly, here is someone who has a deep and abiding passion for books of all kinds and gives each its due. even better, this particular book was one that i myself had been scouring shelves for for many months, making it all the more appropriate.
as a bonus the story (although non-fiction) gives a very nice, if sometime tongue-in-cheek, account of england as seen through the eyes of an american (albeit a quasi-british american). the only fault i could see was the number of missing words i noted, but i'm going to chalk that up to my finding an advance reader's edition.
December 2, 2012
This is the book for anyone who wishes to visit Hay-On-Wye, the town of books or daydreams about it like I do. I was there three years ago this week and I was so pleased when I found this book this week. Paul left San Francisco with his family for this sleepy little town in the Black Mountains in Wales on the border of Hereford and Hereford-shire. It was lovely going back there through Paul's eyes hearing about the streets he walked down that I walked down myself( I too was in that Chinese..for hours on those sofas).The book is full of tit bits of information about the booksellers in the town and it's history...even a notorious poisoner from the early 1920's.This is a book I would recommend to everyone esp those who love to read books about books or wonderful quaint book towns.
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