Books are like water, have always followed the path of least resistance through the geographic landscape, as illustrated in this map of the bookstores of Wales in 2014.

Bookstores in Wales
Bookstores in Wales

The first, printed volumes flowed out of Mainz and Frankfurt along the rivers to Nuremberg, Cologne, and on to the rest of Europe. Books are big, heavy things and difficult to carry in bulk. It’s important to avoid mountain crossings when possible, and to find a handy river barge. In the United States, Boston began as the first major location for producing books, but was soon replaced in that position by cities like Philadelphia and New York that had the best routes west along rivers like the Hudson and the Delaware.

In Wales, the dominant geographic features are the coastline and the three mountain ranges in the centre (Snowdonia yn the north, the Cambrian Mountains in the centre, the Brecon Beacons in the south). The bookstores fit snuggly around these features, rarely appearing within them (with a few exceptions like Y Bala’s popular Awen Meirion store). The stores in Machynlleth may appear to break the mold by moving inland, but in fact they sit in a strategically located valley between Snowdonia and the Cambrians.

One part of Wales that has managed to confound the geography is Hay-on-Wye, though in fact it, like Machynlleth, is situated on a major river (it is, in fact, on the River Wye). The multitude of shops that cluster there rode in on coat-tails, not water. Richard Booth put stores in the local cinema and castle, announced that they were the largest in the world,  and then in 1977 had himself declared King. Hay has been a used and rare book capital town ever since.

Another factor that has overwhelmed geography is the Internet (which is everywhere and nowhere at once) and its own commercial king, Amazon. It settles like a cloud across the landscape, serving all locations and ignoring all places equally. The fact that it has now opened a store in space means little more than saying it has opened a store in Blaenau Ffestiniog or Mold. It is there and not there, wherever the digital connections can reach.

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