The Book Town concept was initiated by Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, U.K. It offers an exemplary model of sustainable rural development. The Danish example adds a social dimension.
There are probably a dozen European Book Towns. Some are big enough to be members of the International Organisation of Book Towns (see www.booktown.net). Others are smaller. What they have in common is that they are small rural towns with second hand bookshops. Or as in the case of Denmark, not even a town. More like a village. Well, not quite: a hamlet. Or perhaps not even that. But still, ten different and tiny book stores are open all year round. Well, not quite book stores. More like small book carts and wagons. And the smallest: the Bookshelf at the farm entrance. The place of all this is Torup, 60 kilometres north of the Danish capital, Copenhagen. A rural community with some summer guests.
Something out of nothing
The concept is simple: second hand books are collected and donated for free. After a process of sorting out the best books, high quality second hand books are put out for sale along the rural roads in and around the hamlet. A garage, a workman’s hut, a disused stable, a farm entrance, a newly restored railway station. All these are small second hand bookshops. Some operate on a self-help basis. Customers leave their change in the jar. On this basis, the sales people create a small personal income, part of which goes to the Torup Book Town Association, which, in turn, runs a yearly Nordic Book Festival, with talks/readings from established authors, along with music, and, in 2009, a fringe film festival with contemporary Danish short films. This gave young film-makers an opportunity to get some exposure. Co-operation with the local church creates synergy and cultural cross-over events. All this is financed by the second hand books, and with minimal funding from the local municipality. Thus, the booktown creates valuables out of nothing. Or almost nothing.
To no-ones surprise, the activities are conducted on the basis of voluntary work. The Norwegians have a special word for this: Dugnad. It covers the concept of mutual and volutary work of importance to local communities. This can take the form of building a community log-house or solving a conflict. Or creating a booktown. Everyone contribute in their way. In 2004, Dugnad was chosen as the National Word of Norway. This is a rare example of a non-individualistic and inclusive concept of voluntary work in a Western country.
And this is where the booktown project becomes interesting from another angle than the cultural one: it is also an inclusion project. Torup hamlet has 300 inhabitants, some of whom move here to retire. This means that they are newcomers to the area, perhaps with few social contact points. And this is where the Book Town serves as one way to connect with others. All in all around 15-20 people are involved in the Book Town in some way or another: several persons take care of the common book depot, i.e. sorting out and distribution of books to the Torup Book Town outlets. Other volunteers take care of the book wagon, some are in charge of the event planning, one takes care of the website, etc. And the chairman does the coordination, the public relation work – and the fund raising. A petite alternative economy is forming: this is small-scale rural development. And soon second hand books will be for sale via the Internet. Potentially, this creates the basis for a part-time job. Most importantly, however, is the social side of all this. It is an inclusive project. Small is beautiful.