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Sixpence House Hardcover – April 3, 2003

4.0 out of 5 stars 115 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Hay-on-Wye, a Welsh town of 1,500, is heaven on earth for people who love books, especially old books. It has 40 bookstores, and if you can't find what you want in one of them, you can fork over 50 pence and visit the field behind the town castle, where thousands more long-forgotten books languish under a sprawling tarp. McSweeney's contributor Collins moved his wife and baby son from San Francisco to Hay a few years ago, intending to settle there. This book is Collins's account of the brief period when he organized American literature in one of the many used-book stores, contemplated and abandoned the idea of becoming a peer in the House of Lords, tried to buy an affordable house that wasn't falling apart (a problem when most of the buildings are at least a century old) and revised his first book (Banvard's Folly). Collins can be quite funny, and he pads his sophomore effort with obscure but amusing trivia (how many book lovers know that the same substance used to thicken fast-food milk shakes is an essential ingredient in paper resizing?), but it's hard to imagine anyone beyond bibliophiles and fellow Hay-lovers finding enough here to hold their attention. Witty and droll though he may be, Collins fails to give his slice-of-life story the magic it needs to transcend the genre.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

The McSweeney's gang may be the closest thing we have to a genuine literary circle; if its members have produced smug, postmodern chapter titles, such as "Chapter Two relies on the travelogue cliche of a garrulous cabdriver," they've also written some books that whistle like fresh air through the bookstore. Collins' travelogue/memoir is a book lover's delight, minus the pretense you might expect from someone schooled in obscure eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. With his wife and young son, he moves to Hay-on-Wye, Wales, a village with one bookstore for every 37.5 residents. The narrative is structured around his house-buying attempts and the impending publication of his first book, but the meat of the work lies in his meandering asides and bookstore discoveries. His intellect changes focus often, but crisply, and it's a pleasure to observe him in the act of observation: Who would have thought there was still new ground to cover on the topic of Anglo-American differences? Collins muses often on the impermanence of books, but this one will grace shelves for years to come. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (April 3, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582342849
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582342849
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (115 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #694,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on July 17, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul Collins has written something like the perfect book for bibliomaniacal Anglophiles. *Sixpence House* is the story of his migration--with wife and infant son--from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye, a village in the Welsh countryside with some 1500 inhabitants--and, remarkably, 40 bookstores. Hay is a picturesque town, with cobblestone streets and thatch-roofed houses and its own castle, a half-ruined edifice occupied by Hay's self-proclaimed king, who happens to be, as are so many of Hay's inhabitants, a bookseller. Collins and his family rent an apartment in town (his mailing address becomes, simply, The Apartment: it's that small a village) and live out of their suitcases and stroller while house hunting and book buying. The author also works part-time for the king in his bookstore, a place crammed with more musty volumes than the royal's workers can ever organize.

Collins' attempt to buy an old house in Hay--he toys with purchasing the eponymous Sixpence House, a lopsided former pub that threatens to be a money pit--merely provides the skeleton for the author's delightful, meandering narrative. It is at times hilarious, as when, for example, Collins describes his first book-reading, or rather, his pre-reading sojourn in the bathroom:

"There's nowhere dry for me to put my papers down, so I have to tuck my papers under my chin while I pee, which works till--chiff--into the toilet, and I grab, and recoil, then grab again--and I have saved my manuscript, the thing I am still hoping to read from this evening, except for the first page, which is not just soaked, it is soaked with urine. I stand alone in the bathroom, horrified. I do not have another copy with me. But, what they do have here is--a hand dryer. And so there I stand, drying off my masterpiece over the ineffectual vent.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I fell in love with "Sixpence House" from the opening pages. It's not a travelogue, yet it gives the reader a wonderful sense of the place called Hay-on-Wye; it's not a guidebook for those publishing their first book, although we do share some of the labor pangs as Collins' first tome, the also wonderful "Banvard's Folly" advances to press; and it's not a compendium of unusual finds in forgotten books, though you'll find plenty of these here. If you demand a straightforward, linear sort of narrative, you might not love this. But if you enjoy sharing the keen intellect, thrill of discovery and gentle, wry wit of another bibliophile, you most certainly will. No lover of the printed word should pass it by.
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Format: Paperback
As opposed to A Year in Provence (to which it is sometimes compared), this book doesn't inspire you to pull up stakes and transfer to the South of France or anywhere else, except maybe to the nearest musty, possibly treasure-laden bookstore, and deepen your appreciation of books. A visit to the California Antiquarian Book Fair a few years back taught me that there are basically two kinds of people -- those who love books for what they are and those that love books for what they do. Collins seems to be that rare bird -- a dweller in both camps. Every booklover knows the joy in finding something they didn't know they'd wanted in the first place. But he includes historical bits, usually hilarious, he's gleaned from his lifelong pursuit of the obscure and quirky. His sidetrips are also wonderfully funny and informative. For instance, while giving an account of what it's like to be in the publishing his own first effort, he segues into a description of, say, dust covers, giving a brief history of their development and what they may tell a prospective buyer, proving you CAN judge a book by its cover. The avid reader will recognize, also, Collins' predilection for making a beeline for bookcases when visiting someone's home. This practice is a shortcut to getting to know a person. Along the same lines, I try to see books on shelves behind people who are being interviewed on camera.

The writing is full of humor, the biographical episodes lively enough to convey a sense of place. But the real joy is in finding there is still much to learn about books as objects rather than books as providers of knowledge and enjoyment.
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By hh on August 13, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book is a pure delight. Yes, for all the reasons that many other reviewers have put forth, but also for this one: It shows that the true value of reading books is how it makes one observant, well-rounded and introspective. Paul peppers his story with asides and very funny digressions that highlight what one might ordinarily miss while tramping through life and that actually serve to connect things more than any straight forward story could. His sense of humor is self-effacing as much as it is directed at anyone or any culture so even when biting, it is never less than beguiling. Like Abe Lincoln, he cannot but see the ludicrous in life and distills his observations into quips and anecdotes that enlighten and entertain.
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Format: Hardcover
Sixpence House is a wonderful, strange, unclassifiable classic. The basic story is a travelogue, from San Francisco to London to a medieval town on the Welsh border. But the pastoral scenery and odd locals are really just Collins' jumping-off point, into the mysterious hidden worlds within long-forgotten books. The result is the literary equivalent of the kind of dinner party guest everyone wants to sit next to.
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