Sedbergh in Cumbria has been designated England's first official book town

<p>Tom Holman</p><p>Sedbergh recently became the first town in England to be conferred with official book town status, and its startling success in regenerating the area means it might not be the last.</p><p>Transforming Sedbergh in this way was not something done in self-interest by local booksellers, but by the whole town in a concerted effort to revive it. Like many places nearby, Sedbergh had seen its rural industries decline in the past few decades, and become ever more reliant on tourism to sustain it. The hammer blow of foot and mouth disease in 2001 cut off even this lifeline, and it became clear that Sedbergh needed new ways to pull in trade. "Foot and mouth gave the town a horrible fright," remembers book town manager Carole Nelson. "We asked ourselves what we could do to keep bringing people into businesses if something like that ever happened again."</p><p>With a couple of second-hand booksellers and antiquarian dealers, books were already Sedbergh's biggest retail sector. After getting backing from most of the town's residents and businesses, its chamber of trade set about expanding its book activities and businesses, attracting funding from rural regeneration agencies and securing official status from the International Organisation of Book Towns. The organisation now oversees more than a dozen members, and most of them have drawn inspiration from Hay-on-Wye, the world's original book town and a prime example of a community that has grown prosperous through books.</p><p>Setting up shops</p><p>Book town status has helped Sedbergh to pull in several new shops. Hay's second-hand bookseller Westwood Books recently opened a big new branch, along with music and art specialists Orange Skies Books and Sleepy Elephant. A co-operative of book dealers joined forces to sell their collections from a shop shared with the offices of the book town and Sedbergh's tourist information service at the Dales&amp;Lakes Book Centre. More than 20 booksellers and dealers now operate in the town, and many visiting book enthusiasts will tour them all to hunt down the titles they want. Small local publishers and book-makers add to the community.</p><p>While some of Sedbergh's retailers have general stocks, most are specialists, and Nelson says the town now needs an enthusiastic independent to add new titles to the town's offer and take advantage of the influx of visitors. "A new bookseller would be tremendously welcome here, and there are some good properties available for anyone who's interested." </p><p>A new arrival would also pick up the business of selling books at the town's burgeoning series of events. A well-supported 11-day books and drama festival in August is the centrepiece, but Sedbergh is adding other mini-festivals, exhibitions and activities to create a year-round programme. "Being a book town is the most wonderful excuse for putting on events, because just about anything you do can be linked to books," says Nelson. "We want people to find something bookish happening in Sedbergh whenever they visit." </p><p>Open for booking </p><p>There are also tentative plans to launch "book tourism"--conducted tours spending a few days in the UK's book towns of Sedbergh, Hay and Wigtown in Scotland. Tucked between the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, Sedbergh is well placed to pull in passing tourists, and a host of local literary connections help too--Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and the Bront&#235;s all lived close by, and draw millions to the area each year. The town also has the kind of picturesque surroundings that encourage people to linger. </p><p>While in previous summers the only visitors to Sedbergh might be walkers, Nelson has already identified a new breed of tourist. "I used to walk through town and know just about everyone I passed--but that's not the case now." Booksellers and dealers report increased trade since book town status was conferred, and have seen a steady flow of visitors who come just for the books.</p><p>But the project has done much more than sell a few extra copies for retailers, stresses Nelson. "It's not been done for the benefit of booksellers, but for the whole of Sedbergh. We're always looking at new ways that the book town can support other businesses and get more visitors in." It seems to be working: Sedbergh has seen eight new businesses open this spring, and numbers passing through the tourist information centre are up by more than 25% on last year. "Our book buyers will walk every street and visit every shop. They need cups of coffee, lunch and somewhere to stay, and they come to spend," says Nelson.</p><p>tomholman87@hotmail.com</p>