Clunes residents read up on how to bring to book the town's survival

THERE was hardly a murmur on the main street of Clunes yesterday, but behind the heritage streetscape of the old gold town the townsfolk are celebrating.

Clunes has been put on the world map with recognition as the southern hemisphere's first international book town.

The designation has been given to only 15 towns in the world, among them Hay-on-Wye in Wales and Wigtown in Scotland.

The definition of a book town is a small rural village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated.

"This gives Victoria an exciting new tourism drawcard and is expected to provide a significant cultural and economic boost for the region," the Premier and Minister for the Arts, Ted Baillieu, said yesterday when he announced the declaration by the International Organisation of Booktowns.

Clunes first turned to books in 2007 with a book festival that has become an annual event attended by 15,000 people.

"A small group of us got together because we were concerned about our town's survival," one of the organisers Tim Hayes said yesterday. "We had to work out how to become a sustainable community. It was a ghost town here. There were lots of empty shops and you could fire a cannon down the street on a Sunday afternoon and not hit anyone. It was a town in decline."

The first festival attracted about 6000 people, way beyond the town's expectations.

"The town ran out of everything - electricity, food, money," another of the organisers, Tess Brady, said. "We then set about to convince people to set up bookshops here."

Clunes now has seven bookshops and three online book traders have moved into the area. Five other shops also stock books, such as the greengrocer, who has cook books.

Graeme Johnstone, another volunteer, said: "We don't know the full ramifications of what this designation will mean. But the spinoff will be that the cafes, accommodation and other services that go with visitation will benefit. We expect overseas visitors because we are now on the international list of book towns."

Ms Brady said there had already been tangible benefits from the embrace of books.

"There's a bigger demand for real estate and people are coming to live here. They are looking for a tree change and realise it's not redneck and the prices are not exorbitant. A second real estate agent is about to open up in town," she said.

This year's festival is on May 5-6. It will include old-world street entertainment such as Punch-and-Judy shows and a hay bale maze. There will be about 60 visiting book traders.

The festival organisers are also creating a Children's Booktown at the library. "We are creating the world on Narnia in there and to enter people will have to walk through a wardrobe. Inside, it will be full of pine trees and an extraordinary storytelling chair that has a bit of scary in it and a bit of magic," Ms Brady said.