Essay | The King of Hay-on-Wye

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Jane Frank


The King of Hay-on-Wye


A maverick anarchist, bookseller and entrepreneur, Richard Booth, who has died aged 80, transformed the small Powys town of Hay-on-Wye into a mecca for the second-hand book. His significant and colourful legacy in the book trade inspired a formula that has since been applied in more than 50 towns and villages in 27 countries world-wide as the resulting International Book Town Movement spread.

Booth revitalised Hay-on-Wye, buying the medieval Castle, declaring himself ‘King’ and the town an independent kingdom. He bombarded the media with rants against government, big business, quangos, tourism organisations, Murdoch and academia. In more recent years, he took aim at online book businesses, unashamedly using self-publicity to create a ‘Town of Books’ that would lure visitors to the depressed area and provide his kingdom with an economic foundation. Booth advocated for preservation of the rural economy and traditional crafts in Hay-on-Wye, opposing modernisation, which he considered the yoke of British tyranny.

Booth and Hay-on-Wye are synonymous. He constructed a number of distinctive narratives to characterise his leadership and colour his relationships with employees, customers and other book town founders around the globe. Such narratives included the book town as ‘an economy of poverty’, respect and protection of traditional ways of life, and an early uptake of international trade opportunities and specialisations that later became widespread in other industries with sweeping globalisation.

Over six decades, Booth created an unconventional brand that was increasingly adopted by entrepreneurs, governments and organisations around the world. Booth’s role as an eccentric leader was critical in the advancement of the Book Town Movement; his audacity, passion and know-how reflecting a willingness to depart from conventional means of problem-solving, resulting in an enduring business concept that drew on the cosmopolitan and collectible appeal of books as objects against the backdrop of picturesque, rural scenery.

A legendary figure, Booth was nevertheless controversial, variously described as an ‘eccentric anarchist’, ‘a publicity engine’, ‘the voice of the unsettled upper classes’, ‘a deceptively vague and rumpled man’ and ‘King Richard Rubbercheque.’

Richard George William Pitt Booth, a descendent of William Pitt the Younger, was born into a military family in 1939. Booth did not adopt second-hand bookselling on a whim; it was a pastime he began a boy. His interest was initially kindled by an ex-soldier, Edward Fineron, who had sold books in Woking, near Booth’s home, since 1923. Fineron prophesised that Booth would become a second-hand bookseller. He never forgot Fineron’s remark: ‘You can be a second-hand bookseller anywhere in the world.’

Booth described himself as a failure and non-conformist during his adolescence at Rugby school. After leaving the school under a cloud, Booth continued his education in Guildford which at the time was an important centre for second-hand book dealing. At Oxford, he met Kyril Bonfiglioli, a charismatic, Oxford antiques dealer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of English literature, who was an ex-sergeant in the King’s African Rifles. These mentors were like Booth’s father: all three were ex-army officers deeply immersed in their passion for books.

Rather than pursuing the accountancy career his parents had hoped for, Booth returned to Hay-on-Wye where his family had lived since 1903. Using a small legacy, he opened his first second-hand bookshop in a building previously used as the town’s fire station. Opening a bookshop in a declining market town seemed lunacy. As he told me, people said ‘Booth won’t last three months. Nobody reads books in Hay’. Booth’s empire grew, however. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, the local cinema, castle, chapel and workhouse were bought cheaply and filled with books.

Booth combed the country, purchasing every book he could find sometimes buying entire bookshops and complete libraries belonging to Welsh Working Men’s Clubs. His vision was to accumulate vast numbers of out-of-print titles in one location. He claimed that old books never die and that no matter how unattractive a book may seem, there is always someone who will covet it because everyone has their own peculiar notions of value. This is the thinking behind Booth’s ‘Honesty Bookshop’, described vividly by Paul Collins in Sixpence House (2003):

In a field at the bottom of the castle hill is a motley collection of rusted metal bookshelves and clapped out old hard-cover books, all left to sit in the open air. This is the end of the line for the printed word, the place where absolutely unsaleable books from Booth’s stock wind up . . . These unfortunate volumes are not brought inside at the end of the day; they just sit out in the wind and the rain until some buyer takes pity on them and drops a few pence into the unmanned box, or until the action of sun and moisture upon the paper decomposes the books into pulp.

The ‘honesty’ shelves featured prominently at the foot of the grassy hill beneath the Castle Bookshop where curious travellers, despite the intermittent rain, filed along the rows of rejected volumes, occasionally rescuing a book and dropping some coins in the box.

Booth’s buying mentality reflected his views as a political and social radical. When I interviewed him in 2011, he commented that ‘the original vision that started book towns was that it was an economy of poverty’. He was a passionate advocate for the affordable book: ‘every person has the right to read a cheap book’. Booth objected to the approach of companies like Amazon because postage charges are usually far higher than the cost of the book itself. Booth said, ‘If you have a few thousand publications, you can send them around the world in a container . . . we can send a paperback around the world . . . for a penny whereas with Amazon, you’ll pay £2.75 for the postage even if they only sell that paperback for a penny. £2.75 is quite a high price for a poor person’.

It was Booth’s intention in Hay-on-Wye to make the book town an extension of the traditional market place, bringing social and economic benefits. There is a historical tradition of commercial activity outside the formal boundaries of metropolitan book emporia. From the Frankfurt book fairs of the sixteenth century through to the street trade in London and other provincial locations, a distinctive and colourful cast of traders played a crucial role in the circulation of books. Travelling pedlars, hawkers and chapmen, distributing printed matter beyond the reach of conventional bookshops, played a critical part in the growth of the book trade in the non-metropolitan streets and public spaces of Britain and Europe that were the precursors of book towns as we now know them.

Booth’s entrepreneurial activity therefore had an embedded social purpose; his work facilitated a social as well as commercial infrastructure that allowed not only booksellers but others to engage in cooperative activities and grow the book town concept. Booth described this to me as a two-way commitment, requiring ‘an economy of total community input’. Booth’s creative intervention undoubtedly relied on Hay’s picturesque rural scenery, the cultural heritage value of its under-utilised historic buildings and shops and rich local traditions.

Respect for the rural way of life was central to Booth’s complicated philosophy — ‘post-capitalist’ as he described it — and the many (real and imagined) obstacles he opposed to secure his ideal. He promoted the book town approach as an alternative way of revitalising the rural economy rather than one that prioritises the interests of ‘officials’ or government bureaucracies. Booth often described his distaste for quangos as Collins recounts:

The Milk Board, the Welsh Tourist Board, the Forestry Commission . . . all that lot. They call them nongovernmental, but they’re propped up with tax money. To build luxury hotels in farming and coal towns . . . The quangos are killing Hay. A town needs a reason to live. And you won’t find it in the Tourist Information Centre. Or shops full of Welsh key chains and souvenir shot glasses . . . This town’s reason to live is books.

Booth argued that quangos destroy the rural economy of Wales by encouraging big businesses. ‘People want the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, they don’t want supermarkets,’ he said. When I interviewed Booth, he was vehement that

you can either subsidise or protect an economy, and at the moment, everyone is subsidising the economy, so the official becomes God. If you protect it, then you’re not going to eat anything except local bread . . .

Booth’s passion for protecting Hay-on-Wye’s future — albeit in a way that suited his own business — was behind everything he created. However, his methods were extreme. He had books delivered around town in a horse-drawn cart. Horse transport, he said, relieves the energy crisis and provides work for local saddlers, wheelwrights and blacksmiths, who might otherwise be unemployed. Preserving a past that was already gone suited the tourist- friendly image Booth needed to cultivate his book businesses but ignored the fact that some people and parts of the local economy needed the various quangos as part of their own ways of making a living. Not everyone in Hay sold books. The dairy industry needed the Milk Board. There were people in the town who wanted a supermarket and other conveniences of contemporary life.

Booth’s enthusiasm for the revival of local industries and crafts was also linked to his suspicion of the intellectual world — which was ironic for an ex-Oxford scholar whose vast numbers of books afforded libraries and universities the opportunity to purchase obscure or esoteric titles. When Martin Amis visited Hay-on-Wye and interviewed Booth in 1980, he observed the paradox that the ‘world’s largest bookseller should turn out also to be one of its leading anti-intellectuals’. In his autobiography, Booth reinforced this observation:

My success as a bookseller was built against the background of manual work. I was thrown into the society of diggers and ditches, labourers and woodmen . . . Pride in manual work, I believe, is the basis of any traditional rural economy. I hold a good manual worker in higher esteem than any intellectual. Working with just a few country labourers, I ended up possessing books of greater intellectual variety than all the universities in the British Isles put together.

Booth’s methods polarised people. He was fiercely criticised for his role in the depredation of the same Welsh working men’s libraries, whose closure he later considered a tragedy, and the supply of collections to the same university libraries that he later felt had a ‘deadening effect on the culture of the book’. Many felt however that there was an honesty in his radicalism. His early vision of a rural revival was dismissed by many as being idealistic claptrap, yet the sentiments he expressed then are now echoed by environmental groups and government departments.

Driven by these ideas, Booth stood for election in the Welsh Assembly as a candidate for his own Rural Revival Party in 1999. Affiliated with Arthur Scargill’s hard-left Socialist Labour Party, Booth adopted an anti-intellectual stance, and despite being defeated, continued to represent the community as a member of the local council, allowing him the opportunity to advocate for traditional farming and anti-development values intrinsic to Hay’s past.

Booth’s lasting legacy lies in the advantage he made of changing dynamics in both book production and consumption, and his ability to apply them to revive a community that suffered a dramatic decline in prosperity in the post-war years. His early success coincided with a time in the twentieth century when the book was extending its influence beyond what had previously been regarded as its safe constituency — the educated bourgeoisie and the middle classes.

Even more significant at the time, however, was the explosion in book sales and the democratisation of book consumption that was driven by the spread of the ‘general-interest’ book. How-to, self-help and hobby- or pastime-based books sold in their millions, as did cookbooks, horse books, travel books, sports biographies, airport novels and ‘pulp fiction’ more generally. Booth capitalised on this trend to create a tourist attraction he could sell through his infamy and celebrity.

Between 1962 and 1968, Paul Minet in Late Booking (1989) stated the business’s turnover rose from £6,000 to £100,000 per year. In 1968, Booth estimated that he had 400,000 books in stock and that he was buying 600,000 titles each year. His 1963 purchase of Hay Castle was a move which he said symbolised his attack on centralised authority and ‘sealed his fate in the town forever.’ The space provided by the castle, outbuildings and cobbled stables accelerated the book town project. By the mid-1970s, Booth’s staff had grown to 20 and a million books were housed in the town. He was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for having more second-hand books and more miles of shelving than anyone else worldwide. The town quickly achieved national and international fame, partly due to the book town concept, but equally to Booth’s colourful personality and the impressive, highly publicised run-ins he engineered with government bureaucracies.

The acquisition of the castle generated extraordinary global publicity when, on 1 April 1977, Booth proclaimed Hay an ‘independent kingdom’, and himself king of the ‘town of books’ — King Richard, Coeur du Livres. Leading citizens were appointed to top ‘government jobs’ and aristocratic titles. Dukedoms, earldoms and knighthoods were available for a price. Ambassadors were dispatched to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and a rowing gunboat patrolled the meandering River Wye. Passports were issued and stamped for Hay-on-Wye in the town’s two taverns, and a Hay National Anthem written. Evoking Caligula, Booth also named his horse as Prime Minister. The ‘Home Rule for Hay’ celebrations brought huge media coverage and thousands of new visitors.

Hay still provides a key example of the emergence of manufactured tourism experiences that rely on tourists’ ironic engagement but equally on their recognition of the value of the actual offer — the beauty of the setting, the genuinely interesting array of bookshops and books, the local produce and crafts, pubs, cafés and so on. In this sense, Hay was a pioneer in both courting and producing the phenomenon now known as post-tourism. The play between the authentic and inauthentic is inherent to an experience such as Hay-on-Wye.

Booth was loved and hated in equal measure. Seen by some as unscrupulous, his achievements were nevertheless immense. Though there were many spats and vicissitudes, a bankruptcy in 1984 and a notable falling out over the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, his template for reviving dying local communities through books, local genius and niche specialism has been copied successfully world-wide. Booth’s town of books may have come about as a result of a coalescence of factors unique to the early 1960s but few could deny that the man himself played a unique role in transforming a shrinking regional industry and in the process, masterminded a new way forward for regional tourism.

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                                         Dr Jane Frank is a lecturer in literary studies at Griffith University (Australia) and a Research Fellow in the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. She is author of Regenerating Regional Culture: A Study of the International Book Town Movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) that explores the significance of the book town movement and its impact on contemporary society. Frank met and interviewed Richard Booth in 2011.


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