The Man Who Transformed a Welsh Town Into a ‘Kingdom’ of Used Books

Thanks to Richard Booth, who died on August 20 at the age of 80, the town is still known as a literary hub

Hay Festival
Readers diving into the 2019 Hay Festival. David Levenson/Getty Images

The historic Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye was once a sleepy shire, home to a few hundred people who by and large made their living farming sheep. But then came Richard Booth, a bombastic, outrageous figure who decided to fill the town with hundreds of thousands of used books.

Booth, who died on August 20 at the age of 80, according to Sam Roberts of the New York Times, helped transform Hay-on-Wye into a literary hub and a tourism magnet. Today, the town’s famous Festival of Literature and the Arts, which kicked off in 1987, draws writers, historians, musicians and politicians from around the world. Bill Clinton reportedly dubbed the event “the Woodstock of the mind.” Booth was well aware of his outsized influence on Hay-on-Wye; he once proclaimed himself its king.

Born in 1938 in Plymouth, England, Booth came to Hay-on-Wye as a child, after his parents inherited a nearby estate, reports the Guardian’s Oliver Balch. He studied history at Oxford and, upon graduating, worked for a full three weeks as an accountant before deciding to head back home to Hay—not an unwise decision, perhaps, because Booth does not appear to have been cut out for the world of finance. Later in life, he would quip that he had “inherited one fortune, made two, and lost four,” according to Bach.

Once back home, Booth purchased the town’s former fire station, its crumbling Norman castle and several warehouses and, in the 1960s, started to fill them with second-hand books. He sourced his literary goods for a mere pittance from colleges, monasteries, the libraries of the U.K.’s flailing landed gentry and bankrupt distributors. He wasn’t a keen intellectual and, as Hay Festival director Peter Florence puts it in an interview with Huw Thomas of the BBC, he “wasn't really in it for money.” Instead, Booth saw an opportunity to revive his beloved Hay-on-Wye, to help it fill a unique niche on the global map. He opened six used bookstores in Hay and was the inspiration behind nearly 30 others—this in a town of less than 2,000 people.

“He was the first person to diversify a rural economy,” Anne Addyman, who runs Addyman Books in Hay, tells Thomas. “[W]hat he did was cutting edge in the 60s and 70s.”

But as Florence points out, Booth was also fond of “the party and the good times.” He was charismatic, with a flair for self-promotion and a penchant for mischief. On April Fool’s Day of 1977, Booth strolled through the streets of Hay dressed in a home-made crown and proclaimed himself king of a new sovereign state. His horse, Booth declared, would be prime minister. He kept the gag running by issuing new passports for the townspeople, doling out peerages, and founding a “secret” service known as the C.I.Hay.

Outside the town, his bids for political office—in both the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament—were unsuccessful. Ever the lax businessman, he had also lost most of his bookstores by the early 2000s. But such setbacks didn’t seem to dampen Booth’s spirit, or his sense of humor. Until his death, Booth operated a shop in his hometown called the King of Hay, which sold books, journals and paraphernalia celebrating his reign.

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