Next time you visit Wales, be sure to drop in on Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed King of Hay-on-Wye. His title is well-earned. Thanks to the eccentric British bibliophile, this sleepy Welsh village has become a world-famous literary center and the site of the famous Hay Festival held every spring in Wales and various times of the year in a dozen other countries, from Nigeria to Bangladesh.
The transformation of Hay-on-Wye began with the town fortress.
Booth purchased the castle in the early 1960s and opened a used bookstore in the old firehouse nearby. “I could buy the whole town for six quid back then,” Booth told me when I popped in for a visit.
Despite its romantic appeal, Hay Castle had problems. It was, Booth said, “a wreck of a place” with a crumbling thirteenth century tower, a ruined roof, and a derelict Jacobean mansion.
Hay-on-Wye became an improbable tourist destination when copy-cat entrepreneurs arrived, transforming the remote corner of Wales into a book lover’s hot heaven, wall-to-wall with shops. Meanwhile, Richard Booth earned his own notoriety by proposing that the town secede from the country. Donning a crown, he declared himself king—and named his horse prime minister.
Are you thinking that the bookseller is daft? Not a chance. Richard Booth’s theatrical proclamations are all about dogged planning and shrewd niche marketing.
“We try not to sell new books,” Booth said. He scorns Johnny-come-lately booksellers who deal in pop novelists like Jackie Collins. “We want you to come to buy something you cannot get anywhere else.”
Ornithology, pornography, outrageous political treatises, manuals for obsolete electrical devices, spiritualist esoterica, Hollywood memorabilia… They all find their way to the book village on the shore of the River Wye. But never mind the breathy exclamations of tour guides. Hay-on-Why isn’t just about books. The kingdom of Richard Booth is the wide and wacky world of secondhandom. “Anyone who would buy a new book is crazy!” he said.
In 1978, a fire gutted Booth’s living quarters in the Jacobean mansion, and the old Norman tower looks about to topple. To finance restorations and save the Castle, Booth plays the role of king and treats visitors with royal privileges… for a price.
You can help Richard Booth restore Hay Castle.
For less than a hundred pounds, you can purchase a royal title for yourself or a loved one. Become a baron, duke, earl, knight, or countess! Buy your royal title >
Or, you can buy books, mugs, a Hay passport, or an Order of Chivalry. Browse Richard Booth’s shop >
Architects are invited to submit bids for a £4 million project to create a new arts and education’ inside the fortress. Deadline is in just a few days. Record your interest now >
[PHOTOS: Hay Castle, shops in Hay-on-Wye, and “King” Richard Booth. Wikipedia]