Published: July 11, 2006
ON-WYE, WALES – In Wales the signs are bilingual, with the peculiar Welsh spellings atop the familiar English. So while traversing the B4350 interstate and you spot a road marker that says “Y Gelli, tref y llyfrau” it may take a second glance to realize that you have arrived at the town-limits of Hay-On-Wye, town of books.
With hedge rows as tall as bookcases encasing the highway that cuts through the Black Mountains, a sky as big as Montana, and the promise of a Twelfth Century castle less than a kilometer away, you may also feel as if the three-hour journey from London has landed you in a storybook world. In a sense, it has. For nowhere else on earth are books – used and rare – the currency of the realm as they are in Hay-On-Wye. And nowhere else are bookish people – dealers, collectors, students, readers – courted with so much enthusiasm.
Hay-On-Wye has 3,200 residents and more than 30 bookshops. It also has a healthy number of antique shops specializing in everything from gaudy Welsh pottery to Gustavian painted furniture. Though it has never been touted as such, Hay-On-Wye, for all its charm, may have been the first planned collecting community.
An ancient agricultural town over which wars were fought, Haylies on the border of England, near Hereford, en route to Ireland.Until the middle of the Twentieth Century it was a bustling townwith an agriculturally based economy. When its usefulness wasusurped by big commercial growers and retailers, town fathers wereat a loss as how to profitably harness the aftershocks ofmodernity. Though there was magic of many types deep in the BlackMountains, as hippies and rock stars knew, Hay’s one legitimatecalling card was the River Wye. The nearby salmon encrusted watersattracted fisherman, but not free spending, pleasure seekingtourists and collectors.
Enter Richard Booth, an enterprising local lad educated at Oxford and carrying the antiquing bug, who passionately wanted to avoid the stress of apprenticing as an accountant in London. Around 1962, Booth was offered the old Fire Station for £700 (nearly $1,300 at the current exchange rate.) On impulse, he bought it and filled it with antiques to supplement the income from his first love, second-hand books. A week passed before someone pointed out that the wooden port barrel in the window was new, and on sale at the local pub.
Booth was better at spotting value in books. He ran an ad in the newspapers and began buying private and church libraries, bringing lorry loads of volumes back to the sheep filled streets of Hay. He soaked up tea and pints of ale with legendary booksellers while he soaked up the knowledge they imparted. Ultimately, Booth fueled his fever the ways most dealers do: by discovery and error. From the UK to America, wherever libraries were being deaccessioned to make way for new volumes, Booth was on the scene.
Hearing of his success, other dealers were attracted to Hay. After The Western Mail ran an article under the banner “Welsh Mecca for Celtic Studies,” the book buyers came in droves.
Eventually booksellers took over almost every building intown, including the local Cinema (which is now the world famousCinema Bookstore) and an old agricultural hall (now home to BoothBooks), and built row upon row of stacks. Listing structures withcolorful shutters and doorways did not hurt the ambiance. Not eventhe local castle, which Booth purchased, was exempt from use as abookshop. On its grounds the Honesty Bookstore invites perusal andsale. Within, specialists in American Indians, Film, Photography,Transport, Humor, Crafts, Art and Architecture are paving the wayfor the next phase of Hay’s incarnation.
In a recent interview, Booth said, “We would now like so see many small specialist bookshops in Hay, with the proprietor as the expert on the subject in which he deals.”
In addition to the books, Hay has also attracted a wide range of antiquarians. The Goosy Gander, for instance, specializes in Continental chandeliers and mirrors. Bullring Antiques is a trove of gaudy Welsh pottery, Welsh dressers, Regency to Edwardian glassware, silver and Victorian cranberry glass. The Old Curiosity Shoppe specializes in antique linens and vintage clothes as well as blue and white china and smalls. A few doors down, Lion Antiques carries oak coffers, ceramics and a selection of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century pieces. The Hay Antique Market houses 17 dealers selling jasperware, stained glass, brass porcelain and an oak pew or two.
With more so many international booksellers and an unknownquantity of books, Hay is home to the annual Guardian Hay Festival- a literary event from which festivalgoers pick events to attendmuch as film festival people pick their movies. The Guardian HayFestival runs from the May Bank Holiday weekend – our Memorial Dayweekend – through the first weekend in June. The event, unlike thetown of Hay, is about new books and their authors.
It takes place in a well-honed tent city in a converted sheep meadow that is within walking distance of the castle and attracts around 90,000 people from many countries, of every age, who would as gladly hear Simon Schama, Margaret Atwood, Alan Alda or Sebastian Jungner speak about their new offerings as catch a discussion by Al Gore, or shout out their own opinions in a debate with Graydon Carter, Christopher Hitchens and Gary Younge, the Guradian’s US correspondent, on the burning issues of the day. Even during this year’s event, when rain and unexpectedly nippy temperatures made life less than comfortable, most of the sessions sold out.
Hay is not a starched-and-pressed Barnes & Noble experience. Within the shops, which are carefully categorized and well run despite their aura of controlled chaos, bookshelves sag and floors are littered with overflow. Visitors, however, do not seem to mind. In fact, the clutter is somehow oddly comforting. People browse, sit and read, and pour over the offerings from such popular categories as gardening, anthropology, the classics, militaria, royalty, government, theology, Presidents, history, antiques, art, music, farming, fishing, hunting, George III, Napoleon, Princess Diana and – well, you name it and there is probably more than one bookshelf in Hay with volumes on the minutiae of the subject matter.
If you cannot find what you want, a question put to theproprietors or staff of Marijana Dworski Books, the Addyman books,Lion Street Bookshop, Forwood’s or Castle Street Books will pointyou in the right direction, depending on whether you are buying involume to fill your own specialty shop or want just one.
The bookstores and antique shops keep regular business hours. Other than during festival weeks store traffic is manageable. The one surprise you might anticipate is that of finding the town’s three ATMs out of cash over a long bank holiday weekend. Payment, however, is not a problem. The stores take credit cards and, if you have a European bank account, checks as well.
Prices vary with availability and rarity. At the Honesty Bookstore, for example, you can put a few pence into the drop box at the castle’s door. At other shops, a British pound will serve you well. And 50 British pounds could fill the boot of your rental car. (Fortunately, the bookshops ship and the local Royal Mail center is used to handling heavy packages.)
If you are in search of first editions and rare bindings, you may have to ask for assistance before reaching into the locked bookcases and recycled breakfronts.
When interviewed on a shuttle bus crowded with festivalgoers about the difference between rare and used books, Booth boomed for all to hear, “Sell one book for £10,000 and you improve the economy of one man. Sell 10,000 books for a pound and you can improve a whole community’s economy.” He added jocularly, “We may soon have to turn to barter [for the books].I can see an economy based on the Bootho. A suitable substitute for the Euro, wouldn’t you say?” No stranger to publicity, Booth learned early in his career how to manipulate the press. While Wales is separatist by inclination, Hay-on-Wye is separatist by design. Booth’s design. Hence the title “King of Hay.”
After wrestling the bureaucracy of the Welsh Tourist Board that was more for currying favor with large corporate retailers than promoting indigenous rural crafts and talents, Booth laid down the gauntlet with a spur-of-the-moment statement made to a journalist from The Sunday Mirror. He declared, “Hay is going independent.”
After ascertaining that Booth had the support of the Welsh people (he claims to have minted the concept moments before) the writer said he would send in the photographers.
On the appointed day Booth and 12 “revolutionaries” stoodbefore the castle in a roaring snowstorm brandishing a homemadeflag, and a movement was born. The subsequent article gave it legs.An appropriate cabinet was chosen one evening in a local pub.(Notably, the Prime Minister was an influential antique dealerwhose own “kingdom” was located in a nearby manor house.)
On April 1, 1977, three TV stations and eight international newspapers covered Booth’s coronation. The King of Hay had made his point: if the Welsh Development Board continued to protect the interest of big business, they would find themselves a laughing stock.
Today Booth, who is the largest employer in Hay-On-Wye, is still fiercely intent on helping rural communities reboot their flagging economies by becoming tourist attractions with specialties that lie well this side of theme parks and outlet malls. Among other book towns he has fostered is Le Redu Lebin in Belgium and Montolieu, in southern France. (There are two book towns in the United States as well. In Stillwater, Wis., one of Booth’s original employees, Tom Loom, specializes in theological books. Nevada City-Grass Valley, Calif., holds an official charter from the King of Hay.)
The concept of capitalizing on used books to turn around an economy has been so successful that Booth has been recognized for his contributions to society by the British Empire. He boasted recently, pointing to a paper badge above his jacket pocket, “[The Guardian Festival promoters] made me a VIP in the town I created.” Grinning, he continued. “I like this one better,” he roared, and pointed to the medal near his right lapel. “Prince Charlie gave it to me.”
The Member of the British Empire medallion was indeed a lotmore substantial looking and it certainly seemed fitting. RichardBooth, rare book dealer, visionary and PR expert, is still the Kingof Hay. And his kingdom of books is a remarkable and fascinatingplace.
The shops of Hay-On-Wye are open all year round. If you do not like crowds, the best time to visit is whenever your schedule permits. If you go during The Guardian Hay Festival be prepared to feast on ideas and multicultural points of view. Other times of the year, the venue is much quieter.
Travel to and from Hay-On-Wye is easy. You can rent a car and drive or take the British Rail alternative. Trains leave from Paddington Station to Hereford on a regular basis, with a change in Newport. From Hereford, you have the option of a taxi or bus a that drops you off in the center of Hay-On-Wye, just steps from the castle and several hotels or B&Bs.
Among the hotels in Hay-On-Wye, The Swan and Kilverts are among the best known. For more information on accommodations, B&Bs and self-cater apartments, book stores, antique shops and The Hay Festival, visit www.hay-on-wye.co.uk.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm