The Kingdom of Hay-on-Wye

Hay on Wye Photo by Phil Thomas

At the northernmost tip of a stunning national park along the Welsh and English border exists a town like no other. At first glance, the United Kingdom—surrounded by the lush Welsh countryside and dotted as it is with charming storefronts, the motte where a Norman-period castle once stood, and a still-standing castle—but this town has a not-so-secret attraction that lures visitors in by the thousands.

With over two dozen bookstores, Hay is a world famous center for secondhand and antiquarian books. This historic town has created an international reputation for itself, attracting readers and book lovers from around the world as the first ever “Book Town.”

One man alone is responsible for Hay’s status as a literary beacon. Raised in Hay after his family inherited an uncle’s nearby estate, Richard Booth went on to study at the University of Oxford. Hating big business and what it did to small businesses and rural towns, he watched fellow students leave their small towns behind in favor of big cities. Noting just how detrimental this was to rural economies, Booth combined his love of books with his desire to resist big-business-based economies and returned to Hay to open a secondhand bookstore in an old fire station. He tapped into his inherited wealth and, during the ’60s and ’70s, amassed huge numbers of books from universities, colleges, libraries, and private collections across the US and
UK that eventually filled the shelves of five other secondhand bookstores he would go on to open in Hay.

Focused on revitalizing rural Hay, Booth wasn’t in it simply for the love of books. He saw the lifeless shopping centers of America as a warning of corporate capitalism, a threat of what could overtake his small town and others around the UK if their economies were left to decay. That grim future inspired his grand vision for what Hay could be, what he could create there. His half dozen bookstores in town inspired others to open their own and singlehandedly revived what was a dying rural economy. By the ’70s, enough secondhand bookstores had opened in Hay to earn it the moniker “The Town of Books.” The number of bookstores continued to grow, attracting international attention and inspiring small towns around the world to become “Book Towns” to set themselves apart as destinations.

Booth was an eccentric man. His scheme of buying used books to sell in bookshops across his town in order to foster an independent economy, was viewed as out there, but not at odds with his personality. He used this eccentricity to his advantage, drawing attention to his town and bookstores with his flare for theatrics.

Booth’s Books – Photo by Giles Morgan

On April Fool’s Day 1977, Booth strolled through the streets of Hay wearing a faux ermine robe and a homemade crown, declaring Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom and himself king. The scheme, though a publicity stunt meant to attract tourists, was certainly rooted in Booth’s well-known dislike of big government. Real rallies were held and Booth made efforts to set up a cabinet of ministers and had a new national anthem written. As elaborate as it may have become, it was only a stunt. A fellow Hay bookshop owner, Anne Brichto, said, “Of course it was a joke in some sense, but the Welsh government of the time had to put out a statement to say Hay was not actually an independent kingdom, which Richard loved because they had taken it seriously enough.”

Booth is still referred to as the King of Hay and even opened a bookstore of that name that he owned until he died. Upon his death in 2019, signs popped up in bookshop windows, along with displays of black books for mourning, that read “The King is Dead, Long Live the Kingdom.” Though his kinghood might not have been real, Booth’s incredible impact on Hay and Welsh tourism earned him an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2004.

Today, there are more than twenty bookstores in Hay, many specializing in specific genres and areas of interest. One of Booth’s bookstores, called Richard Booth’s Bookshop, was at one time the largest secondhand bookstore in the world and was sold in the early ’00s. Booth’s Books was renovated under the new owner and now houses a café and small cinema. The Children’s Bookshop specializes in children’s literature, while Murder and Mayhem specializes in horror, thriller, and detective stories. The Poetry Bookshop is the only second-hand bookstore dedicated to poetry in the UK. With so many incredible bookstores, it is impossible to focus on the charm and allure of just one, but a bookstore that is particularly intriguing is the Hay Castle Bookshop. With open-air bookshelves nestled into the walls outside Hay Castle, which Booth also owned for a time, this bookshop is open 24/7 and runs on the honor system.

Booth’s Books – Photo by Giles Morgan

Each year, Hay hosts a literary festival that attracts many thousands of visitors for over six hundred events that include book signings, speeches, and more. The Hay Festival, which began in the ’80s, lasts ten days and was once called “the Woodstock of the mind” by Bill Clinton during a visit. Encouraging young readers, a children’s literary festival called Hay Fever is held simultaneously, as well.

First within the Book Town Movement, Hay is estimated to have somewhere near 10 million books in its town of less than two thousand people. These bookstores have put this rural Welsh town on the map and revitalized its economy as their community welcomed in book lovers from around the world and inspired others to follow their lead. Charming, idyllic, and full of books, it’s a remarkable town. For book lovers everywhere, Hay-on-Wye is simply irresistible. Long live the Kingdom! G&S

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