In Welsh town, books are king

Bibliophilia: An Oxford graduate infuses new life into an old market town, making it the center of the used-book universe.

May 25, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAY-ON-WYE, Wales - Some people purchase books a volume at a time. Richard Booth buys them by the ton.

Some people yearn for a swanky home on a hill. Booth lives in a tumbledown castle with Norman foundations, worn wooden floors, a history of fires, and hundreds of thousands of books spreading along walls, into outbuildings and out to the front yard.

Booth is the unofficial, unabashed king of what is billed worldwide as the "Town of Books."

Four hours from London, two hours from Oxford, rises the book-lover's paradise named Hay-on-Wye. With nothing more than a good idea and a love of books, Booth opened his first bookshop in 1962 in this old market town on the Welsh-English border. He then waited for others to follow.

At last count, the town had about 1,500 residents and 37 antiquarian and secondhand bookshops topped off by Booth's castle.

"When I came here, nobody wanted castles," he says of the pile that survived three fires in roughly 800 years. "I bought it for $10,000 [in 1971]. It's now worth around $1 million."

Out of the way and almost out of another time, Hay-on-Wye is as close to book heaven on earth as a bibliophile will get.

Looking for leather-bound collections of Dickens, Kipling and Trollope, a first edition Beckett, or a 1935 business directory of the United States? They're here.

Looking for some out-of-print tomes on gardening, sports or history? They're bound to be found at bookshops dotting the twisting streets and wedged into everything from the old movie theater to Booth's castle.

Once a year, the town adds real authors to the tons of books in a spring festival. This year's is the 14th Sunday Times of London-sponsored Hay Festival, which began last night with a pop concert by British band Pulp.

Until June 3 it's nothing but books and ideas discussed morning till night, as crowds converge on the town to listen to the likes of playwright Alan Ayckbourn, novelists Louis de Bernieres and Margaret Atwood, songwriter Paul McCartney and former President Clinton, who doesn't have a book but will present his views on conflict resolution.

The festival has grown since playwright Arthur Miller received a call to speak at Hay-on-Wye. Miller wanted to know whether that was a sandwich. Told it was a magical place filled with books, Miller ventured to Wales.

"The festival is like Woodstock for middle-aged people," says Gavin Esler, a BBC television news anchor and author who once spoke at the festival.

Over the years, Booth and his old books culture squabbled with festival promoters who want to sell the books of new authors. ("Why should the town promote new books that it does not stock?" Booth once wrote.) He decided to let the festival and all its new covers be staged beneath a tent on his castle grounds for the first time.

Now 62, Booth presides over his castle and his two other bookstores with enthusiasm and quirkiness, although he has slowed down somewhat since a successful operation several years ago to remove a brain tumor. Booth revels in his dual role as serious bookseller and town character known locally as "King Richard."

"I learned bookselling with my hands," he says, sitting behind a desk in a bright room filled with thousands of greeting-card sized books of classic excerpts from writers such as Yeats, Whitman and Wilde. He didn't even know he had bought the stuff, which was part of two 40-ton trailer loads of books purchased in America.

Between drags on a cigarette, he talks in almost a stream of consciousness about books and Wales (loves them both), the Internet (intriguing but scary), western New York (a great place to buy used books by the ton), tourism (niche marketing is the future) and the biggest mistake he ever made (selling a first edition "Emma" by Jane Austen for about 50 bucks).

"I'm keen on King Arthur at the moment," he says when asked of his favorite book.

In 1961, fresh out of Oxford where he studied history, Booth decided to turn to a life of books, returning to Hay-on-Wye, where his parents owned a mansion.

"I went west rather than east like my classmates," he says. "I didn't know how to deal in books. I just bought collections. I found that if you buy a large library you get a good profit."

What Booth sought to create was an international book town that would draw books and patrons from around the world. He liked Hay-on-Wye's laid-back atmosphere and cheap real estate and figured that books could save a rural community that was hurting economically.

"The one realistic economic opportunity a small town can offer is cheap space," he says. "Every publisher in the world is working for Hay-on-Wye because every book becomes secondhand."

He built his first bookshop in the old firehouse and defied local expectations that he would fall flat on his face. Eventually, he branched out and bought the castle, explaining in his autobiography "My Kingdom of Books" that the space away from his parents' home would enable him to bring home women and "store as many books as I could buy."

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