Hay-on-Wye, in southeastern Wales, proudly claims to be the World’s First Book Town, and Richard Booth was its self-proclaimed king.
Let’s start our story with young Richard Booth who lived in Hay-on-Wye (or Hay for short) even before he became its king. In the late 1950s, after his studies in Oxford, Richard returned to his hometown and was saddened to see that it was in decline. Like so many other small towns, the young people were leaving for the cities and Hay was suffering. He wondered what he could do to revitalize his troubled town.
Books are the Answer
It was the early 1960s when Richard came up with his idea. He had read about some libraries that were closing down in America and it set his imagination alight. What if he could get all those books to Hay? That could be the answer. Books could save his treasured town. He would make Hay-on-Wye a book town. His mind was filled with visions of quaint little streets lined with bookshops – and, of course, the tourists who would come to browse all those shops.
Full of enthusiasm, he rounded up his strongest mates and they set off for America. They packed up as many of the books as they could and shipped them back to Hay. With those crates full of books, he opened Hay’s first second-hand bookshop in the old firehouse. In the following two decades, he kept opening bookshops until he had around six – all in the little town of Hay.
First Book Town
Soon others followed in Richard’s footsteps. Used books were flowing into Hay from around the world and bookshops were popping up on every corner. By the 1970s, his dream had become a reality and Hay became known as the world’s first book town.
Crowning a King
Richard Booth was a man who liked the spotlight and never shied away from a good publicity stunt. He figured that any publicity he got would also be publicity for his beloved book town. On 1 April 1977 he declared Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom. Of course, every kingdom needs a king, so he crowned himself King Richard Cœur de Livre – or Richard the Bookheart – as a play on King Richard the Lionheart. Then following the example of Caligula, who is said to have made his horse a consul, King Richard appointed his horse as Prime Minister.
The ceremony took place on April 1st so it was probably an elaborate April Fool’s joke. But the news story was picked up around the world, and the publicity attracted even more book sellers and book lovers to Hay. So King Richard’s stunt paid off.
In the mid 1980s Richard consolidated his six or so bookshops into one large one called Richard Booth’s Bookshop (what else?) and claimed it was Europe’s largest second-hand bookshop. It’s still operating in the town today, and if you love books, you’ll surely want to visit it. It’s an impressive shop with three floors of books and you could lose yourself for hours (or days) in there.
As more and more books poured into Hay, many bookshops began to specialize. In Hay you can find a shop dedicated to poetry books, another has only Murder and Mayhem (Crime and Horror), there’s a Children’s Bookshop, and many more shops that stock an array of new and used books. Even though Hay doesn’t have as many bookshops as it once did, it still boasts around 20 of them. That’s a lot of bookshops for a town of less than 2,000 inhabitants.
The business of books was booming, and it definitely put Hay on the map. And a town filled with books and bookshops seemed like the perfect place to hold a literary festival. In 1988 the Hay Festival was born.
The festival was the brainchild of Peter Florence and his parents, Norman and Rhoda. The first Hay Festival was a small affair held in a pub garden, but since then it has become one of the world’s largest literary festivals. It’s now housed in an expansive “village of tents” just outside Hay. There are tents for events, cafes, restaurants, and, of course, bookshops. The festival has grown to include philosophers, historians, comedians, and musicians as well as authors. The 2022 festival runs from 26 May to 5 June and features more than 500 speakers.
Every book lover should visit Hay-on-Wye to see “King” Richard’s vision brought to life. His idea of a book town was so successful that towns and villages around the world have followed Hay’s example.
But even kings don’t live forever, and Richard Booth passed from this world in 2019 at the age of 80. As he sits on his heavenly throne (probably reading and surrounded by piles of books), I’m sure he looks down at Hay-on-Wye and smiles.
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