The used-book king of Hay on Wye

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Hay on Wye, Wales

Most people come to the medieval village of Hay on Wye in search of rare, collectible or bargain books. The riverside town, about a quarter-mile square with a looming stone castle, is home to almost 40 secondhand bookshops specializing in genres from murder mysteries to cinema books.

But I had come to Hay (called Y Gelli in Welsh, which means “the grove”), 180 miles west of London on the border of Wales and England, on a more specific quest: I sought an audience with the king.

In the early 1960s, while still a lad in his early 20s, Richard Booth, an eccentric anarchist and Oxford graduate with an abiding love for books, declared Hay a “book town” and opened a secondhand bookshop. Later, he bought 800-year-old Hay Castle and declared himself king of Hay. King Richard’s vision was to create a “town of books” that would lure visitors to the banks of the River Wye and give his kingdom an economic foundation.

Booth transformed Hay Castle into a sprawling secondhand bookstore where “honesty” boxes are built into the nooks of the castle walls: 30 pence (60 cents) for paperbacks, 50 pence ($1) for hardbacks. The more valuable books are inside the castle and cost more, but most volumes can be had for $2 to $4.

Each year, thousands of bibliophiles converge on the hamlet in late spring for the annual Guardian Hay Festival, which features authors, musicians and celebrities. Recent speakers have included former Vice-President-turned-author Al Gore, poets Seamus Heaney and James Fenton, novelist Jane Smiley and musician Elvis Costello, who performed a blistering electric set under one of the festival’s big tents. (Yes, he played “Everyday I Write the Book.”) In 2001, former President Clinton visited Hay and called the festival a “Woodstock of the mind.”

I arrived in Hay on an overcast day and toured the castle. From the citadel’s lofty perch, I watched kayakers floating down the Wye, lambs bounding across verdant foothills and the tidy, compact village below, which locals say houses more than a million books. In the 1840s, castle tour leader Robert Soldat said, Hay had 1,500 residents and 30 pubs — and half the village’s babies were born out of wedlock. I’m not sure about today’s birth equation, but the ratio of pubs to people hasn’t changed much.

Parts of Hay Castle are crumbling. It seems the ivy covering the walls is all that’s holding up the old fortress. In the 19th century, however, it was solid enough to serve as the town’s “lockup,” Soldat said.

After weathering invasions by the Normans and a parade of subsequent invaders, the castle is still inhabited. The most recent conquerors are the ravens; the big black crows nest in crevices in the crumbling stone walls. And, according to local legend, 10 ghosts live in the castle, including one that hurls books in the dead of night.

Bristling under the yoke of British tyranny, Booth and his loyal followers declared “home rule” for Hay on, no joke, April 1, 1977. Hay’s residents celebrated with fireworks and revelry. Perhaps weary from trying to defend an empire in decline, the British did not contest Hay’s secession, and today Hay is a free state. Well, at least in the mind of its philosopher king, it is.

Exploring the village’s narrow, bookshop-lined streets during the annual Hay Festival, I felt as though I’d landed in paradise. I poked into one bookshop after another, immersing myself in an old Norman Lewis book, losing track of time until I noticed that night was falling. I then headed over to bustling Kilvert’s pub for a pint of local bitter.

The next day, I requested an audience with the king. I arrived midmorning at Booth’s Books, another bookstore owned by King Richard, at 44 Lion St. near the clock tower. The king would see me, said one of his attendants, in a few minutes. I passed the time by wandering among Booth’s seemingly endless stacks, where the categories include “Everyman’s library,” “women’s studies,” “the Kennedys” and “Elvis.”

At the appointed hour, I was ushered into a cluttered sanctum where I met the King of Hay. “You don’t mind if I smoke,” he said, clearly a statement and not a question, as he lighted a cigar.

Slightly disabled after surgery for a brain tumor some years ago, Booth remains a passionate advocate of the affordable book.

“I feel the right to read a cheap book is more important than the right to bear arms,” he said. “This is being destroyed by the chains. I just want to sell books for a pound — and that’s it.”

Wearing no crown atop his tousled hair, Booth said Hay’s fortunes depend partly on the purchase of collectible books from people who don’t know their value. “The key issue,” he said — and I’m not sure whether he was kidding — “is how do we swindle an old lady.”

But much of the inventory comes in greater bulk.

“I bought nine stories of books from a New York City store called Stechert-Hafner and shipped them here in 20- and 40-ton containers,” he said.

Despite the resounding success of the book town, Booth worries about Hay’s future.

“I feel very threatened by electronic information,” which gives collectors the ability to find rare books online and have them delivered, he said. Booth then railed against the current state of the book business, especially publishers’ pursuit of “one big hit” at the expense of “quality literature.”

Finally, I inquired about King Richard’s royal pedigree: “The castle,” he said definitively, “made me a king.”

My mission accomplished, I strolled along the historic Offa’s Dyke Path on the bank of the River Wye as a fleet of red kayaks slipped under an old gray bridge. The next day, I stopped at Mostly Maps and found an antiquarian map of Wales’ Llyn Peninsula, home to the legendary Welsh travel writer Jan Morris.

The annual 10-day festival is held in a pasture about half a mile (a 10-minute walk) from the village. Tents are erected to house author events, concerts and a shop where festivalgoers can have their books signed by writers.

Under a big white tent, AA Gill, the Scottish writer and contrarian (think P.J. O’Rourke with an accent and sharper wit), said the British have a love-hate relationship with the French “because we don’t want anyone else to hate them as much as we do.”

George Saunders, a regular contributor to the New Yorker, engaged in a conversation with English novelist Zadie Smith. He said that “the road toward truth is made with tiny decisions” and that he goes through a story “100 to 200 times” before submitting it.

As my time in Hay wound down, I visited its only hotel, the Swan at Hay. Most visitors stay at small B&Bs or guesthouses, and because Hay has only 400 guest beds, many festivalgoers stay elsewhere.

“We have a two- to three-year waiting list” for rooms during the festival, said the clerk at the Swan. “It’s only through death or illness that you can get a room.” So, I enjoyed the hotel by walking through its garden of orange and red poppies, purple lilies and yellow roses.

After three days in Hay, I crammed almost a dozen books into my backpack and headed toward the bus station. At Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, a clerk asked a customer, “So, when are you going home then?”

“When I spend all the money,” said the shopper. “Unfortunately, the card’s given me a lot of money.”

On the bus leaving the village, I met 89-year-old Cynthia Coatts, who’d just enjoyed her first Hay festival. “It’s an eight-hour journey” from her home in Croydon, she said, “but absolutely worth it. I bought so many books, for myself and my great-grandchildren that I had to make two parcels and send them home.”