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This ‘king’ jolted a tiny Welsh town to life with 6 bookshops and a horse for prime minister

Hay Castle and Book Stalls
The walls of Hay Castle provide a backdrop for browsers at an outdoor bookshop.
(Paul Thompson / Corbis)

Rest in peace, Richard Booth. Surrounded by pages and attended by serifs.

Booth, who died at 80 on Aug. 20 in Wales, is the bibliophile Barnum who rescued the Welsh-English border town of Hay-on-Wye by remaking it into a celebration of all things bookish.

Hay-on-Wye goes back centuries, but it was dwindling in 1961 when Booth opened his first used bookshop in an old firehouse. The town went on to sprout dozens of used and rare bookshops (several of them, including a castle, owned by Booth). It launched an enduring literary festival in the 1980s and became a bright light in Welsh tourism.

At one point in the 1970s, Booth declared Hay’s independence, made himself king and installed his horse as prime minister.

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I remember arriving there with my wife as first-timers in Wales. We had less than a day to spend, but the temptation in Hay was so great to stop, browse, sit, read and buy. I can picture the green hills, the trickling River Wye, the old stone buildings. And the groaning shelves, high and low, indoors and out, despite the Welsh cold and damp.

We had no room in our luggage, but I had to buy a few books anyway.

“I feel the right to read a cheap book is more important than the right to bear arms,” Booth once told reporter Michael Shapiro, who recounted the conversation in this 2007 Times story.

At one point, the man owned 9.9 miles of bookshelves in a town of about 1,500. (There’s more about Booth in a fine obituary by Sam Roberts in the New York Times.)

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In Southern California, we have no Hay. But we do have Ojai’s Bart’s Books, a sprawling setup where, since 1964, new and (mostly) used volumes have been shelved indoors and out, with sales often conducted by the honor system.

I think of Bart’s as Hay-on-Wye’s Southern California consulate, and it shapes my affection for Ojai the same way the City Lights bookshop shapes my feel for San Francisco and Powell’s connects me to downtown Portland, Ore. My feeling is similar for the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle (although it changed locations in 2010), Vroman’s in Pasadena and the Tattered Cover in Denver.

One difference: In the last five years, I’ve bought books lately at all of those places but Bart’s. I need to go drop some dollars at Bart’s, because goodwill alone does not keep bookshops alive.

Where is the great, old, friendly, thought-provoking bookstore of Orange County? Where is the shady book haven in the Coachella Valley? These places must exist. Friends, point me to them.

Meanwhile, I’ll think of Booth and Hay. It’s been 20 years since that day Mary Frances and I meandered in and out. At thebookseller.com I see that the town’s book folk have built a throne of black books to commemorate him.

I also see that Booth left us an autobiography, “My Kingdom of Books,” written in 1999. If you buy it from Amazon, I feel sure you won’t be meeting Richard Booth in heaven.


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