‘Mini Trump’ built a kingdom of books
He wore a golden crown made from cardboard, appointed a horse as his prime minister and declared his hometown an independent country on April Fool’s Day.
In many ways, Richard Booth was a classic British eccentric whose regular bouts of mischief and bluster could easily be dismissed as harmless follies that would never earn him much more than local notoriety.
But when Booth declared himself the regal ruler of Hay-on-Wye, on the border of Wales and England, it was one of the defining moments of an extraordinary career that would put his hometown firmly on the map.
And by the time of his death at 80 in August 2019, against expectations, he had succeeded in creating a kingdom — one made entirely out of books — known around the world as a haven of the written word.
Signs bearing the words “The king is dead” could be seen dotted around the shopfronts of Hay-on-Wye’s numerous bookstores and antique sellers as the town mourned its loss, but Booth’s legacy is likely to live on.
Today there are believed to be around 10 million books in circulation in Hay-on-Wye, an extraordinary claim for a small market town of approximately 1,500 inhabitants. It’s possible to stumble across a bookstore every few moments while exploring the place.
Mecca for books
Like Redu in Belgium and Timbuktu in Mali it’s now an official book town. Since 1988 it’s held an annual literature festival that former US President Bill Clinton reportedly once described as “The Woodstock of the mind.”
“Hay will always be a mecca for books,” local bookstore owner Derek Addyman tells CNN.
“You have heard the phrase, ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ Well, all books lead to Hay-on-Wye.”
Booth has been credited with building the foundations for Hay-on-Wye’s success. After opening his first bookstore there in 1962 he set his sights on making the town stand out using the tools he knew best: books.
With a showman’s eye for headlines, he made his declaration of independence in 1977 at the height of his eccentricity, when he would parade through the town wearing his homemade crown.
There was method to Booth’s madness, says Anne Brichto, who works alongside Addyman and co-owns three bookstores with him.
“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 hated bureaucracy and big business, according to Brichto and Addyman. He went on book-buying trips to the US in the 1960s and ’70s and saw first-hand how big business emptied out the center of small towns. He was worried the same would happen in Britain.
“Nowadays we are swamped by Amazon, Google, Facebook, all that,” Addyman says. “Big business. Sainsbury’s, Tescos, Walmart, all those big businesses came in and destroyed a lot of small people. Richard’s vision was to try and change that.”
Booth was a “curious mixture” and at times could be a real “naughty boy,” says Brichto.
“He would tell a book dealer he would look after their books for them while they were away, and then he would sell them and the book dealer wouldn’t see any of the money,” she adds, likening him to US President Donald Trump for his unpredictability and tendency to “act off the hip.”
“He was like a mini-Trump but he was kinder and, well, he liked reading books,” she says.
“But his planning to make Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom was his crowning glory — he was the best at free PR of, I think, anyone in the world.”
Operating out of his bookstore empire, which included a converted fire station and an old cinema, Booth would hunt down and source books in mass, moving in on old libraries and country houses to make bulk purchases. He gradually went on to buy more and more stores in the town.
He even celebrated his early success by buying a Rolls Royce Phantom V, which Addyman remembers fondly.
“The back window was always full of books,” he says.
Addyman had two stints working with Booth, which he described as an “incredible” journey, albeit one that involved carrying large piles of books up and down stairs.
Long live the kingdom
“By the 1980s there were 30-plus bookshops in Hay and it was at its zenith,” Addyman says. “It was bubbling and it was all down to Richard.”
Booth went on to receive an award from Queen Elizabeth for services to tourism in 2004, the year before he announced his retirement.
Although there was a sombre mood in Hay following Booth’s death, and fears for the town’s future without its king, there was optimism.
“When we heard the news everyone was very low,” says Brichto. “It was a bit like when Princess Di died. There won’t be a person like him again.”
Brichto said she’s concerned over the lack of young book dealers operating in Hay — there’s only one under the age of 40, she says.
“The feeling now is that we have to keep this town going,” she says. “We have to keep it full of bookstores. All the other border towns are pretty but they’re not visited like Hay.
“We have to find real ways to coach young people — maybe bookseller apprenticeships — to help people start their own businesses and set up their own bookshops,” she added.
“The king is dead, but long live the kingdom of Hay.”
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