I’m in Hay on Wye, the town made famous for their amount of bookshops, and I’ve decided to find out how, exactly, a small Welsh town gets filled with book.
The first step was naturally Richard Booth’s Bookshop. Untill a few years ago, there might have been forty bookshops in Hay on Wye, but none of the sold new books. This changed when Richard Booth sold his main bookshop.
It is always depressing for an author when we have to resort to “words fail me”, but when it comes to Richard Booth’s Bookshop, this is very much tragically the case. Louise still thinks I only bought Richard Booths autobiography King of Books, but in fact, I bought that one at his own bookshop (apparently he couldn’t keep away). At Richard Booth’s, I bought five other ones…
Nick Jarvis of Richard Booth’s Bookshop kindly pointed me along to Pam, who’d worked at the bookshop ever since Richard Booth started it.
“It was very different then. The new owner made quite a lot of changes – very neccessary ones, too. I was with Richard almost when it started.”
So how did the town get so filled with books?
“Well, this was at a time when many people had to sell their large country houses. With large country house libraries. Richard started out with just a small bookshop – I think he’d had a friend who ran a secondhand-bookshop in his Oxford days, and that that inspired him. And then all these old libraries came up for sale, and he just… bought them. And another thing was happening at the same time: young people didn’t automatically follow in their parents footstep. Old people who kept a shop retired, and no one took over, so we had all these empty shops around and Richard, well, he just filled them with books, one at a time.”
What did people think about it?
“Well, not everyone was pleased, but in the end it did a lot of good for the town. Former employees of his opened their own bookshops, and the festival brought in quite a lot of tourism, so the other shops also benefited. When I look back at that time, and the mountains of books, I wonder: how did I ever get through them? I’ve been here quite some years. I could retire of course, but…”
Do you want to?
On my way out, it struck me that someone must surely have written about this. “Well, there’s an autobiography by Richard, but I’m not sure if we have it… I can’t see why we don’t. But try The Kingdom of Books. That’s his own bookshop.”
Kingdom of Books?
“Richard proclaimed the town’s independence once. On April 1.”