Englishman Richard Booth Turns a Dying Hamlet into a First-Class, Secondhand Book Bazaar

updated 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Richard Booth hit town in 1961, Hay-on-Wye was a Welsh village on the wane. The railway was closed down. A new throughway had routed travelers and their money elsewhere, leaving the village to die on the vine. The inhabitants watched with curiosity, and no little resentment, as the newly arrived Booth embarked on a real-estate buying spree, acquiring Hay-on-Wye's fire station, the crumbling Norman castle, the cinema, the Victorian workhouse and a clutch of main street shops. Then they watched, nonplussed, as he crammed his buildings with books—not crisp new volumes, not rare books or first editions, but dusty castoffs, remainders and dog-eared tomes, many collected in America. Booth, quite dramatically, soon changed the town's red ink to black.

Twenty-two years later the Guinness Book of World Records describes Richard Booth (Bookseller) Ltd. as "the world's largest secondhand bookseller," with "9.9 miles of shelving and a running stock of 900,000 to 1,100,000 books in 30,091 square feet of selling space." At the peak of the summer season, Booth, 44, peddles as many as 5,000 volumes a day, at prices ranging from a few pennies to £1,000 (nearly $1,500). He is quick to add, however, that "the startling or expensive book isn't really my business." For Victorian pop-up books one might better go down the street to Rose's; for topography to the Clocktower Bookshop; for French drama to Geoffrey Aspin's.

Hay-on-Wye's once depressed economy has been buoyed by a colony of bookstores, created by merchants who followed Booth's lead, transforming the town into the secondhand book capital of the world. To be sure, the locals have looked askance at some of Booth's friends—notably Marianne Faithfull, the ex-consort of Mick Jagger, and April Ashley, the striking blonde who, until her operation a few years back, was a sailor in the merchant navy. But as the owner of a refurbished variety store admits, "This isn't Piccadilly Circus. You don't get the mobs wearing cowboy hats with 'Kiss Me Quick' written on the top."

Booth was reared in southern England by an overprotective mother and an army officer father who sent him up to Oxford and—finally accepting his son's eccentricity—helped establish him in the used-book trade. The father was a stiff-upper-lip type who, says Booth, "thought the only good side of me was that I liked books."

During the '60s young Booth plunged headlong into the business. "I didn't really know what I was doing at first," Richard recalls. "I was untrained, but I made a lot of money and lost a lot of money." Refusing to consult reference texts, he bought and sold on instinct—and took his lumps. He remembers, for example, selling some drawings for $10, which later fetched $6,000.

During the '70s, however, Booth came into his own. The erstwhile bookworm developed a talent for self-promotion. Pudgy, studiously disheveled, he chomped cigars and bought a Rolls-Royce. On April Fool's Day 1977 he proclaimed himself the King of Hay and moved into the castle, from whence he dispensed dukedoms for $38 each. In 1981, finding himself with 100,000 hopelessly damaged volumes, he put an ad in the local paper offering books at bulk rate for $3.50. Booth suggested they'd make ideal stove fuel and particularly recommended legal textbooks, romances and works of theology. Predictably, this "book burning" ignited a conflagration in the British press. "I don't do much advertising," Booth says with a smile. "I seem to attract an enormous amount of free publicity."

In his latest incarnation, he has become a politician of sorts: In last May's general election, Booth stood for Parliament as a candidate for his own Rural Revival Party, which is decidedly anti-intellectual. He was defeated, but as a member of the local council he still advocates his policies of opposing modernization and supporting traditional crafts.

Every Thursday the King of Hay delivers his books to the Limited in a wagonette designed by a Hay-on-Wye wheelwright and drawn by a 14-year-old gelding named Waterton, whom Booth has made a senator after the fashion of the Roman Emperor Caligula. And, what with all his globe-trotting in search of new caches of old books, Booth is becoming something of an anthropologist. "The best collections of books come from cold climates," he observes. "In Aberdeen, Scotland, where the winter is nine months long, I've found wonderful collections. But in Florida, when I asked about books, I was told: 'They are in the garage, where the silverfish eat them.' "

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