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Style & Culture | AL MARTINEZ

A chat with the king of the Town of Books

June 25, 2004|AL MARTINEZ

Hay on Wye, Wales — I am forced to admit that before I began studying maps for this trip, I wasn't absolutely certain where Wales was, due to the fact that we have never been at war with it. I knew it was somewhere near England, and was pleased that my assumption turned out to be correct.

Wales is, in fact, a part of the United Kingdom, west of London to be exact, although I am never quite certain where I am at any given time. It is a small and beautiful country of 3 million souls, including its most famous soul, Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose new home on the outskirts of Swansea rates headlines in the local press. Not a lot happens in Swansea, I guess, not since its favorite son, the poet Dylan Thomas, passed on.

The purpose of our trip was to visit "The Town of Books," Hay on Wye, which is north of Cardiff, through rolling green hills and more sheep than people, and monuments to knights and kings, and mythical things that live in caves. It is a small, picturesque town with its own castle, which is owned by its self-declared king, a somewhat disconnected genius named Richard Booth.

To Booth, an Oxford graduate, goes the credit for saving Hay from obscurity or, worse, from simply disappearing. Bored by his job as an accountant, he came to what was then a sleepy village at the foot of the Black Mountains in 1962 and, for whatever reason, envisioned an empire of used books.

It is not the kind of empire that usually fills the dreams of those with creative gifts, but Booth is not your usual kind of guy. His mind races with a speed that approaches the velocity of light, and keeping up with a Booth monologue is like trying to catch the wind. Though his speech is slightly slurred from a recent stroke, he presses on with enthusiasm and disgust in equal measure for whoever or whatever happens to be the subject, or target, of his conversation.

At any rate, he bought Hay Castle and opened a bookstore in it. Then he traveled the whole of the British Empire buying used books, some of great value. Later, he opened another bookstore, this one in a fire station, and to his mixed delight and disdain the tourists began coming, which encouraged others to open bookstores, which encouraged more tourists to come.

Not one to shy from publicity, Booth declared himself the king of Hay on Wye during appropriate ceremonies at the castle and began selling royal titles for amounts ranging up to about $50 U.S.

Word about this outrageous man doing noisy things got around, and the media came a-knocking. The press found Booth amusing and occasionally maddening, describing him as "a deceptively vague and rumpled man," and he pretty much fits the description. I found him, well, unusual.

His idea of an empire of used books, however, has become a reality. Today, there are an estimated 39 bookstores in Hay, where the population has burgeoned, if that's the word, to 1,500 happy and generally prosperous people. Booth owns two of the stores, has a warehouse loaded with 9 million books and has become internationally renowned as a dealer in antiquarian material, including various historic documents as well as books. He also has an outlet in Paris and is thinking about Nebraska. Why Nebraska? Because, he explains cryptically, he has a friend there.

The kingdom he founded has become so popular that a book festival held every year attracts some 50,000 or 70,000 or 100,000 visitors, depending on who's doing the counting. Its speakers have included former President Clinton, even before he began a tour for his current biography; ex-Beatle Paul McCartney; Salman Rushdie; and Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling. This year's star was novelist John Updike, who, while he may lack the drawing power of Clinton or Rowling, still packed them in.

Booth says that he has pretty much been left out of the festivities and claims to be ignorant of the reasons why. However, the fact that he is disdainful of the festival, tourists, the press and bureaucracy in general may have something to do with it. I had the feeling, after a long conversation with the king, that he rather enjoys his outcast position and the notoriety that accompanies it.

His current project, as I understand it, is to open used bookstores throughout America (starting in Nebraska, I guess) and to make flagpoles for every state in the U.S. He shares his 200- or maybe 300-year-old, nine-bedroom house with his third wife, Hope, in a 25-acre pine forest on the border with England, which he regards as the "other empire." Some of the trees are being cut down and shaved to make the flagpoles.

I tape-recorded the interview and later attempted to transcribe it in our room in the Black Lion Inn. It was useless. Booth jumped from topic to topic with such rapidity that nothing made a lot of sense, but I'm sure that there is an essence of genius in what he said. I loved Hay and am perfectly willing to bow to the king should we ever meet again. He expressed an interest in L.A., so watch for the big, noisy, royal opening of a used bookstore any day now. Buy a knighthood and get one free.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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