A bibliophile's guide to Hay-on-Wye in Wales

Ashley Chalmers

Senior Contributor

Nestled on the Welsh side of the Wales/England border and known by the locals simply as “Hay,” this dreamy little village has made a name for itself as the unofficial “Town of Books.” In 1961, a man-turned-local-hero named Richard Booth took an old firehouse in Hay-on-Wye and turned it into the village’s first secondhand bookshop. This small step transformed the hamlet into something of an international treasure, especially as Booth encouraged his fellow townspeople to follow suit and open their own bookshops. Today, Hay is home to over twenty secondhand bookshops and host to an annual literary festival that Bill Clinton called “the Woodstock of the mind.” But while Hay-on-Wye is a dreamland for bibliophiles, there’s more to this little village than meets the eye.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

By all accounts, Richard Booth was an absolute character. After turning the old Hay-on-Wye fire station into a secondhand bookshop in 1966, Booth encouraged others to join him in his literary efforts. Eventually and over time, dozens of secondhand bookstores opened as a result. With stock coming in from American universities and libraries, Booth eventually opened The Richard Booth Bookshop, which became his flagship store.

By 1977, Hay was renown as “the Town of Books” and Booth declared the village to be an independent kingdom. He crowned himself as the King of Hay, with his official name as Richard Coeur de Livre. This literally translates to Bookheart and is a play on Richard I’s nickname, Richard Cœur de Lion. Most hilariously, Booth also proclaimed horse to be the Prime Minister. The villagers were so in on the joke that passports were issued as a running gag. Eventually, Booth was awarded the MBE. Shortly after, he sold his original shop with the intent to move to Germany but instead opened a new bookshop in the area called The King of Hay.

Richard Booth has since passed away, but you can still visit one of the spots that started it all. Today, Richard Booth’s Bookshop offers three floors of new and used books, a cinema, and a small café.

Speciality bookshops

While Hay-on-Wye gained its popularity for selling secondhand books, the two dozen bookshops that dot the town vary in their offerings. Some stick exclusively to the town’s secondhand origins, some offer a mix of new and old, and some combine their books with locally made gifts (think handmade candles, knitwear, and tea towels). A few places rely mostly on new releases, and some are as niche as they can get. The Children’s Bookshop, the Hay Cinema Bookshop, the Poetry Bookshop, and Murder and Mayhem are all named appropriately to reveal their specialised focuses.

There’s also a photo-famous honour shop set outside, on the grounds of castle ruins. This “shop” is really just two large, wooden bookshelves that sit under a rickety awning. The shelves are lined with secondhand books and hold small collection tins asking for £1 per book.

Hay Festival

The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is most commonly referred to as “The Hay” and dates back to 1988. Originally dreamed up by the local Florence family as they sat around their kitchen table, it’s now credited for truly putting Hay-on-Wye on the international map.

The very first Hay Festival was hosted in a modest pub garden, and today, it attracts 80-100k visitors over the 11-day festival, with offshoot events happening around the world. While the festival began in the name of literature, many of the world’s most renowned philosophers, historians and scientists have visited, and comedians and musicians also make appearances to entertain guests. While the village itself continues to host many small events, the festival has grown so much in size that they now set up a large tented village on the outskirts of town. Here, ten venues feature pop-up shops, cafes, and restaurants, catering to attendees in between events.

Like most things, it was hosted virtually in 2020 with the hopes of going live again in 2021. But as a silver lining, small events are available to attend virtually through the end of 2020 and into the start of the new year: https://www.hayfestival.com/winter-weekend/home.  

Non-literary spots to visit

At one point, Hay-on-Wye boasted over thirty bookshops. Today, the number has shrunk considerably—though twenty is nothing to sneeze at! Many of the former bookshops have transitioned to selling all sorts of antiques, many focusing in specific periods or types of furniture. You’ll also find shops dedicated to records, antique maps, toys, gifts, and vintage clothing. Hay-on-Wye is also an ideal place to stop for lunch, with plenty of small cafes and restaurants, as well as markets perfect for stocking up on snacks for the many walks and hiking trails that meander around Hay-on-Wye’s surrounding region.

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