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Richard Booth, Self-Crowned King of Used Books, Dies at 80

Richard Booth, who collected a million titles to transform a fading 12th-century Welsh market town into a mecca for secondhand book fanciers, and who celebrated his improbable success one April Fools’ Day by crowning himself with a title he concocted — “King Richard Coeur de Livre” — died on Aug. 20 in Cusop, Wales. He was 80.

An obituary placed by his family in The Hereford Times said that Mr. Booth “died peacefully at home” in Cusop, which straddles the eastern border between England and Wales and adjoins his so-called kingdom of Hay-on-Wye, where he had made a career of playfully, and often constructively, disturbing the peace.

“Booth is, with justification,” Jane Frank of Griffith University in Australia wrote in a 2018 study of regional economic development, “regarded as the person single-handedly responsible for reviving, with immense charm, this dying Welsh country town and leading the international Book Town Movement with enormous dedication.”

His face framed by mussed black hair and black-rimmed glasses, Mr. Booth was what The Guardian called “a British eccentric of the best kind”: an Oxford-educated Barnum of books who, the newspaper wrote, “never reined in his passion for the eye-catching and entertaining, the wacky and the wonderful.”

Tapping inherited wealth and capitalizing on fire-sale bargains offered by cash-hungry colleges, monasteries, bankrupt distributors and crumbling country estates, Mr. Booth in the early 1960s embarked on a quixotic wholesale buying spree that spoke volumes.

He imported hundreds of thousands of secondhand books to his adopted hometown, filling six of his own stores, spawning many others and in 1988 inspiring Hay’s first annual literary festival, which drew tens of thousands of visitors.

The festival elevated a hamlet on the river Wye that for hundreds of years had exported wool, corn and beef rather than books; was never home to more than 2,000 people; and lacked any distinctive literary rationale (although, in fairness, Hay had been home to the authors Penelope Chetwode, Christopher Dawson, Jasper Fforde, Iain Finlayson and Jenny Valentine) into an internationally renowned “Book Town.”

“Hay-on-Wye?” the playwright Arthur Miller mused, when asked to appear at the festival. “Is that some kind of a sandwich?”

While establishing Hay worldwide as a used-book capital, Mr. Booth also developed a reputation as a charming idealist, an indefatigable self-promoter and — despite being a former accountant — an inattentive businessman who often fell behind in paying his bills.

Still, he inspired other small towns around the world to emulate his example by accumulating mounds of books to attract tourists and spur economic revival — much like the Welsh villagers in the 1995 film “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain,” who conspired to heap earth atop their signature hill so it officially qualified as a mountain.

[ Our book critic took a turn as a bookseller in a remote, but highly literary, Scottish village. ]

In 2004, Mr. Booth was named a member of the Order of the British Empire for promoting tourism. Richard Booth Bookseller, with a stock of up to 1.1 million books linking 9.9 miles of shelves, was listed by the Guinness Book of Records in the late 1970s and early ’80s as the world’s largest secondhand bookstore.

His stores became inviting and quirky places that, as one book blog recalled, were “a reminder that sometimes if you let things be, something amazing that you were never looking for might just find you.”

Richard George William Pitt Booth was born on Sept. 12, 1938, in Plymouth, England, to Philip Booth, an Army officer, and Elizabeth (Pitt) Booth, an heir to the Yardley soap fortune.

ImageCreditIan Tyas/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

He attended the Rugby School (he said he was dismissed for cheating) and studied history at Oxford, where his passion for books, already cultivated when he was 12 by a local bookseller, was rekindled during college by another dealer.

After graduating and working for three weeks as an accountant, he quit and moved to Hay, where his parents had escaped to rural tranquillity in an estate that once belonged to a rich uncle.

“Buying a small shop in Hay-on-Wye meant that instead of playing a minor role in a major business, I could play a major role in a minor one,” he wrote in his autobiography, “My Kingdom of Books” (1999).

He bought the former firehouse, then warehouses and a Norman castle, and began shipping in truckloads of books. Copycats flourished, too.

“Booth was buying them at pennies on the dollar in the United States,” Paul Collins wrote in “Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books” (2003), a book about Hay, “as old seminaries went bankrupt, as ignoramuses staffing Peabody Libraries sold off their treasures — because ‘nobody reads them’ — as New York institutions like Stechert-Hafner shut their doors, and as little old rich ladies died and left libraries to half-literate progeny.”

Mr. Booth’s inventory was encyclopedic. Browsers could find copies of “Ploughing Regulations for Bengal” and character studies of Cromwell’s skull. Americans stocked their personal libraries on the basis of specific bindings. He furnished books for movie sets and supplied a German town with the manuals to replicate the Wehrmacht’s original archive.

On April 1, 1977, Mr. Booth declared Hay an independent kingdom and named his horse prime minister, a stunt that he later augmented with passports and peerages. While he never abdicated, by 2005 his half-dozen stores had dwindled to one, which he sold. (It is still in business.) He continued to operate a store, the King of Hay, which sold regal trumpery celebrating his reign.

His first two marriages were, as he described them, unsuccessful. (The second lasted one day. “Vicky wanted to flout authority,” he wrote, “whereas I did not think authority was worth flouting.”) In the late 1980s he married Hope Barrie Stuart, a photographer, who survives him, as do two sisters, Joanna and Anne.

Mr. Booth’s campaigns for public office were also unsuccessful. As the Socialist Labour Party candidate for the Welsh Assembly in 1999 and for the European Parliament a decade later, he drew less than 2 percent of the vote.

He initially scoffed at his town’s annual literary festival (“I never met an author who wrote a secondhand book,” he said at the time), but he agreed in 2014 to give his name to an annual award from the Hay Writers’ Circle.

“From the start,” Ms. Frank of Griffith University wrote, “his emphasis was on the promotion of his book empire and the rural community of Hay-on-Wye, rather than a celebration of books in the town as unique cultural items.”

She quoted him as saying that even as a young boy, “I coveted books to read because they were beautiful objects with decorative covers and fine illustrations.” A book, he often said, “is something to carry, not to read.”

The paradox was not lost on the novelist Martin Amis. After interviewing Mr. Booth in 1980, Mr. Amis said he was struck that the “world’s largest bookseller should turn out also to be one of its leading anti-intellectuals.”

But there was a method to Mr. Booth’s madness.

Patricia Daly, his personal assistant, said he was actually an avid reader with eclectic tastes (serial murders were one preference) as long as they were used. In an email, she quoted him as saying, “The New Book is for the Ego; the Secondhand Book is for the Intellect.”

Mr. Booth championed the members of the rural working class who built Hay-on-Wye into a Town of Books by hauling hundreds of thousands of volumes there to derelict properties repurposed as warehouses and stores.

“Working with just a few country laborers,” he wrote, “I ended up possessing books of greater intellectual variety than all the universities in the British Isles put together.”


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