“Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.”John Updike
When you think about the retail apocalypse and who is next on the chopping block as Amazon takes over the world, what type of retailer comes to mind? Probably not bookstores, because you assume that they are all gone already, right? Steamrolled by Amazon. Well, I personally didn’t buy the whole “bookstores are dead” narrative, so I turned to social media. I thought there might be at least a few bookstores hanging on out there, and I wanted to get their brutal story of survival. What I got back surprised me.
Dozens and dozens of people, many of whom were strangers, replied to me with their favourite local (and not so local) bookstores. They fervently directed me to go and see them. Everyone was in love with “their store”. It was as if they had a special connection—perhaps they were all secretly the owners.
My list started to get long and diverse: I had bookstores from the south of Argentina all the way up to Inverness, Scotland. I had imagined these last remaining bookstore owners as Bernard Black-type characters who, like the owner of the fictitious Black Books bookstore in the classic British TV comedy, somehow stayed in business despite hating customers and showing no interest whatsoever in either retail or actually selling books.
But instead, the comments were both unexpected and strikingly similar. Everyone talked about the experience of the store and the treasures that could be found there. It was like a rebel alliance, an underground movement to keep books alive. No Bernards; instead, passionate book-lovers who shared their joy of books from their magical stores. I had to find out more.
I decided to go and talk to these store owners to find out why they were still in business, and more importantly, how they managed to thrive in a sector of retail that most considered obsolete. They must know a thing or two, having seen some crazy times with the scars to prove it. If they could survive the Amazon apocalypse—or what I from now on plan to refer to as the Amazocalypse—they either knew something we didn’t or they’re batshit crazy.
I started to plot the locations of the stores on a map, and noticed a group of them in the UK—a very booky home for bookstores. In fact, there was an entire town full of bookstores on the border of Wales and England. A whole town of booksellers. That was where I would start! Hay-on-Wye was the name of the town, and it even had a king, King Richard Booth. I decided to meet with him.
The King of Books
I flew into London on a surprisingly sunny day in Autumn. Having lived in the UK for a while, I knew when to be surprised at the weather. I took it as a good omen for my trip and retail in general. Stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on. As long as the sun shines then British independent retail will prevail. Something like that.
I love British retail; it was something I cherished when I lived in the UK. I loved that it was seemingly an entire nation of independent store owners where everyone’s uncle was a retailer. The country was built on retail—that and planting their flag in other people’s countries —but it seemed at one stage that every family owned a store. Napoleon once called Britain a nation of shopkeepers and he wasn’t trying to be nice. But he was right, even though the French can claim the word retail: a “piece cut off” reminiscent of how retailers would purchase items in bulk and then sell them in smaller portions to customers. The French may claim the word but the Brits perfected the practice.
How amazing is the British high street? I still spend weekends meandering them discovering interesting stores, but over the last couple of decades the high streets have changed — a lot. They’ve evolved away from being an extensive array of family-run retail stores: the overly friendly grocer, the slightly strange magazine and bookstore owner, the incredibly joyous toy shop owner, and the serious local pharmacist. Today they’re becoming a little more predictable with big corporate brands. Still though, they know how to shop local.
I do get thoroughly lost in London these days, because honestly, the streets all look the same. There is a WHSmith, Boots, and Costa all book-ended by two Pret a Manger stores at the end of every street.
The independent retailers are still there — they’re just off the high street a little. They have gone where the rents are slightly cheaper, off the madly-beaten track, where it’s worth treading away from the madness. Walk through certain parts of Shoreditch and independent retail is overflowing. It’s fantastic. The back streets and alleys are vibrant. It’s a bit of a cultural revolution, and having worked with thousands of retailers over the years I am beginning to understand why. You don’t need to be on the busy streets offering convenience: if you have something worth looking for, people will come.
But even still, where did all the bookstores go? Did they really still exist, or were they just fond memories that the fans still believed in?
I headed out of London towards the Welsh border, ready to investigate what had happened in Hay-on-Wye to turn it into an entire town of bookstores. I wondered if it was some kind of garish theme park dedicated to books. Would I be greeted by a 20-foot tall animatronic book with googly eyes, Bookie McBookface, singing a theme song piped out through raspy speakers? “I love books, do you love books? We can looooove books together.” Get lost, Bookie.
The sprawl of London went on for miles until the motorways gave way to winding country lanes lined with small stone walls. The hills rolled a little more, and everything was a bit more green. It felt like I was stepping back in time. Perhaps that explains the success of bookstores in the town: it was stuck in some strange time-rift and the 1970s was being projected 50 years into the future. A time when we still spoke to our neighbours, watched TV together as a family on Saturday night, and sung songs around the piano.
The pub here was a true English pub, and the streets were an English town’s streets. The cafes offered free WiFi, perhaps for travellers to sync their kindles with. Ah-ha! We were definitely in the present. There was no giant Bookie McBookface to be seen, but something was different. Every other store was a bookstore, and those that weren’t were antique stores or cafes.
It wasn’t so much a book lover’s theme park but a book lover’s dream, with every store specialising in something a little different: crime stories or science fiction or romance. Every store was unique, but at the same time they were similar. Most of them had stacks of books lining the front of ceiling-high bookshelves, which themselves clearly no longer had room to hold them all.
The insides of these shops were like mazes, and when you explored every nook and cranny of the spaces you’d realise that these buildings didn’t originally start as bookstores. This bookstore was an old hardware store. The one next door was someone’s house once upon a time. Most were a series of smallish rooms all joined together to make space for the copious stacks of books. Take a wrong turn and you’d find yourself in a small homely kitchen with stacks of dirty tea cups and mismatched crockery. All part of the experience.
They were all, however, beautiful. Not expensive store fit-outs by any means, but charming nonetheless. Just a bunch of shelves knocked up—still requiring a search through the piles of books on the floor to find anything.
The next store was the same, and so was the next. Window displays were a collection of books based on favourite authors or current events. There were none of the boarded up doorways or empty stores so common in many small country towns these days. Just lanes of books. How could the town exist in this way? Surely if you wanted to buy a book there were more convenient ways than travelling across the country to be presented with more books than you ever wanted, and no apparent way to sort through them all.
Hay-on-Wye had a king—albeit a self-appointed one. Richard Booth declared himself the town’s king on April 1st, 1977, and I suspect the choice of date was somewhat important. Richard lived in Brynmelyn Estate: a king in his castle overlooking the town. I had an appointment with him to find out more. Apparently I was five days too late to celebrate his 80th birthday: cards lined the mantles and tables in his home. Photos, newspaper stories, and regalia of the Kingdom of Hay filled every wall. The pictures told me that there had been some great parties in the 70s and 80s.
Richard was taking things a bit slower at 80, but still had a fire and passion for books that erupted out as he spoke. We sat by the fire in his library which was, as you would imagine, filled with books. The library that is, not the fire. The books weren’t just your leather-bound heavy literature either, but science fiction, socialist texts, biographies, and popular culture. It was a fascinating collection for the King of Books.
“Have you read every book here?” I asked.
“Hell no, I wouldn’t live long enough to read every book.”
Well, he was 80, so I figured he’d have had a good crack at it. Together we quickly worked out that if you read, say, a book a week, you would only get through 3,000 titles in your life. That didn’t seem like a lot.
Not every book in a library deserves to be read, however, especially when there are millions of titles on offer. But Richard pointed out that a library’s purpose is to cater for anyone’s interest, and not just the 3,000 books you could read in a lifetime. I’m sure Richard had exceeded 3,000, by the way. You would expect the King of Books to be very well read.
“Oh and congratulations on being 80 by the way. What is it like being 80?” I asked.
“Hell, I don’t know, it’s only been five days.”
I jumped right in with my burning questions about book stores.
“Why is Hay-on-Wye a thing? How on earth does it support so many bookstores, and half a million visitors every year? I thought bookstores were closing everywhere?”
“Well, I needed a job so I opened a bookstore. Then I had the idea to fill the entire town and its empty stores with more bookstores and that was it really.”
“But where did the idea come from? It sounds like the sort of idea that comes to you after too much red wine,” I suggested. He described otherwise.
“It wasn’t anything like that, no. I just came up with the idea, and then it took on a life of its own.”
The story of Hay-on-Wye was more than just a bookstore.
“It wasn’t really about the books or the bookshops. We told a great story about this crazy king—a king of books—who filled a town with books, and so people came to see what it was all about.”
Richard was born in Hay and returned to live there as an adult when he inherited the estate from his uncle. He needed something to do, he needed a job, and so he made one. As a lover of books, he saw an opportunity to make something of the town. Travelling afar to the US, he bought books literally by the container-load and shipped them home to fill the empty stores of Hay. Over time, Richard took ownership of not just one bookstore but many, likely picking up the rents for next to nothing.
Then he started telling a good story: the “crazy book king” story. I don’t know if “crazy” was his own description or not, but it was interesting, it was exciting, and it really worked. It was such a curious idea that the media ran with it, writing stories on this new king and his empire of old books. When that story got tired, Richard changed it to keep it interesting, establishing the town’s very own “Hay House of Lords,” which created even more of a stir and got even more coverage. After that came the first Hay Literary Festival in 1988—a ten-day festival that continues today—and the beginning of people from all over the world making a pilgrimage to Hay to discover its books. One such man was Bill Clinton, a massive collector of books himself, whose biography I happened to notice on the bookshelf behind Richard.
King Richard George William Pitt Booth, bookseller, passed away on 19 August 2019, 24 days shy of experiencing all 365 days of being 80. I would have loved to have had his final review of the age. He left behind a wonderful legacy and I was grateful I got to meet him and spend a few hours talking. He will be missed in Hay and in the hearts of book lovers all over the world.
Richard started something wonderful that will continue to live on for many years, perhaps as long as people read books. He created a brand that remains recognised worldwide today. As I travelled more and talked to people I met about his town of bookshops, they would always reply, “Oh Hay, yes it’s a magical place.” He gave new life to his home town by giving it an industry of old book resellers.
As I wandered around Hay, I chatted with other store owners. Some had been in the book business their whole adult lives, and in some cases learned the craft of secondhand book-selling from Richard himself—working in his stores in the 80s and 90s. One owner had a proud display of Terry Pratchett books in the window, many of them signed copies. He told me tales of when Terry himself would visit the town back in the day, as did many other authors. For them it was their Hogwarts of sorts, somewhere they could return from the land of Muggles and be with their fellow writers.
Richard and the other fine sellers of Hay discovered a secret in retail that many will never uncover. It’s not just what you sell, but the experience around it. A small town seemingly in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of old books could never compete with newer, more convenient online retail, but by creating a story and enlisting a bunch of passionate store owners to help propagate it, Richard tapped into a passion for books that had never been given a venue before. People came from far and wide and they kept coming because they believed in the cause. To celebrate authors, and books and literature in a place where they could connect with each other. In real life.
Was Hay-on-Wye an anomaly? No. My list of interesting bookstores to visit gets longer by the week, and we will visit many more curious bookstores and share their stories: stories of the real heroes who are surviving the retail apocalypse. One thing is clear though, if bookshops can do it in the age of Amazon, surely any retailer can.
About Vaughan Fergusson
Vaughan is the Founder of Vend. An entrepreneur and technologist, Vaughan's goal is to make retailers' lives easier. When he's not leading the team, Vaughan is working on his charitable foundation and raising his kids.