If Hay is the kingdom of books, Richard Booth is the king and this is his castle. And, judging from how excited I got looking at my bag full of spoils, I’m the dirty rascal.
This beautiful, colourful building, which looks a bit like a gingerbread house or something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, was one of the highlights of my trip to Hay. When my boyfriend (and fellow book pilgrim) and I are trying to distinguish between the dozens of bookshops we explored during a short trip, we both know what the other means by ‘the epic one.’ This is because it simply is the perfect bookshop; it ticks all the boxes.
The size of this bookshop alone makes it stand apart from many of the small independents that I’ve found in other cities and in Hay. When you first walk in the front door, you simply don’t get a sense of how far back the rows of book stretch. This is probably because the front of the shop features shelves and tables filled with a thoughtful selection of new releases and old favourites. This space, the first one that browsers come to, gives a brilliant first impression as it suggests alternative titles that you would never find if they weren’t recommended to you by a connoisseur. While many of these are novels, I was also delighted to find a very good selection of non-fiction books about politics, environmental issues and the arts.
Once you move beyond the first room of the bookshop you discover just how wide the selection is and how large the bookshop is. In many ways it feels more like a library than a bookshop with an almost encyclopedic list of subject areas, presented in neat rows of wooden bookshelves, whose section titles are illuminated by the kind of beautiful brass lamps with green lampshades that fill prestigious libraries all over the world, evoking a sense of awe and advising the brash and tawdry to please keep their voices down. The subject areas covered on the ground floor range from a brilliant selection of history and politics books to books about gardening, football and the military. One of the most original things about this shop is that rather than separating its books into new and used and (as in many London bookshops in particular) relegating used books to the basement while the pretty new ones greet customers, Richard Booth’s lets them rub shoulders. Which, really, is how it should be, since every new book must surely dream of one day being a dog-eared, tea-stained, cracked-spined favourite on the right reader’s overfilled bookshelf. The ground floor is also home to a lovely children’s section, with a great selection of contemporary and classic children’s books and poetry. It features a small wooden table for young readers to get down to business and beautiful designs of plants and flowers, suns and stars on the floor to get their imaginations running properly. It’s a very adult-dominated bookshop, you see, so the children might need a bit of help getting back into the zone. Finally, at the back of the ground floor, there is a cafe, which shows that you could quite literally arrive in the morning when they open and not leave until they kick you out in the evening.
But upstairs is where the fun really starts. Here you’ll find philosophy, psychology, religion and theology, Occult, poetry, literary criticism and of course fiction. As a student of literature I think I have a higher tolerance than many for the endless movements, theories and schools that are faithfully represented on these shelves, but my favourite subcategory has to be the section on Postmodernism. Now, I’m sure it is usually well and thoughtfully stocked, but when I happened to stumble upon it, the books had been moved around in such a way that the bookshop itself seemed to confess complete bafflement. Don’t you love finding unintentional comedy in unexpected places? The large windows on this floor let in much more sunlight than there is on the ground floor, making the upstairs feel more open and less den-like. Of course both aesthetics are good in bookshops, so I can’t really say that one is better than the other. Here, again, the rows of books stretch back further than you expect them to, providing customers with an extensive selection. But it isn’t just quantity that matters here; quality is the name of the game. The till is surrounded by copies of each of the Telegraph’s 100 Best Books, so that readers looking for a classic will be met with 100 suggestions and beautiful new and used copies of all of them. This bookshop makes it very difficult to go wrong.
Perhaps my favourite thing about Richard Booth’s Bookshop is that it goes one step further than most other bookshops in Hay-on-Wye and about two and a half steps further than most London bookshops by offering not just the occasional wooden stool where you can sit and read or peruse your options, but an entire living room, complete with couches, armchairs and cushions. As you make your way through the intimidatingly large and winding selection of fiction books, you realise that at the end of the row of long bookshelves is a perfect reading nook. It’s as if Richard Booth reached into my brain, picked out all of my criteria for my dream bookshop and brought them all together in one place. What an absolute legend. As I wormed through the rows of fiction books, picking up and reluctantly putting back titles by Dickens, Colette, Flaubert, Faulkner, Isherwood and Thackeray, I noticed that the couches were the centre of the shop. In the half hour I spent wandering around them looking at the books and the wall full of Folio Society editions, I saw two families come and sit for storytime, a student with his laptop take a break and have a coffee and at least three browsers who stopped to collect their thoughts before heading to the till. Tucked in at the back of the shop, this is a place where you can sit, relax, read and reflect without feeling like you’ll be kicked out in a moment if you don’t buy something. It’s so easy to get comfortable that I saw one man clearly struggling to decide whether or not it would be acceptable to take his shoes off. It took him a couple of tries, but in the end he did and he looked very pleased about it.
The book I came home with at the end of a very long visit was from the poetry selection. And for once, I didn’t just buy it on a whim; there’s a story involved, as there always should be. A few months ago, I found myself in a lovely bookshop in Copenhagen, exploring the English language section. There, I found a slim green paperback of poetry by Ruth Padel called Charles Darwin – A Life in Poems. The poet, a descendent of Darwin’s, has written a collection of poems about his life from early childhood to death, which incorporate Padel’s brilliant lines with quotations from Darwin’s books and letters and those of his family and friends. I really wanted to buy it in Copenhagen but, confused by the currency and concerned about overspending on holiday, I decided to refrain and try to track the book down back in England. Of course, I promptly forgot the author’s name and the book’s title and, disappointed, let it slip from my mind. Until I saw it here again, waiting on a bottom shelf. It was book fate. When I brought it to the friendly bookseller at the till, he raised his eyebrows and gave it a once-over. ‘I’d never noticed this one before,’ he said, ‘it looks interesting.’ I told him (and he politely pretended to care) about how this book had narrowly escaped me once already and this time it was fate and I wouldn’t let it pass me by. This book wanted to find me.
In a world where we can search and instantaneously find, we forget that sometimes it’s nice not to have all the control. Places like Richard Booth’s Bookshop, with its inviting atmosphere, surprisingly large area and quirky collection of books, is a reminder that sometimes if you let things be, something amazing that you were never looking for might just find you.