The Battle of Hay-on-Wye

Is the festival ruining Britain's premier town for secondhand books? Andrew Johnson reports
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The Independent Culture

An uncivil war has broken out in the small but internationally renowned book town of Hay-on-Wye on the Powys-Herefordshire border.

The booksellers who put the town on the map 30 years ago are angry and fearful at collapsing sales, and are pinning the blame on the festival, which began 25 years ago, on the internet, and now on each other.

The chief culprit, to their minds, is the self-styled King of Hay, Richard Booth, who is credited with starting the whole Hay phenomenon and who used to run one of the town's biggest book dealerships.

Mr Booth, they say, is no longer capable of attracting the publicity the town needs, nor of challenging the festival which, they argue, has become a corporate monster with sponsorship by Sky and The Guardian. They argue it sucks up the thousands of tourists who used to browse in the town's second- hand book emporia but now no longer visit except to park their cars.

In response, the rebels have been condemned as "parasites feeding on [Booth's] success" by his loyal bookkeeper Eve Redway.

The dealers are, however, facing real concerns. Paul Harris, who runs the antiquarian shop Oxford House Books, said some have seen their trade fall by 50 per cent over recent years.

"You can fill a town with books, but that won't bring people to the town," he said. "You need publicity and promotion, which is now all sucked up by the festival. Richard used to be great at drumming up publicity and denouncing the festival. He's not able to do that any more, so we need to set up a council to replace him."

Mr Booth, who has been unwell for some years, said yesterday: "We were founded as a town attraction, not as a bookselling attraction," he said. "Now, the town isn't promoted at all: it's the festival." The two sides are set for a showdown meeting next week, with Mr Booth's "abdication" on the agenda.

Peter Florence, who founded the Hay festival, argued last night that if the booksellers can't make money from its 65,000 visitors, they "need to rethink their strategy".

Authors speak out: Has Hay really lost its way?

'The problem is a combination of the recession and the internet. I sympathise with the booksellers'

Robert Harris

'There are two different types of bookseller... I'm quite sure that in the summer, they all do well'

Margaret Drabble

'I call the festival Waterstones-on-Wye. It's almost lost touch with intellectual value'

Duncan Fallowell

'Many festival goers don't go into the town, but the idea that the festival detracts from Hay is clearly preposterous'

Matthew Engel