Bookworms battle for soul of Hay-on-Wye

GOODNESS knows what happened to the mild-mannered, bewhiskered old persons in lumpy cardigans and half-moon specs who should be running Britain's second-hand book trade. The current war between Drif Field, a book dealer and the author and publisher of Drif's Guide to the Secondhand Bookshops of the British Isles, and Richard Booth, self-styled King of Hay-on-Wye, the book town which is half in and half out of Herefordshire, suggests that intemperance - at least of language - is the order of the day in this eccentric game.

Hay-on-Wye, says the guide's latest edition, "is a hospice for books that nobody can bear to see die in public". Drif (everyone calls him that, though he says his mother did not give him the name, and has much worse ones for him) calls for a Mafia-style mercy killing to rid the world of this contamination.

"The Drif guide is complete and utter ignorant drivel," retorts Mr Booth, who started his first bookshop in Hay in 1961 and has owned most of the 20 or so bookshops there at one time or another in the years since. From time to time, what he calls "financial lunacy" has led to bargain- basement sales of bits of his business, especially during a spectacular crash in 1984.

Now, he is especially proud of having a fine selection of material on the American Indian.

Unfortunately for readers of Drif's Guide, Mr Field has failed to mention Mr Booth's vast Castle Bookshop in which the stock is housed.

"That must be a Freudian slip because I hated the place so much," says the guide's author. "The Castle Bookshop is a total dump. Anyway, it proves that when you go to Hay you lose your brain. The Castle Bookshop is no good. The books are dull books."

Mr Booth does not dispute that Hay's bookshops contain dross. "Every bookshop is a museum of the unsaleable," he says. Something like one- third of his stock comes in from dealers in the US, by the containerload. "The last container had 20,000 modern novels," he says, and suggests that they cannot all be any good.

If Mr Booth is being harried by Mr Field, spare a thought for Leon Morelli, who made a success of the Cinema Bookshop he picked up from Mr Booth. Drif writes of Mr Morelli that he is possibly anally retentive. Mind you, Mr Morelli is used to abuse. He says that when he owned a confectioner's in the town, Mr Booth quipped: "For a pain in the belly, buy ice-cream from Morelli."

Behind the barbs and mud-slinging, it is hard to dispute that Mr Booth started an industry which has helped Hay to prosper. He thinks the town may have a book turnover of pounds 2-pounds 3m (his shops have about a quarter of the trade), with more again in accommodation and eateries.

As for Mr Field - at least he does not pretend his guide is infallible, except perversely: "I may be fundamentally in error, but I'm consistently in error. There are people who operate on the principle that if I say a shop's bad they rush to it."