Smallwood’s greatest regret

What lessons can rural Wales offer rural Newfoundland? Can an economy be based upon second-hand books? And what does Joseph R. Smallwood – Newfoundland and Labrador’s first premier – have to do with all this?

In the Welsh county of Powys, a gentle and hilly land bordering on England, lies the village of Hay-on-Wye.

That village – and its remarkable economic revival into a centre of tourism and culture – is the focus of this piece. But first let us take a short walk out of town, along a sunny path beneath hilly sheep pastures wreathed in morning mist. The border between Britain and Wales is here divided by an innocuously gentle brook, over which a low stone bridge now bears the B-4348 highway. Just on the other edge of the bridge a signpost is bounded by roses and leans toward a slate-grey stone cottage wreathed in ivy. It points the way to the valley of Cusop Dingle.

It was here that I met my first king.

Cusop: gentle village on the Welsh border. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Cusop: gentle village on the Welsh border. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

A sleepy village of about 300 souls, large stone cottages, gentle sheep slumbering beneath hedged stone walls and magnificent horses staring disdainfully at human passers-by, Cusop is the very image of the bucolic English countryside. A single road weaves through the village; a lazy and winding lane upon which fat little birds hop along undisturbed by the tread of human footsteps. I tried hurrying to meet my appointment, but hurrying was not something a lane such as this permitted easily. The hazy heat of a midsummer’s day conspired to slow me down, weaving me tight within its web; lazy flies buzzed about me and little clouds of sheep’s wool drifted in the air. The directions I’d been given left me uncertain precisely how far down this road I’d need to go; a lane such as this conveyed the feeling it could go along quite like this to eternity, yet it also exuded the sort of quality that suggested whatever I was looking for lay just beyond the next hillock.

Passing cottages, brooks, and waterfalls, one eventually reaches a point where the tight, faery-tale hedges peel back to reveal a steep and winding drive. The canopy of trees wraps the path in secluded shade, but a cheery chirping from within beckons the traveler on. The path climbs upward through the shadow of towering trees with trunks wrapped in ivy thick as chain mail. At the top of this long and winding path lies Brynmelin, the estate of Richard Booth. A used book dealer, rural revitalization activist, and self-annointed king (more on that later), Booth is a character who defies description (although this article will try). The entrance to his palace – a grand estate whose forbidding wooden door is flanked by stained glass portraits of the King himself – was imposing, until he flung it open and greeted me in a booming voice which belied his 76 years.

Honouring the 'King of Hay'. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Honouring the ‘King of Hay’. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

“You must be the New-FOUND-lander!” he proclaimed, and with a wave of his red gilt walking cane ushered me into his book-lined study. I meekly followed; what else does one do in the wake of the self-proclaimed ‘King of Hay’? He seated himself beneath a pair of crossed swords in front of a stoic wooden desk that must have borne witness to impressive eras long passed.

“I knew another New-FOUND-lander once,” he said, off-handedly. “His name…let me see now, his name was Joe Smallwood.”

I choked on my coffee. I’d come to speak with Mr. Booth about his unique and creative approaches to rural revitalization. I had rehearsed a brief answer to “What is Newfoundland?” in my head should he ask; yet here he had already surprised and left me nearly speechless.

“No way!” I stammered. Booth relaxed in his throne and nodded.

“He came up here to visit me,” he continued, nonchalantly. “In fact, he sat right where you’re sitting there now.”

It made perfect sense: Smallwood was a bibliophile who’d scoured the world for rare and used books, particularly those on Newfoundland and Labrador. It made sense he would find his way to the village sometimes called the ‘used book capital of the world’.

“In fact, he said something that had the greatest effect on me and dominated my whole career.”

I leaned in, literally on the edge of my seat (where Smallwood himself had once sat!), gaping most uselessly.

“I have an enormous respect for Joe Smallwood. And when I was talking to him in this room here, I said: what do you regret most about being prime minister of Newfoundland? And he said: well, I regret founding the University of Newfoundland.”

De-ruralization of the book

Of course, neither Booth nor Smallwood were anti-intellectuals in the slightest. In fact, both of them bear a greater legacy in the annals of intellectual endeavor than most lettered professors. Smallwood never went to college; but his lack of disciplinary grounding freed him from the intellectual cul-de-sacs of academia. He was an auto-didact (a fancy way of saying that he practised the age-old Newfoundland tradition of teaching himself the things that mattered). He read widely, became expert in countless subjects, and popularized them through the publication of the famous ‘Books of Newfoundland’ and other writings.

Richard Booth, the 'King of Hay'. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Richard Booth, the ‘King of Hay’. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

He was also a fanatical reader: he traveled the world collecting books, and one of the greatest losses to Newfoundland and Labrador is the fact his library was broken up and sold upon his death, rather than being preserved in a collection in the university that he himself founded (or elsewhere in the province which he also happened to found). Mind you, a used book dealer such as Booth might find something appropriate in that: rather than being locked away in an ivory tower, Smallwood’s books were loosed upon the world, to inspire minds the world over and seed great legacies of their own.

Smallwood’s regret, according to my regal host, lay more in the university’s failure to fulfill its true potential. Rather than invigorating rural communities, it drew away the most promising intellects out of those communities, and in its drive to commercialize knowledge for the benefit of the bureaucracies which dominate large urban centres has left rural areas barren and suffering.

Booth reflected on the irony of Smallwood’s legacy.

“Joe Smallwood…he made professors of history there at the Newfoundland university, but he still had to go and write the best-selling book on Newfoundland himself,” he observed.

A study in contrasts

In the case of Booth, as a member of the “stranded gentry”, as he put it, he received the most prestigious of educations. Yet rather than yoking it to the familiar ploughed fields of other Oxford graduates, he struck out on his own in a most dynamic way.

He, like Smallwood, was appalled and saddened to see the constant outflowing of youth – of the best brains – from the rural hinterlands they both so loved. And Booth, like Smallwood, dedicated himself to turning that around. Where Smallwood sought union with Canada, Booth sought a unique form of independence for his own little polity in the region of Hay-on-Wye.

He began by traveling widely, purchasing truckloads of used books from public libraries and other biblio-venues that were closing across the UK and other countries. He shipped the books back to Hay and proceeded to open one of the largest used bookstores in the UK.

Photo by Hans Rollmann.

But this was not just a small business endeavor. It was the beginning of a new economic model. Booth had decided he would build an economic system around the used book. His approach embraces an eclectic blend of internationalism and regionalism; philosophy and economics.

Yet what’s remarkable is that it worked. Inspired by his example, and the potential it hinted at, others followed suit. Booth single-handedly kickstarted a regional revival. Today, Hay-on-Wye is renowned as one of the used book capitals of the world. Visitors can obtain maps of the town featuring dozens of important stops in the way of used bookstores, as well as artisanal and traditional book-binding companies. There are bookshops on every corner, up and down every street. The castle grounds have been turned into an ‘Honesty Bookstore’ – shelves line the castle walls and buyers can leave their money in a large red box by the gate. Banners made from book covers crown a festive square; even alleyways have been turned into open-air bookshops. The village hosts what is claimed to be the UK’s only full-fledged poetry bookstore; around the corner a bookstore specializing in murder mysteries looms large (with chalk outline dominating the laneway). At times, the town has hosted over 60 used bookstores.

It’s had spin-off effects, too. Owing to its connection with the printed word, Hay now hosts one of the world’s largest literary festivals, which has attracted the likes of Bill Clinton and others. A spin-off of that is a recently founded philosophy festival.

It’s an astounding turn-around for this rural town of less than 2,000 people. And while Booth has now sold his original shop and in many ways retired, he continues to lurk in the background, a sort of King Arthur who rises again when the need arises (last month, it was to open a local food products festival in full royal regalia).

Respect for the local

Yet at the core of Booth’s accomplishments – which have built an international tourist phenomenon almost from scratch – lies a profound respect for local knowledge and local learning. Booth shared Smallwood’s criticism for what universities have become. From drawing the best brains out of rural regions just when those rural areas needed intelligent and creative thinking the most, to inventing and commercializing destructive chemical agents like Agent Orange, to technological complicity in the demise of the honeybee, Booth is intensely critical of what universities have become. And he sees, paradoxically, a superior form of learning in the second-hand book.

“I could bore you with another hour or two conversation about the damage caused by the university, but…if you take a second-hand book, it’s a new aspect of knowledge. If you look up something on the internet, it’s an old aspect of knowledge.”

His idea takes some getting used to, but it makes sense: in a world of recycled mass-produced knowledge, the terabytes of data available on the Internet represent simply the most common of ideas and information. In such a world, the truly unique and hidden knowledge resides in the ignored and discarded second-hand books; repositories of so much more information than that refurbished by mass media. It is in our engagement with these second-hand books that truly creative ideas can emerge. And that’s just the beginning of their value, according to Booth.

An economic model of the second-hand book

“The book is the perfect symbol of a nation’s culture. And therefore it is the perfect partner of the tourist industry…The best tourist economy is the rural economy. The best tourist information is from rural scholars, and rural knowledge. And [this leads to] tourism with community input, and a tourism acceptable to the international world.”

Booth saw in the poverty of rural Wales an opportunity to turn that very poverty into a strength. The second-hand book was considered by many to be an object of little value, but Booth realized that if concentrated and presented properly, a new form of value could take root, and one whose value was more than merely commercial.

“The original idea for rural regeneration in Hay was that only an economy of poverty could have an enormous international influence. That economy of poverty I now see as billions of books, which would otherwise have been destroyed.”

He emphasizes that it’s not just books in general that ought to be promoted, but second-hand books in particular. He’s critical of those who do not distinguish the commercialism of the modern book industry from the latent power and value of second-hand books.

In a world of recycled mass-produced knowledge, the terabytes of data available on the Internet represent simply the most common of ideas and information. In such a world, the truly unique and hidden knowledge resides in the ignored and discarded second-hand books…

“They’re pretending there’s no difference between a new and a second-hand book, which of course there is. The new book promoted by its author is a national economy. The second-hand book promoted by its subject is an international economy.”

There’s a deeply philosophical core to Booth’s ideas, but by combining it with entrepreneurial savvy his accomplishments have been remarkable. Booth has a knack for turning weakness into strength. His first used book initiatives began taking root at the same time as the growth in the container transport industry. While that industry was destroying rural economies by allowing for the economical transportation of cheap goods around the world, thereby displacing local industry and workers, Booth realized that he could kickstart his used book economy in Hay by applying this new and cheap form of transportation to an unorthodox trade product: the second-hand book. “You could send a million books around the world at the same time. And an economy that cost a million jobs, could create a million jobs.”

“You’ve got a commodity [used books] available in billions. What I would say is that re-use is ecologically more desirable than recycling, so the world’s largest economy of poverty becomes the world’s largest green economy.”

He’s taken his ideas beyond Wales, and helped to build an international network of what he calls ‘booktowns’ – towns across the world that have embraced his ideas around the adoption of an economic model rooted in second-hand books. He scoffs at the idea that rural hinterlands are full of rednecks and cannot become centres of learning and literary culture. By showering thousands and hundreds of thousands of books upon them, anything is possible, he suggests. Later this summer he’s traveling to a small spot in Iceland called Selfoss to help inaugurate a booktown there.

And it doesn’t even have to require any intensive training. Booth’s argument is that any of us can, if we so choose, become a curator of part of that great store of humanity’s legacy which is contained in the second-hand book. While Booth’s passion is the second-hand book, his comments led me to wonder whether he has tapped into an idea which could be applied to other untapped areas of human culture and endeavor.

“I mean anybody can be a small bookseller. Basically it would take you about five minutes to become a formal bookseller. You just learn to work with your hands, and therefore you become efficient. We had one fellow who was interested in Victorian sewers, and so he bought a lot of books…and then he made the finest collection on Victorian sewers. You can do anything. But it’s all these things you don’t know exist that come from the second-hand book. These things which don’t come from the internet.”

While scouring bookshops in Hay, a chat I had in one bookstore bore out his idealism. It turns out the owner of that shop had started out with a small cartload of books, selling them on the side of the road some 14 years earlier. Now his initiative had grown into a gorgeous two-storey bookshop full of ornately decorated nooks and crannies.

Booth sees the second-hand book as a vital link in the struggle against a mass media that is both crassly commercial and devoid of original content.

“But the book was invented as an object of information, and so it can easily outperform – particularly in conjunction with the two major dynamics of civilization which are the book and travel – it can easily out-perform the mass media.”

“I’m [currently] working with somebody who wants to build a Chinese booktown,” he explains. “You’re always looking at the economics of the by-product. So if you buy, say, an obscure little edition of Shakespeare published in 1870, there’s probably hundreds of Romeo and Juliet’s published in obscure little editions and with terribly different editors, and so you can make an obscure village in China the world’s greatest authority on Romeo and Juliet. You know? It’s looking at the book intellectually, instead of commercially.”

China offers an exciting opportunity: Booth is particularly keen on his used book model moving beyond the confines of the English language.

Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Photo by Hans Rollmann.

I note that there’s no ‘booktown’ yet in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Booth is gripped by the idea.

“That’s what I would want more than anything. I’d say there should be a booktown in Newfoundland. But it should be based above all on a second role for the book. The book is no longer an object you buy and sell. It’s an object you use for promotion into the international world. Because the book unites us, while the mass media divides us. All these booktowns grow spontaneously because people feel all these books are being thrown away, and isn’t that a pity.”

I can see why Smallwood and Booth got along so well. They both thought big, and with a uniquely creative style. With his efforts at launching industries around rubber boots, chocolates, and more, Smallwood was clearly casting about for something that would define Newfoundland’s place in the world and revive rural economies. He didn’t quite succeed, but Booth has: with the second-hand book. And his aspirations now revolve around spreading that idea at an international level. He’s even exploring the production of an international atlas of literary topography. For him, the international character of literature and the spread of the second-hand book means an economy based on that product by needs promotes internationalism, and a healthy form of the international economy.

“We’ve got to look at a new international form of democracy, which I think justifies Joe Smallwood’s passion for second-hand books.”

I note that Smallwood would probably have loved the idea. Booth smiles, remembering his talks with the man in this very study 40 years ago.

“Please convey my admiration for Joe Smallwood,” he emphasizes. “I don’t want to be controversial, but after 40 years, I’d say he was the only intelligent prime minister I have ever met.”


Much like Smallwood, Booth has always had a knack for publicity. He proclaimed himself ‘King of Hay’; he routinely declares independence from the UK; he once purchased a Rolls Royce of which a local sculptor produced a full-size replica out of books. Some years ago a group of rebel, ‘republican’ booksellers in Hay organised a coup, overthrew the king and beheaded him in effigy; a publicity stunt in which Booth enthusiastically participated.

Yet what these forms of publicity bear in common is creativity, spectacle, and public participation. Much like the literary and philosophy festivals that now also draw people to the town, they’re grounded in the authentic participation and direction of local people and community. While Booth is critical of some of the commercialized aspects these endeavors have taken on, he also recognizes that they have in many ways assumed a life of their own.

What Booth particularly despises is the modern approach to publicity and marketing which, he feels, wastes countless billions of dollars on profoundly useless marketing campaigns that neither put money back into the hands of the community, nor provide an authentic representation of the communities and things they represent.

“If tourism [draws] the international world, scholarship could do it far better than the billions of pounds of stupid advertising which is spent on international tourism at the moment. I mean when I’m in Heathrow or any airport, you see a great big advertisement the size of that bookcase that says ‘Wonderful in the Caribbean’ and a naked Korean girl. Or ‘Wonderful in Malaysia’ and a naked Malaysian girl.”

Hay-on-Wye, a rural town thriving thanks to second-hand books. Photo by Hans Rollmann.
Hay-on-Wye, a rural town thriving thanks to second-hand books. Photo by Hans Rollmann.

This type of marketing, he feels, both undermines authentic local growth as well as insults the communities it advertises. It has led, he says, to the creation of a ‘brochure culture’ where overpriced marketing takes the place of authentic locally-driven self-promotion. In a pamphlet he produced, titled “God Save Us From The Development Board for Rural Wales”, he’s blunt and to the point: “Why should bureaucracies produce publicity material costing about 2.000 pounds when the small businessman can scarcely afford an advert that might cost about 100 pounds?” He recalls attending ‘rural development’ meetings where government bureaucrats and other ‘experts’ purported to tell rural people how to improve their lives and tried to sell them ‘Small Business Kits’. “Like all their expensively produced literature, it was ten times more lavish than necessary and an insult to the poverty of the area.”

He notes, with some irony, that in the Welsh language the word for ‘development’ is only one letter different from the word for ‘destruction’.

The bureaucracy behind rural development frustrates Booth immensely. In his own literature he recalls traveling throughout rural Wales and discovering skilled, hardworking locals driven into bankruptcy because government development agencies required elaborate business plans and capital investments in order to provide business loans, instead of trusting to the locals to draw on their traditional support networks and ingenuity to cut through red tape and make things work. Arbitrary regional boundaries meant new factories had to be built while abandoned factories lay just a few miles away in an adjacent county; regulations required new equipment be purchased for factories, while second-hand equipment was invariably cheaper and of higher quality.

Booth offers a scathing critique of government- and ‘expert’-driven top-down approaches to rural development. Yet what distinguishes his critique is that he spearheaded an alternative movement, and one that succeeded remarkably well.

I asked Booth whether he had any parting advice for rural communities struggling for survival around the world.

“Rural areas have got to think for themselves,” he said.

“And don’t trust anybody who produces a brochure.”

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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