Hay-on-Wye toasts 40 years of trend-bucking this weekend and in doing so pays tribute to the accidental founder of the booktown movement, Richard Booth.
It was April 1st 1977 when Hay’s mischief maker declared the town an independent state, crowned himself King Richard Coeur de Livre and gave the job of prime minister to his horse.
Fifteen years earlier, Booth - now 78 - had jump-started a reversal of Hay’s flagging fortunes by setting up a second-hand bookstore in the town’s old fire station. What outwardly seemed like endearing commercial naivety captured the imagination of other entrepreneurs, and where Booth led more followed, unwittingly transforming Hay into the bookworm’s paradise it is today.
The independence publicity stunt reaped national headlines, and although by the standards of modern-day spin it seems quaint, the ruse was more than tongue-in-cheek April Foolery. Asked if he was serious, Booth’s reported reply was: “Of course not, but it’s more serious than real politics.”
In fact, Booth’s rallying cry was a streets-ahead forerunner to the kinds of ‘buy local’ movements promoted by the likes of Totally Locally, a means of boosting support for local produce and sustainable employment, and a protest against the indifference of centralised government to the realities of rural hardship.
Today, as Hay gears up for a weekend of celebrations marking 40 years of its king’s misrule, there is still plenty of that independent spirit the town is famous for. On the high street, the closest thing to a chain store is the Spar, while geographical pedantry puts Hay’s local supermarket (a Co-Op) a stone’s throw over the border in Herefordshire.
Andrew Williams - who chairs the local Chamber of Commerce - washed up in Hay five years ago with partner Louise Davies after co-ordinating events for The Guardian, then sponsors of Hay Festival.
Today he runs a fair trade store, Eighteen Rabbit, on Lion Street, while Louise heads up Campaigns and Policy at the Vegan Society.
Says Andrew, 46: “People are surrounded by chains all the time, and when they come to Hay they suddenly realise there’s a possible world full of interesting and independent shops and businesses. It gives us a massive point of difference to other small towns - yet we only have about 1500 people, it’s quite extraordinary.”
Clare Fry, 32, runs local canoe hire outfit Want to Canoe with Hay-born husband Aubrey.
“From an outsider’s point of view, it’s overwhelming how much passion and love there is for the town and a lot of that stems from Richard’s work,” she says.
“It’s amazing how it’s continued, how it hasn’t dissolved or diluted. In fact, amazing things have sprung out of it.
“Some can be a bit controversial - perhaps the way the festival has grown so massively - but ultimately it’s really good for the town because it brings in so many people.”
Andrew points out that a town founded on strong wills and big personalities can sometimes be as much a curse as it is a blessing, and takes seriously the Chamber’s role in encouraging co-operation and interdependence.
“The type of people that move here and open businesses here tend to be very independent,” he says. “So it can be tough to get them to work together. It's easy to become insular and say ‘I'm independent, I'm going to do things my way.’ We see time and time again that when people come together and co-operate you get better results.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in Hay’s running battles with Powys County Council.
In recent years, the town - and its neighbours - have played key roles in fighting off a major supermarket development and the closure of the local secondary school, Gwernyfed High. Plans to shut down Hay Library have been shelved for 12 months after a noisy campaign by locals.
Says Andrew: “Richard’s declaration was born out of frustration against slow-moving bureaucrats, and that’s as relevant today as it was then.
“There’s a certain resentment about Hay, the authorities think we're a bit above our station. They don't really see us as a quintessentially Welsh place or a quintessentially Powys town, because they think we’re just arty-farty types who don't really belong here.
“That’s something Hay always has to fight against, we have to stand on our own independent feet - and that entrenches this notion that we are a bit set apart from other places.”
And this setting apart is something to be nurtured, he says, so Hay - and its hundreds of thousands of visitors - can continue to delight in its differences.
“Hay has always been a weird place. Go back hundreds of years - it was weird then, too. This isn't something that's happened in the hippy dippy sixties, it's a spirit that's always been here, whether it's magic mushrooms or just being part of that border friction.
“I think that does continue now - you can see it in the make-up of the shops and of the people that live here. I see our role as the Chamber of Commerce as being to celebrate that, not to try and stifle it.
“We want to be weird. We want to do things our way.”
Visit the Hay Chamber of Commerce website for the full programme of Independence Weekend events.
Follow #Hay40 on Twitter.
Tile and banner illustration: Herefordshire Live / www.richardkingofhay.com