The Tree House

Signs of spring are already burgeoning…

Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint) - January 2013

Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint) – January 2013

…and it’s quite a while now since this “dragon-tree” filtered the fire of the sun through branch and shadow, to melt the snowman….

"Dragon Tree" Jan. 2013

…which had become its companion, very briefly, during this most recent and unfolding phase of its long life:

"Dragon-Tree" dates

Nearby, new buds are reaching out to the light…

Buds - Jan 2013

And over the past few weeks, I’ve been so inspired by a fantastic new venture which, very appropriately for this time of year, has also been coming into bud…

The Tree House is a proposed new community bookshop which, as I write this, is unfurling ever more towards bursting into leaf. Victoria (aka Evie) – the inspiring force behind the project – is an online friend (and fellow bookish tree hugger) from the earliest days of my first venturing onto the internet.

To explain the project a bit before you head over there to take a look for yourself, I can do no better than quote Victoria’s own impassioned words:

‘Books are not just a means of passing the time, they are lifechanging experiences – the good ones, anyway! They tell us more about what it is to be human, they feed our inner lives and our imaginations (another aspect of humanity that often seems a little underrated!), and make us more creative in our engagement with the world.

The tree is therefore a wonderful image for me of the heart of a reading community – deeply rooted, creating a sheltering and nurturing space, pushing us out into a richer existence as individuals and as a community. Reading can do this! And coming together around books and literary adventures is like planting a forest.

The government wants to sell off our forests. Our libraries are under threat. I see these two things as related – the very things that give life to our planet and our community are seen as superfluous when what is needed, supposedly, is to generate more wealth and get rid of spaces that do not do this. We need trees; we need a sense of community. We can all sit in our homes ordering books over the internet, or downloading them to our Kindles and Kobos and iPads, or we can protect our libraries and bookshops and share this fabulous experience of enjoying books and learning from each other.’

– From The Tree House blog

Please do take a visit over to The Tree House site; there are inspiring posts about the project and about books and reading; fabulous links to some amazing bibliophile-heaven bookshops – all of which sprang from the same soil of passionate motivation that Victoria is now cultivating – and there are also trees!

The Domesday Oak (thought to be 700 years old) Ashton Court Estate, Bristol

The Domesday Oak (thought to be 700 years old) Ashton Court Estate, Bristol

It’s a fabulous project, growing in all the right directions – and with a vision that is exactly the sort of seed our society needs to plant and nurture. It’s like the old saying goes… ‘mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow…’ – a cliche phrase maybe… but, like most cliches, loaded with truth!

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A Ticket to Read; catching stories at Barter Books…

Barter Books in Alnwick has provided a magical departure platform for so many of our bookish journeys. Years shift and trail behind us – each one filled with its own books and stories; all joined and rolling onwards from that moment, back in 1991, when my husband and I were first sent – eager travellers – towards its doors:

We had arrived back in Northumberland the day before, and were on our way out to walk the town’s familiar streets. It’s always good to feel again that bold, stoical grace that weights the very stones of Alnwick – and bears the dark, uneasy beauty of Harry Hotspur’s castle.

“Oh, by the way,” my mum-in-law mentioned casually, just as we were about to leave the house. “A second hand bookshop opened just recently in the old railway station…”

We ‘steamed away,’ and altered our intended course, faster than Dickens’s Mr Pancks at his most tug-boatish…

Barter Books, Alnwick, Northumberland (including view of the Tenantry Column) August 2012

Thinking back to that first visit, a disjointed reel of images plays over in my mind. Memory’s a tricky thing, infused with so many shifting impressions, real and imagined. But my husband and I are able to play ‘snap’ with enough mind-pictures of that distant Barter Books initiation, for there to be some accuracy in it all somewhere. We both clearly remember that just the old parcel room and ticket office area (what is now the front part of the shop) was in operation back then. We also share a memory of a large dust curtain rigged up behind the counter. What mysteries lay beyond were hidden from view. As we handed over our purchases, we could hear the occasional clatter of work in progress behind.

I’d always assumed these were the sounds of conversion to expand the bookshop – but, having just read the account of the shop’s history on the Barter Books website I see that, in the very early days, Mary Manley’s initial bookshop space shared the building with her husband Stuart’s small manufacturing plant.

The metamorphosis of Barter Books was gradual – but my most clearly pinned-down memory of the process (probably because it made such an impact at the time) is of the day when, as if entering a magic behind-the-dust-curtain-land, we walked into a shop that had just grown – and grown.

If you’ve ever been to Barter Books, you’ll know that feeling of awe and delight at the volumes upon volumes towering and stretching away from you in the vast space that was once the station platform. Wandering the aisles between bookshelves where track and train once stood, and investigating the book-packed old parcel office and the old station entrance (the latter now the children’s section) you enter a bibliomania induced daze, not knowing where to focus first – drawn this way and that. All at once, hosts of book spines beckon irresistibly.

Or, at least, that’s what happens to me every time I go. Each year, we visit Barter Books two – often three (or more!) times during our stay in Alnwick. I need that much time to absorb what’s there; to calm that overwhelmed feeling – until, bit by bit, I begin to piece together a mind-map of book locations. Gradually, particular volumes begin to turn the compass needle of my attention back their way. Some lead me surreptitiously to hidden companions which gleam unexpectedly, like gems caught by sudden sunlight.

And it’s those hidden-gem moments that I particularly love about Barter Books. Emerging from the shadows, they manifest themselves in the form of aged, out of print editions – and as one-off chance introductions to books I’ve never heard of before. Sometimes they are titles I’ve carried around in the back of my mind for years; finds that produce that little internal leap, that eureka moment of a treasure in my hands at last.

Barter Books wears its role playfully. It hugs to itself its surprises, waiting for discovery. I love the way the hidden, the unknown and the unexpected will suddenly pounce out at me as I tread searchingly between its shelves.

It’s also long been, for us, a place of friendship and family. Our children have been yearly visitors here since they were babies. Our daughter has graduated from picking out picture books from the sit-on truck book display in the children’s section to avidly ferreting out as many love-worn and elegantly bound copies of the classics as her holiday money can buy. And our son is mesmerised by the model trains that whirr their way around the tops of the bookcases, reminding him of the eponymous Little Red Train that chugs through the rhythms of a favourite book.

And, each year, the shop’s sofas and real firesides, the peaceful Victorian elegance of the old waiting room (with cushion-comfy chairs, and tables scattered with newspapers to browse over coffee) – and the unfolding concertina of rooms which forms the station buffet – have all become venues for various bookish get-togethers with friends.

Catching up over cakes, a pot of tea or lunch (my daughter and husband swear by the (locally produced) bacon butties and sausage sarnies as the best they’ve ever tasted; and I can vouch for the excellence of the cheese toasties…) it’s a wonderful place in which to share time with friends – chatting and book browsing together; recommending each other good reads, and reporting back verdicts on last year’s recommendations.

For a couple of years running, an old friend and I formed a little “tradition” of a bookshop crawl of Northumberland, either starting or finishing with Barter Books in Alnwick and taking in Berrydin Books in Berwick, as well as the Barter Books branch (tiny but no less discovery-filled) in Seahouses.

My Barter Books haul must be of quite piratical treasure hoard proportions by now. I hardly ever part with a book once I introduce it lovingly to my collection, so my hidden-gem finds are all still here, scattered amongst my higgledy-piggledy, all-over-the-house “library.” A product not of bartering books – but of a one-way flow from shop to my (increasingly overflowing) bookshelves!

These are the Barter Books treasures I welcomed to our home this summer…

Daphne du Maurier Penguin editions from the 1960s

…And here’s a random selection of other Barter Books gems whose take-me-home gleams have proved irresistible over the years…

…Some are currently brewing their own future blog posts (watch this space!)

From its beginnings, back in those pre-growing-through-the-back-of-the-wardrobe days, when the dust curtain still hid the wonders of the years to come, it’s been amazing to watch the shop expand and develop and become such an intrinsic part of our returns to Northumberland each year.

Now, of course, Barter Books is world famous – drawing visitors from near and far, both as a bookshop for true bibliophiles and as the home of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster. This lovely video tells the story of Stuart Manley’s discovery of the old WW2 poster – and is also full of many glimpses of the shop, for those of you who have not yet been there:

If you ever find yourself in beautiful and magical Northumberland, do direct your feet towards Barter Books’ doors. It’s one of the many treasures of Alnwick and the county – and of the whole country; a book lover’s paradise – definitely worthy of its place on this visual roll call of the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world (follow the link to feast your eyes on a cornucopia of bookish-wonderlands!)

More interior views, information about the shop, its online book catalogue, the station’s history etc. can be explored on the Barter Books website. It’s a bookshop of fascinating stories – in more ways than one! (One of my favourites is the tale of the secret fern discovered growing in a lost room – the ‘Skylight Room’ – now one of the (intriguing in their own right) station buffet rooms…)

Stories in Rocking Horse Attics…

Maundy Thursday in the beautiful city of Bath was a day of shifting spring sunshine and a pouncing April Fool wind. Swathes of daffodils shivered in Victoria Park, lesser celandines were opening their petals beneath stately trees…

Picture of a Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria

…and we, via Royal Crescent, The Circus (and no doubt the route of many a Jane Austen stroll) were on our way to The Paragon – and our first ever visit to  Topping & Co. booksellers

As we approached the pale blue shop front, we caught tantalising first glimpses through its windows – warm light, lingering readers, towering walls of books, beautiful wood floors – and then the door was closing behind us, and it was like entering a gentle fold of time, back to the bookshops of my childhood…

All around us, floor to ceiling, there was a vast selection of titles; row upon row of backlist volumes as well as current bestsellers, a discerning variety and breadth of choice wherever you looked. The natural history section was a rare treat in itself – packed full of carefully chosen titles spanning years of the best nature writing, not just the latest releases or TV tie-ins. Here was an ideal roll call of writers – a lovely selection of titles by Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane, and all the others you would wish to see represented there. It was wonderful to see the New Nature Writing issue of Granta tucked between them, completing the picture.

For a long while, I browsed in the children’s section and marvelled at the beautiful display of hardback gift books. It was a feast of magic for the eyes. Spines of sumptuous red, green, blue or inky black – gold blocked and cloth-bound volumes, all primed to begin their journeys through the lives of generations of readers to come. Heirlooms waiting for a home…

My eye was particularly drawn to a gorgeous cloth-bound volume, containing Susan Cooper’s complete The Dark is Rising sequence; a gem of an edition which I’ve not seen anywhere else – and, until now, never knew existed. It was so heart warming to see this fitting tribute to how special these books are – a gem for a gem, made to be treasured.

There’s something about storybooks like these, especially when gathered together in such numbers – that speaks of magic libraries in mysterious, Green Knowe houses; volumes waiting to be read in rocking horse attics, or in secret gardens – or on Gyptian ships bound for Svalbard…

My daughter’s eyes were shining as she drank it all in. Everywhere we looked our gaze fell on abundant treasures. Bookshops like Topping’s feel such an organic part of the journey of reading. They intensify the whole sensory and tactile experience, so that even before ‘Once Upon a Time,’ the discovery and anticipation begin.

The only way we’re going to keep these special places, and the experience they offer, is to spend money in them – so, as my daughter had some saved up Christmas money, she was able to make her selection from the ‘magic library.’

She chose this beautiful Everyman’s Library Children’s Classic edition of a well loved favourite, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty:

Picture of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Her old second hand paperback copy has all but fallen apart after many a bumpy rucksack journey to school – so this will be her treasure-copy, living long on her shelves for repeated readings (I can almost see those imaginary great-grandkids turning these pages in years to come!)

Picture of illustrations from Black Beauty - Everyman Children's Classics

On its first journey home as heirloom-in-waiting, Black Beauty was joined by Cornelia Funke’s Inkspell (my daughter’s other choice from Topping’s shelves)  – plus quite a hoard of other books which, earlier in the day, we’d bought with our stash of chain-store gift tokens left over from Christmas:

Picture of a hoard of new books

Picture of books - The Little Stranger and Case Histories

I’m looking forward to reading the Sarah Waters and Kate Atkinson (I loved the gripping storytelling and Woman in White, gothic feel of Fingersmith. And Kate Atkinson is a firm favourite, always providing a sparkling festival of fiction delights) but I’m sure I’ll be borrowing some of my daughter’s choices too!  

We’ll definitely be back to Topping’s whenever we get the chance. In fact, I can feel the pull to return there already. Our Rocking Horse Attic is just an imaginary one – but that gorgeous edition of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series definitely belongs there, I think…