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…)