If there is magic anywhere in England it’s in this bookshop. Did I say bookshop? Barter Books is so much more than that- it’s the home of the most intense passion for books that walls can contain. And what great walls they are…
Location, location! Barter Books is one of the biggest secondhand bookshops in England, located in an old Victorian train station in the historical town of Alnwick. The owners, Stuart and Mary Manley, put a lot of passion in creating a world dedicated to old books. They started the shop in 1991 and it has since proved to be such a success that it has been called by the New Statesman magazine “The British Library of secondhand bookshops.” The best landlord in the world and my dear friend Laura brought me there last weekend. It has proved to be an unforgetable trip, something I will probably talk about a lot to everyone that will listen. So please listen…
The idea of the shop is very simple: in addition to buying books for money, customers can exchange their old books for credit from which they can purchase new books. This provides a vast access to literature that otherwise would cost a fortune if bought new (and we all know how fast children go through those slim picture books, don’t we?)
The building is absolutely gorgeous. Fireplaces give everything a very homey feeling as customers browse for books or read a couple of pages while getting warm. Nobody cares if you grab a book to read while you have tea or coffee inside, even if you don’t end up buying it in the end. Dogs are welcomed and loved, and you often see customers browsing through titles as their canine friends sniff at the hardcovers on the bottom shelves. All around the shop there are rare books encased in glass but still available to any curious eye. Signed books and first editions are there to be admired in the glass cabinets all around the walls of the shop. The children have their own section, with smaller shelves so they can reach the books.There are toys available for them, and plenty of entertainment to make time fly while their parents are looking for the books they want. A toy train makes its regular pass over everyone’s heads as its going along the shop on its tracks placed on top of the shelves.
One of the most popular shop’s stories is the discovery of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster in a box of old things that the owners had bought. After exhibiting the poster, which proved to be very popular with the customers, the owners of Barter Books started printing it and selling the copies in 2001, leading to the world-wide spread of the now iconic poster. The original poster is displayed in the shop, of course, and one can buy a range of products like mugs, aprons, postcards, or tea towels (Yes, I own one now. Don’t judge me.)
Another interesting thing is the big mural of the most iconic and famous writers in English. The life-size figures were painted by artist Peter Dodd, a native of Alnwick.
I could have easily spend an entire afternoon there, probably a full day. There is a section for every taste and I wish I had more time to go through everything slowly. Even so, hypnotized by the smell of old books and the coziest atmosphere ever, I managed to get my hands on a wonderful 1888 edition of Thomas Moore’s poetry. It’s very elegant, old, and the poetry is of course wonderful. It has a strong smell of tobacco and every time I read it I imagine the reader before me enjoying the same verse that I am going through at that moment and blowing his/her cigarette smoke on the pages.
I plan to come back in December and convince the owners to let me move in. I think I can make a good plead. If you like old books and special bookshops (I find that most of the time they go hand in hand) you would love Barter Books; so, if you happen to be in the area, don’t hesitate to drop in if only to browse a bit and grab a coffee.