Postcard from . . . Alnwick: Britain’s most magical bookshop
Housed in the Northumbrian town’s former station, Barter Books is a convivial treasure troveTorontonian
When I enter Barter Books it seems appropriate that “End of the Line” by The Traveling Wilburys is drifting across the airwaves. The shop is cannily housed within the exquisite former railway station in the Northumbrian town of Alnwick. Designed in 1887 by William Bell, it has all the architectural flourishes of grand, industrial Victorian style, but the station fell foul of the Beeching Cuts in the 1960s, signalling, quite literally, the end of the line.
That a small market town in the north-east of England should ever have had such a station in the first place seems somewhat incongruous but then Alnwick is no ordinary market town. As the seat through the centuries of the Dukes of Northumberland, as home to the ancient, iconic Alnwick Castle (the second largest inhabited castle in England after Windsor) and more recently the refashioned Alnwick Gardens, the town has a distinguished pedigree and a long list of royal visitors, many of whom, in a few, brief decades, arrived by train. An impressive station was, therefore, an absolute necessity.
Barter Books capitalises, of course, on Alnwick’s fame and visitors, but the story behind the shop, the dedication of its owners and the sheer scale — as one of the biggest and best second-hand book outlets in the country — has bestowed upon it a status all of its own.
Stuart and Mary Manley, in their seventies, are an unusual couple. He, down-to-earth, County Durham born and bred with his heart in manufacturing, model railways and cricket; she, delightfully eccentric, American and with a deep knowledge of art and literature. Her throwaway line that she hasn’t read a book since they opened is undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek; his throwaway line that when he first saw her on a plane from the States and was “completely transfixed” is undoubtedly true. Together they are maverick and brilliant.
From humble beginnings in 1991, when Mary opened a second-hand bookshop in the front room of the old station where Stuart was running a small manufacturing business, Barter Books has grown and grown. It now has some 350,000 books, taking up most of the original station. Old waiting rooms have been restored (open fires included, lit during winter) to provide seating and a café, the old ticket office is designated for children’s books. A “parlour” for cakes, coffee and ice cream is due to open this month. The main hall — including the former platform area — houses row upon row of bookshelves, arranged by genre.
The system is simple — or at least on the face of it. Visitors bring in unwanted books (strictly no more than two small shopping bags per person per visit) which are assessed and valued on the spot. Those deemed unacceptable — mainly out-of-date reference books such as encyclopedias, atlases or dictionaries — are politely turned down, along with authors or titles that have been mass produced in excess of demand, Fifty Shades of Grey being an obvious example. Most books worth something are exchanged either for books of equivalent value or for a voucher to be used on another occasion. Cash buys can be made, too.
While the average price for a book is £10 there are, of course, rare books that crop up from time to time. “We are not antiquarian booksellers,” Stuart says firmly. “And we don’t do six-figure books,” adds Mary, over a so-called Alan Bennett omelette in the former first-class gentlemen’s waiting room. Nevertheless they’ve had some pretty valuable encounters, some of which are displayed in glass cases at the far end of the store — a signed and illustrated limited edition, for example, of Treasure Island for £4,400 — and some of which are kept in a secret room in the back, such as The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Kelmscott Press Edition 1896 — yours for £39,000.
In an unlikely spot at the entrance to the loos is a rare, original second world war poster bearing the words “Keep Calm & Carry On” — made famous by the Manleys who were the first to produce facsimile posters and merchandise of this now ubiquitous slogan. “It made us no money,” says Stuart wistfully, “but it’s a valuable piece of Barter Books history.” For sure, I think, but in many ways it’s almost the least interesting aspect of this remarkable place. I could spend hours, days, weeks rummaging through this treasure trove, listening to a classic soundtrack from yesteryear. Forget the Harry Potter madness up the road at Alnwick Castle — all the magic is here.
With thanks to Don Gilling