All successful partnerships are based on finding a common interest.
Mary Manley was a book lover. Her husband Stuart was a train enthusiast.
Together they made a success of it by setting up a second-hand book shop in a former railway station.
That was back in 1991. Now Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland is one of the largest second-hand bookshops in the UK.
I was a bit reluctant to visit the shop when we were recently on holiday in the area. I have to confess I’m more of a new book person … lovely fresh ink and crisp pages. Those second-hand books are all so musty.
These shops are often also a mess. Fine for real book lovers who just want to mooch about, and ‘discover’ a hidden treasure, but immensely frustrating if you like some logic and order on the bookshelf.
Barter Books though took me by surprise. It’s well worth a visit, even for those new-born digital evangelists who have switched to Kindles and their like.
First of all, it’s just a really interesting building.
Many of the original features of the North Eastern Railway’s rather grand station that served Alnwich until its forced closure as part of the ‘Beeching cuts’ in 1968 have been preserved.
Most books are on display in the old ticket hall. High wooden bookshelving encases an impressive array of titles (the shop boosts over 300,000 books).
The old buffet has been brought back to life serving hot and cold food in comfortable rooms. We ordered coffee and fresh cheese scones; delicious they were too.
And the old waiting room is now filled with comfortable chairs that invite visitors to sit and read.
Barter Books also lives up to it name. The shop gets most of its stock from locals bringing old books in. They can gain credits for these in exchange for other books they might want to read. A system of bartering is therefore truly alive there.
Even if you’ve no real intention of buying any books, Barter Books is still worth a visit.
There’s no pressure or assumption that you’ll part with any money. All visitors seem to be genuinely welcomed and few leave without being impressed.
Of course, there are many places where so many books are on display. Libraries, museums, private collections are not hard to find. What’s different about this particular shrine to the printed word is that it feels alive.
Here reading is celebrated and books are the currency that has breathed life into a small Northumberland town by drawing in visitors and employing 40 local people.
It really was quite inspiring. And we even bought a book.