In praise of secondhand bookshops

I’ve just come back from a week in Northumbria. It is a lovely county, full of outstanding castles, glorious beaches, fantastic fish, wonderful gardens, pretty villages, rolling hills and beautiful countryside. It wasn’t overcrowded either, and you are within easy driving distance of both Newcastle and Edinburgh for rainy day entertainment.

In Northumbria, the town of Alnwick is also home of one of the largest and most lovely secondhand bookshops in the country – Barter Books. It is housed in Alnwick’s old railway station, in between the town centre and Alnwick Castle & Gardens, and was established in 1991, (the branchline was closed in 1968 – a victim of the notorious Beeching Report). You pull up to what could be the front entrance of an old railway station – looking good already. But this can’t prepare you for what’s inside …

… for behind every station façade are the ticket office and waiting rooms; in there was a coffee bar, sofas, a lovely mural on the wall celebrating books and authors, and a train track running around the book stacks at head height too. But there’s more still … for beyond these rooms are the sheds, platforms and and the tracks. Imagine this all covered over levelled and filled with bookshelves and you get this …

You see the tables and chairs in the middle – well actually they’re just halfway down the shed! The shop was has become a bit of a tourist destination in itself – even just after opening time, it was quietly buzzing.

Barter Books has also made a name for itself as the re-discoverers of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster (see post below). This was one of a set of propaganda posters which were to be issued in case of invasion during WWII. They weren’t needed in the end and were destroyed – except for one found in the bottom of a box of books by the owners of the bookshop, and another now in the Imperial War Museum. You can read a full history on the Barter Books website. We could have spent a fortune, but restrained ourselves to a couple of bags full. Peter came away with a nice hardback four volume set of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples and I got Jonathan Coe’s biography of maverick filmmaker B.S.Johnson.

This place is an absolute treasure trove as are many other secondhand bookshops and temples to book-browsing. Can you recommend others – they may well influence my future vacation plans …

0 thoughts on “In praise of secondhand bookshops

  1. jelsie says:

    I'm jealous, I didn't have time to visit this bookshop last year when I was visiting Northumbria with my two teenage children – we were on a very tight schedule. I had a flyer about the bookshop but knew I couldn't visit. Still your post is the next best thing! If you ever come to New Zealand be sure to visit Hard To Find (But Worth The Effort) Quality Secondhand Bookshop in Onehunga, Auckland!

  2. Ali says:

    Barter Books is handily near my in-laws and is a regular haunt when we visit. The boys can be kept entertained by the overhead railway and children's room while we browse.In the winter they have big fires blazing in the waiting room and you can hole up with books to browse and coffee. Bliss.

  3. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Jelsie – NZ is on my must list to visit one day – love the name of that shop!Ali – Barter Bks was truly wonderful – even Peter was wowed – he's normally a Blackwells fan. Lucky you to be able to visit regularly. I particularly like the way the owners are restoring the building too.

  4. farmlanebooks says:

    I used to live in Newcastle so made frequent trips to Barter Books. I loved it, and really miss it now I live near London. I'm pleased that you discovered it too!

  5. Arukiyomi says:

    it's a great bookshop that I've passed many a time and never been in. Courtesy of you, I have now. BTW, it's Northumberland. Northumbria is the medieval kingdom that was much much bigger than the present county.

  6. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Arukiyomi – glad you went into the bookshop! Do forgive my ignorance of current northern county names.

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