A few weeks ago my friend and I took a road trip to Alnwick in Northumberland to visit Barter Books, a massive second hand bookshop, famous for being one of the largest in the country and the home of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster.
Before the trip, all our friends and family thought we were mad! Many of them exclaimed “I can’t believe you’re going all that way for a bookshop!” and to be fair, travelling from Manchester to Alnwick did seem a bit extreme based on a few pictures we’d seen on the Internet! However, as I was convinced it could be a potential hive of inspiration for my book, I managed to talk my friend into making the journey with me (to be honest, she was as excited as I was, having a passion for literature herself) and we set off at 6:30am, Nespresso’s in our travel mugs, and followed the sat nav to Alnwick.
We made pretty good time on the way up. After three and a half hours (including a quick Costa stop☕️) we arrived in a car park where we could see a Lidl, but no book shop. Panic set in for a couple of minutes while my friend rang the number from the website to see where we had gone wrong. As I considered an uncomfortable long journey back home after being the ringleader in this little jaunt, my friend managed to speak to a nice lady who informed us we had turned off one turn too soon and we were just around the corner.
Breathing a long sigh of relief, we drove the short distance to the bookshop and parked up. Panic hit me again as I hoped that the bookshop would be worth the trip (something I had experience frequently in the previous week). I needn’t have worried.
When we walked through the doors, we found ourselves in a small room filled with giant ball-shaped paper lights. We could smell the burning embers of the coal fire to our left and had one thought in mind – food! I knew that there was a cafe somewhere and we were on a mission to find it. No exploring on an empty stomach!
As we walked through the first room into the second room, there were bookshelves galore! It was so hard to walk through these rooms without browsing but we kept going. Before we walked into the third and final room of wall to wall bookshelves, I glimpsed up and saw the beautiful mural of famous writers above the doorway. Making a mental note to return to this later, we carried on to the cafe, which was located in the final room.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned is that Barter Books has been made from an old train station and there are reminders of this throughout the bookshop. Indeed, the character of the train station remains in abundance. The cafe is made out of the train station waiting rooms. Split into sections and containing a coal fire in each compartment, we found a seat which was much like you would find on an old steam train. Our plan was simple. Eat quickly and make a start on exploring this second hand book heaven! As lovely as it was to sit in this little train carriage with the smell of the fire reminding us of what this building once was, we were eager to get cracking.
The first problem we had was where to start! There were bookshelves as far as the eye can see. There were certain children’s books that I was hoping to obtain so we headed for the children’s section at the front of the middle room. I was transported back to my childhood as I saw books that I had read as a child: Topsy and Tim, Readalong books, Famous Five and Secret Seven. Holding back from the nostalgic temptation to buy every book that I’d read as a child, I went on the hunt for a copy of What Katy Did and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Now, I always thought that with second hand bookshops your choice of books would be limited and to actually hunt out something specific would be pointless. Not so with Barter Books. I’m fairly sure that you could have found a book on any subject you wished in this treasure trove of literature. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction, every possible genre was covered. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for (and some besides) so I had plenty of time just to browse.
What I loved about Barter Books is the journey that we were taken on from room to room. From the giant-balled reception room to the mural room with it’s giant train set that travelled above the bookshelves (I thought it was raining before I spotted the train!) there were enough books in these two rooms alone to have kept us browsing all day but the largest room was the final room that we came to. Where all the bookshelves stood, the station brickwork surrounded them and with the smell of the coal fires in the cafe and the reception area, you could imagine yourself waiting for a train here back in the day.
The books themselves take you on a journey too. There is a shelf dedicated to the old orange and white Penguin books. There are old books, new books, heavy leather-bound books and dog-eared paperbacks. There was even 50 Shades of Grey, snuggled in besides Russian Zone by Gordon Schaffer and A Policy for British Agriculture by Lord Addison! (To be fair, I think it had been put back in the wrong place, but it amused me nonetheless!)
In this large room in particular, there were lots of little oddities to catch our eyes. The little four-seater chairs were particularly cute and the large railway-inspired light fitting in the centre of the room above a table and chairs was brilliant. The light display on the back wall dominated the room. The right hand walls of this room contained cabinets of old, presumably rare and expensive books.
Another lovely touch to this bookshop was the abundance of literary quotes dotted around each room. Some of the quotes I recognised and some were new to me but I felt compelled to read all of them. My favourite quote, covering a wall in the middle room, was:
Louis MacNeice seemed a little ahead of his time with this poem. In a time where technology is overtaking literature this poem has never been more resonant. Barter Books also sells a small selection of DVD’s and CD’s and I was surprised to see a lady purchasing only DVD’s and CD’s in a place where it would be impossible to not find a book that would interest the most literature-phobic person! Each to their own, of course, but I was astonished nonetheless.
I loved Barter Books. I loved the smell, I loved the character and I loved the browsing experience. I particularly love the copy of Vanity Fair that I bought which is from 1954 and has the silkiest smooth pages that I have ever touched. Barter Books was worth the three hour journey there (and the seven hour journey home – a story for another time!) I loved sharing the Barter Books experience with a very good friend who, if she thought I was a crackpot for wanting to travel all that way, she never let on. I would absolutely make the journey again (and hopefully will do so) and I would implore anyone who loves literature to pay Barter Books a visit. It is pure literary heaven!