Northumberland: England’s northernmost county. Perhaps more renowned for its national parks, Roman wall, and the abundance of medieval castles dotted along its craggy coastline, rather than the presence of one of Europe’s biggest second-hand bookshops.
Located just down the road from Alnwick Castle and the Alnwick Gardens – the site of the iconic flying lesson in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – Barter Books has been nestled in the town’s impressive former Victorian railway station since its opening in 1991. The owners, Mary and Stuart Manley, operate the shop based on a barter system (hence the name), in which customers can trade in their own books for store credit, though more conventional methods of purchase are of course still accepted. As a result, the shop has flatteringly been dubbed the “Bodleian or British Library of second-hand bookshops” on account of the extensive collection of books it’s amassed over the years, in every field and on every subject imaginable.
An independent bookstore is a special experience no matter which one you go to: no two are completely alike, and they all have a unique charm and layout based on what kind of premises they occupy, how eccentric (read: fabulous) the owners are, and what kind of a community they cater to. That being said, if you could dream up a bookshop straight out of a quirky 1940’s fantasy novel – something distinctly Chronicles of Narnia-like in intrigue and atmosphere – you’d end up with something not too dissimilar to Barter Books.
The first thing that strikes you when you walk through the door is the size of the place. The dark wood shelves extend seemingly endlessly through several rooms, with a central aisle through the middle of the main space signposted by archways made from poetry quotes. The vaulted glass ceiling shines rare northern sunlight onto the Famous Writers mural created by local artist Peter Dodd, which features 33 authors including Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Wolf, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As you gaze at it with the requisite amount of appreciation and awe, the working model train that slithers around on its tracks above your head catches your attention next, and directs your sight elsewhere to further curiosities.
Display cases house antiquarian books and iconic original Penguin book covers, and every available wall space is covered by something eye-catching, from modern neon light displays to an original ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster from 1939, discovered in a collection of books the Manleys bought at auction in 2000. Additionally, features in keeping with the style of the building’s past – including light fixtures, the WC signs, and a stone water fountain – preserve the charm of, and pay homage to, the station’s history.
After you’ve inevitably spent hours longer than you intended browsing and comfort-testing every armchair sequestered between the shelves – an indie bookshop must-have – you can then have your pick of where to re-fuel yourself in preparation for another circuit of the shop. The Station Buffet, housed in a room that was only discovered in 2008 – the circumstances of which could only have been made better had it been hidden behind a bookcase – promises classic, no-frills British café staples that never fail to hit the spot. But if you are after frills, you can indulge in speciality sundaes, milkshakes, and home-made cakes at the Paradise Ice Cream Parlour – opened in January last year, because why not eat ice cream in the middle of winter?
Barter Books is truly a bookshop like no other. It has many metaphorical hats – bookstore, archive, internet café, eatery, even wedding venue (the absolute dream) – and something that appeals to everyone, from train enthusiasts to historians to book lovers of all ages. It’s busy in every sense of the word – visually, auditorily, and in terms of annual foot-traffic, but if anything that adds to the experience. The presence of other enthralled browsers whom you may never know beyond a smile and a nod makes you feel part of the wider bookish community, and ensures it’s nigh on impossible to leave the store without making a purchase. Going in you truly have no idea what you might find inside, but when you do find it – tucked away high up on a shelf or hidden between the stacks – you won’t be able to part with it.
The bookshops’ Instagram captures the warmth and magic of the store better than any descriptions I could give, but I urge anyone to whom the shop is more than ‘a bit out of the way’ of – a hazard of it being located so far up north – to scroll with caution, because the urge to visit afterwards will be overwhelming.
Words by Rebecca Harrison
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Though Barter Books is closed for in-person browsing, online purchases are continuing as normal, and orders are available for collection from the Paradise Ice Cream Parlour, which remains open as takeaway only.