Barter Books

Photo taken by the author

Article by Michael A. Arnold

Stepping inside from a cold autumn day, you enter a Victorian world of books. Almost as soon as you walk in the air gets toast-like warm – maybe there is a lit fireplace nearby. Paper lanterns hang from the ceiling in the entrance room, and portraits of great writers line the top part of a wall in the next one. Beyond that is a large hangar full of the architecture from two centuries ago which has been lovingly preserved. All three of these rooms are filled with wide and stuffed bookshelves, with a small model train running between them overhead, winding a way around the shop as smooth and easy listening music plays.

The place being described here is Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, one of the largest second hand bookshops in the UK. This is a special place for many, and since it opened in 1991 it has become a major attraction for visitors to the area. It is easy to see why. There is a very cozy atmosphere, full with that special feeling that can only come when surrounded by books. Just about any bibliophile would find Barter Books a small heaven, especially if they also like older architecture – since it is in what used to be the Alnwick train station.

Because Barter Books has kept so much of the original architecture, it can almost feel like you have travelled to an earlier period of time. This is especially true in the Waiting Room, which was originally reserved for first class passengers but is now a seating room for the shop’s café. That deserves mention too, they have so much great food to choose from – especially the creamed mushrooms on toast and the macaroni and cheese (especially with the bacon bits), and you can get a selection of some quite unusual drinks too: traditional Dandelion and Burdock or Victorian Lemonade. The café alone might be worth a trip there.

But books are the reason to go there. If you are lucky then you will find the exact book you are looking for, or any number of books on a subject that interests you. The genres offered are very diverse, and some are very specific, from English classics and fantasy, to books of political theory and biography, and even to books about the mining industry, and medical text books. And because they are all second hand they can be bought relatively cheaply. Also, there are not many shops that can claim to have discovered something, but this one can. In 2000 the WW2 poster with a red background reading ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was rediscovered there, a poster which has since became famous worldwide.

It is a great shop if you love books.

But here is a question for our current time: how has COVID-19 affected its business? Nothing in this world is eternal, especially not things like shops, and because the current pandemic has affected so much of our day to day life it is also worth thinking about how it is affecting places like Barter Books. Like most businesses across the country, the pandemic has very badly affected bookshops, so much that Barter Books has lost over one third of its normal turnover at the time of writing, and because of this there are less active staff to run the shop. Does this mean Barter Books is in danger of closing? Not exactly. There are still plenty of books to be sold – currently that number is around 300,000, and it does have a lot of dedicated customers. But there is still good reason to worry about our independent and secondhand bookshops, especially when one as well-loved, and increasingly iconic as Barter Books.

Secondhand bookshops are places where you can find new treasures and feel that thrill that shopping online just cannot capture. When you are surrounded by thousands of books, most of which you have not read or heard of, there is a chance of finding something new. You can take it off the shelf, hold the object in your hands, read the first page or two in some quiet corner, and feel you are starting a whole new journey. It would be a miserable shame if the current pandemic ended bookshops like Barter Books, experiences like that would end too. We should be asking ourselves: how do we help keep such places open in these strange times.

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