Based in a 19th-cen­tury Northum­ber­land train sta­tion, this sec­ond­hand book­shop has a re­mark­able back story of its own


The fas­ci­nat­ing rail­way sta­tion book­shop with a great back story of its own

ust as books can trans­port you to another place, so, too, can the best book­shops – and none more so than this one. Housed in Al­nwick’s grand Vic­to­rian sta­tion, Barter Books is one of Bri­tain’s big­gest sec­ond­hand book stores, stock­ing more than 350,000 tomes, from 18th­cen­tury rar­i­ties to pop­u­lar mod­ern paperbacks. As cus­tomers step in from the cold to the for­mer par­cel room, they’re greeted with shelves brim­ming with bi­ogra­phies, a blaz­ing fire and an invit­ing leather arm­chair. “This is our lit­tle do­main,” say own­ers Mary and Stu­art Man­ley. “Our refuge and maybe even our cus­tomers’ when the out­side world be­comes too com­pli­cated!”

While trains stopped de­part­ing from the Northum­brian town in the Six­ties, there’s plenty of ev­i­dence of their ex­is­tence – not least the model rail­way that runs above the shelves in the im­pres­sive cen­tral room. Un­til the early Nineties, Stu­art made minia­ture train parts in a small fac­tory in this very space. He soon found, how­ever, that chil­dren were more in­ter­ested in video games than train sets, and his busi­ness strug­gled. He and Mary – for­merly an art his­tory teacher in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee – were “stone-cold broke” and needed to find a way to keep the debt col­lec­tors at bay.


While Mary had lit­tle in­ter­est in model rail­ways, she did have a nose for a good book, hav­ing worked in a sec­ond­hand book­shop in New York City. “I won­dered whether we could do some­thing sim­i­lar,” she says. And so, in 1991, she set up a small store in part of Stu­art’s fac­tory. Al­most 30 years later, what was one room now fills more than 9,000 square feet of the 32,000 square-foot build­ing.

The orig­i­nal sta­tion en­trance is ded­i­cated to chil­dren’s books, while the first-class ladies’ and gen­tle­men’s wait­ing rooms (now the Blue and Red Rooms, re­spec­tively) pro­vide seat­ing for the Sta­tion Buf­fet – a hot-food counter in the old boiler room. In the Blue Room, a paint­ing of John Pat­ter­son, the last ‘top hat’ sta­tion master, watches over din­ers while a fire crack­les, framed by the orig­i­nal mar­ble man­tel­piece. The fire­place in the Red Room was looted long ago, but the Man­leys have sal­vaged a re­place­ment from nearby Ilder­ton sta­tion. The main hall, once the out­bound plat­form, is now packed with shelves, too, with books about ev­ery­thing from needle­work and nat­u­ral his­tory to moun­taineer­ing and mythol­ogy.

The book­shop runs partly on a barter sys­tem, as its name sug­gests – an homage to a sim­i­lar shop in Mary’s home town in Mem­phis. Cus­tomers are en­cour­aged to swap their old books for new (sec­ond­hand) stock. The team wel­come work by ever­green au­thors such as Roald Dahl and Ian Rankin, and pay hand­somely for un­usual or first-edi­tion books. “An early copy of Dar­win’s Ori­gin of Species would eas­ily sell for £400 as it’s very sought-af­ter,” Stu­art says. The Man­leys also at­tend about 30 auc­tions a year across the north of Eng­land for an­ti­quar­ian items. As a re­sult, their stock ranges from a huge choice of ev­ery­day fic­tion and non-fic­tion to rare vol­umes and 1st edi­tions, which can cost thou­sands of pounds.

The high­est-priced book they’ve ever sold? A copy of The Kelm­scott Chaucer (pub­lished in 1896, with pages de­signed by Wil­liam Mor­ris)

“It’s like visit­ing a well-read friend’s house and stay­ing for tea”

for £38,000. “You might say that was ex­cep­tional,” Mary says.

It’s not just an­ti­quar­ian books for which the shop is famed. An orig­i­nal Se­cond World War poster bear­ing the words ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ hangs in the for­mer ladies’ wait­ing room, with fold marks and pin­pricks in each cor­ner. To­day, it’s a well-worn say­ing, but that wasn’t the case when Stu­art found the poster in 2000, buried in a box of books he’d bought at auc­tion. Mil­lions of copies were pulped in 1940, mean­ing there are few other orig­i­nals – which, un­til re­cently, were hid­den in a drawer at The Im­pe­rial War Museum in Lon­don. “I liked the poster so much I framed it and put it up on our wall,” Mary says. Cus­tomers liked it, too, so they printed copies and em­bla­zoned mugs, un­wit­tingly un­leash­ing a new na­tional slo­gan. At its peak, in 2005, the cou­ple were sell­ing 9,000 posters a month. In 20 years, they es­ti­mate they’ve made around £80,000 from it. “Not much when you con­sider how pop­u­lar it has been, but not bad for some­thing well out of copy­right,” Stu­art says. Any prof­its go to­wards the up­keep of the Grade Ii-listed struc­ture. Built in 1887 and de­signed by Wil­liam Bell, it re­quires a lot of main­te­nance . “Any time we make a bit of money, we put it right back into the shop,” Mary says. “Our aim is per­fec­tion!” One of her dreams, re­alised in 2008, was to add a buf­fet spe­cial­is­ing in home­made food. Another, still to be re­alised, is to re­store the orig­i­nal glass roof.

It’s am­bi­tious, but Stu­art’s dream is even more so. As the founder of the Aln Val­ley Rail­way Project, he’s been cam­paign­ing since 1997 to re­store the her­itage line from Al­n­mouth to Al­nwick, which was a vic­tim of the Beech­ing cuts in the Six­ties. Con­struc­tion be­gan in 2012 and is on­go­ing. Vis­i­tors can cur­rently hop on a steam train at the newly com­pleted Al­nwick Lion­heart sta­tion, and ride two miles be­fore the tracks stop. There is just over half a mile

to go. The cou­ple are used to big schemes, as shown by a 12-me­tre-wide mu­ral of 33 of Mary’s favourite writ­ers – a two-year project com­pleted in 2001 by bril­liant young artist Peter Dodd. It fea­tures Os­car Wilde, Jane Austen and Shake­speare, among oth­ers. “Peo­ple asked us why we were squan­der­ing money, but we don’t see it that way,” Stu­art says. “We’re will­ing to spend money on things that don’t have an im­me­di­ate re­turn. It’s the long term that mat­ters.” But in the early Noughties, as Ama­zon rose to promi­nence – out­com­pet­ing bricks and mor­tar by a coun­try mile – even the short­term fu­ture of book­shops looked un­cer­tain. Were book­shops to suf­fer the same fate as model rail­ways? “Every­one was talk­ing about a rocky fu­ture, but we at­tract 350,000 cus­tomers a year,” Stu­art says. Sales to­day av­er­age 3,000 books a week.


What is the se­cret to its suc­cess? Vis­i­tors are of­ten im­pressed by the build­ing’s grandeur, as well as its grow­ing book collection. Made­line

Ong, from New­cas­tle, has been com­ing since she was a child. “It’s so much more than a book­shop,” she says. “When I pop in, I end up there for hours. It’s like visit­ing a well-read friend’s house and stay­ing for tea.”

With the shop open ev­ery day (ex­cept Christ­mas Day), as well as the new ice-cream par­lour Par­adise, life is busy. They em­ploy about 70 peo­ple, aged be­tween 16 and 76. Nei­ther works be­hind the counter any­more – Stu­art is re­spon­si­ble for busi­ness man­age­ment and book val­u­a­tion, and Mary is the cre­ative brains and mar­ke­teer. While the cou­ple are in their 70s and “work­ing on re­tire­ment plans”, nei­ther shows signs of slow­ing down. “We both dream of hav­ing the time to read a book,” Mary laughs. It’s a line she uses a lot, but as a woman who cites Robert Fa­gles’ translatio­n of The Il­iad as her favourite book, she might be ex­ag­ger­at­ing a lit­tle. Trains may no longer de­part from Al­nwick sta­tion, but as long as there are books, vis­i­tors will al­ways be able to in­dulge in some good old arm­chair travel.

FOR MORE IN­FOR­MA­TION on Barter Books and to search Mary and Stu­art’s an­tique collection, visit barter­

“This is our lit­tle do­main, a refuge when the outer world be­comes too com­pli­cated”

OP­PO­SITE AND THIS PAGE Mary and Stu­art Man­ley have been run­ning the quirky book­shop since 1991. As well as mod­ern paperbacks, they also sell un­usual and first-edi­tion rar­i­ties

THIS PAGE, FROM TOP Once a small room in Al­nwick’s for­mer train sta­tion, Barter Books now en­com­passes a large part of the grand old build­ing; be­sides its pay­ing cus­tomers, it of­fers a barter sys­tem, with old books swapped for sec­ond­hand stock

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