Barter Books

Tucked away in the northernmost corner of England, Barter Books is a bibliophile’s dream come true. Located in the quaint town of Alnwick, Northumberland, this second-hand bookshop is housed in the town’s beautiful Victorian train station, which was decommissioned in 1968. The transformation of this historic site into one of the UK’s most charming and unique bookshops has made Barter Books a must-visit destination for book lovers.

Barter Books opened its doors in April 1991, the brainchild of Mary Manley. Faced with a substantial overdraft, Mary decided to start a second-hand bookshop based on a barter system. Her husband, Stuart, enthusiastically supported the idea and suggested using the front room of his small manufacturing plant, located in the old railway station. This joint venture quickly grew, earning the moniker 'The British Library of second-hand bookshops' from the New Statesman magazine.

Initially occupying the station’s ticket and parcel office, Barter Books has since expanded to cover over one-quarter of the entire station site. The shop now spans more than 8,000 square feet, with over 350,000 books arranged on more than three miles of shelving. This vast collection includes both fiction and non-fiction titles, with sections dedicated to architecture, zoology, travel, and more. The shop also offers second-hand videos, music (CDs, LPs, cassettes, sheet music), and a growing selection of artists' prints.

Walking into Barter Books feels like entering a literary wonderland. The shop retains many of the station’s original features, including the North Eastern Railway cast iron fireplaces, two station clocks, a drinking fountain, and various waiting rooms. The most dramatic restoration is the glass roof, which floods the space with natural light and brings the station visually back to life.

One of the shop’s most enchanting features is the working model railway that runs along the tops of the bookshelves, a nod to its railway heritage. Comfy armchairs and roaring fireplaces create a cozy atmosphere, perfect for spending hours browsing the extensive collection. The shop also includes a mini-cybercafe, generous seating and browsing areas, a children’s room filled with toys, and dozens of glass cases containing rare and antiquarian books.

The station’s old waiting rooms have been transformed into The Station Buffet, a charming cafe that serves a variety of delicious cakes, lunchtime staples, and a fine selection of coffees and teas. In the summer, visitors can also enjoy treats from Paradise, the shop’s separate ice cream parlour.

Adding to the shop’s unique charm are its stunning murals. The Writers Gallery mural, painted by Peter Dodd in collaboration with the shop’s owners, features 33 life-size portraits of famous writers, including Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare. This 40-foot-long mural is an incredible sight and contributes to the shop’s magical atmosphere.

Complementing the Writers Gallery is the similarly sized Railway Mural and the Tennyson Installation. These artworks, along with the shop’s other decorative touches, make Barter Books not just a place to buy books, but a cultural and artistic experience.

Barter Books is a place where you can easily spend hours, if not an entire day. The shop’s extensive collection ensures that there is something for everyone, from classic literature to contemporary fiction, from historical texts to modern non-fiction. The shop also buys books in return for store credit, making it possible to keep your personal library fresh and exciting.

The discovery of an original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster in 2000, found near the toilets, has become a notable feature of the shop. This poster’s reprinting led to millions of copies and spinoffs worldwide, further cementing Barter Books’ place in popular culture.

Beyond its role as a bookshop, Barter Books serves as a community hub. It hosts various events and activities, fostering a sense of community among locals and visitors alike. The shop’s owners take particular pleasure in restoring and maintaining the station’s historic features, ensuring that Barter Books remains a vibrant and welcoming place for all.

Barter Books is conveniently located in Alnwick, making it easily accessible by car or public transport. Its charm and unique features make it an unmissable destination for any book lover visiting Northumberland.

Barter Books is more than just a second-hand bookshop; it is a cultural and historical treasure. Its unique setting in a beautifully restored Victorian railway station, combined with its extensive collection of books and charming features, makes it a magical place that every book lover should visit. Whether you are browsing the shelves, enjoying a coffee in The Station Buffet, or marvelling at the stunning murals, a visit to Barter Books is an unforgettable experience.

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