28th Sep 2011
Battle of the Bookshops: Barter Books in Northumberland
Any bookstore that labels its erotica section “spicy books” has got to be a good one, especially when you come across it holding a thirty pence cup of coffee you just bought from an in-store machine. Satisfaction on all levels.
And this is what sums Barter Books up pretty well: a mix of homeliness and northern coy. The store is immense. It’s more of a cosy warehouse, if such a thing exists; a wall-to-wall collection of second-hand books, situated inside an old railway station in Alnwick.
You could visit for the idiosyncrasies alone. In the front room there is a toy train running amongst the shelves, in the huge backroom an old glass roof, and an incredible writers’ mural where you can see Virginia Woolf smoking a cigarette while Walt Whitman either flirts or argues with Langston Hughes. There are open fireplaces, glass cabinets, and a railway café that makes a lot of local cakes.
And the books are pretty great, too. The New Statesman once called it “the British Library of second-hand bookshops.” I didn’t have to search for long to find something unique; the fiction section is quite comprehensive. There is a perfect balance of thumbed mainstream titles alongside Pan classics, and a load of old Penguins with awesomely unfashionable cover designs.
The philosophy and criticism sections spill from the shelves, and there is a rare collection of very old travel writing with borderline-xenophobic jacket-copy. The antiquarian section has to be good; there was a first edition of Henry Miller’s Plexus complete with signature.
All this is made even better by the fact that there isn’t a lot else to do in Alnwick. Sure, it’s picturesque. And there is an impressive castle where a bit of Harry Potter was filmed. But once you’ve taken in this and the high-street, all that’s left is either a multitude of pubs or Barter Books.
I imagine it’s the kind of place lunatics retreat to in order to escape the cold. It would be very easy to spend a full afternoon hidden in the back on a beaten chaise lounge with a stack of eccentricities. And in Alnwick, it tends to be cold.
The carpets on the stone floors are well scuffed and muddied, there are literary references everywhere you look, there are piles of overstock titles propping up the walls, and the constant smell of something baking.
According to its website, the building itself is in a constant project of restoration. But I hope it doesn’t become too new, as its shabbiness is half the appeal. It became a bookstore about ten years ago when a woman named Mary convinced her husband that such a place was a good idea.
The name Barter Books comes from her initial plan to base the store on a kind of book-swap system. And even though that idea seems to have escaped the business plan, one of the best things about the store is that it is really well priced.
In London, many second-hand bookstores are almost as expensive as the new, which surely defies the point. In Barter Books I managed to pick up seven paperbacks for under a tenner…and the bookseller even knocked off fifty pence so it was easier to give me change. Winner.