One of Europe’s largest secondhand bookshops, Barter Books was opened in 1991 by Mary and Stuart Manley in the front of what was then their small manufacturing plant in Alnwick’s disused—but still magnificent—Victorian railway station.
Its business model was based on a barter system, whereby customers could trade in their own books for credit in the shop, something that customers can continue to do to this day. Its stock is now so extensive that New Statesman magazine has described it as the “British Library of secondhand bookshops.”
Today, Barter Books occupies the former station entrance, Parcel Room, central island, and outbound platform. A model train runs continuously at head height between the shelves. The monumental Famous Writers mural by local artist Peter Dodd was unveiled in 2001 and depicts 33 lifesize portraits of writers including Charlotte Bronte, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 2000, Stuart and Mary discovered an original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster buried within a box of books bought at auction. It was produced by the British Government in 1939 to motivate a population shocked at the onset of war. Around 2.5 million were printed but never used, and nearly all were pulped, with very few surviving. Attracted by its simple, modern design and typography, the Manleys framed the poster for display in the shop, where it became increasingly remarked upon. They soon began to sell reproductions, and one of the 21 century’s perennial design motifs was born. Today, commercial companies all over the world produce variations on the Keep Calm motif, and you will find it gracing T-shirts to greetings cards, and mugs to bedding.
In 2008, a boiler room that had lain completely untouched by time was rediscovered. A green fern had miraculously survived untended for decades, fed only by a leaking drainpipe and a skylight. This room is where metal foot-warmers would once have been heated and made available for rent by passengers suffering the winter frost. Today this room has joined the 3rd and 1st class waiting rooms to form the shop’s buffet, complete with Victorian wall tiles, wooden church pews salvaged from Scotland, and top-hat lights designed by artist Colin Rose in homage to the last top-hatted stationmaster John Patterson.
The station itself was designed by William Bell in 1887 and is uncommonly large for what was a prosperous, yet small, provincial market town. This is explained by the presence of the Dukes of Northumberland at nearby Alnwick Castle: the station needed to be commodious enough to satisfy visiting royalty. Train services ceased in 1968 however, as part of the Beeching rationalization of Britain’s railways.
Know Before You Go
The bookstore is open every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.