Mum had begun to look restless. She’d spotted something…
We’d skipped breakfast, and were hungry, but had been assured that our destination was more than capable of feeding us. Overhead, an old steam engine thundered – way too fast – towards a bend in the track. I would have studied its doomed motion had my mother, who, at ninety, has dementia, not just wandered off in the wrong direction towards a tall shelf full of used paperback books…
She loves books even more that I do. At the last count she had thirteen of them open on her double bed…
(Above: as befits a former station, there are regular trains…)
I was struggling to see her among the many people in the narrow spaces between the tall shelves. My stripey anti-Covid mask wasn’t helping, either, as most of those in Alnwick’s former railway station weren’t wearing one, and kept looking at me as though my frantic movements were a prelude to armed robbery…
It sounds like a dream sequence in one of those arty movies where you have no idea what’s going on–and still have no idea at the end… But it wasn’t. It was a Friday morning in Alnwick – one of Northumberland’s most historic places. We had just entered a place that’s nearly as famous as the castle: the celebrated Barter Books.
Alnwick’s most famous son lived just across the road from the site of the future Alnwick Station.
Henry (Hotspur) Percy was born 20 May 1364 at Alnwick Castle. He was the eldest son of Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, and Margaret Neville. His grandmother Mary Plantagenet was the Granddaughter of the ruthless King Edward the III.
Harry was taught to fight as soon as he could hold a sword. Brilliant in battle, he was knighted at the age of 13 by the King, Richard II, and, in 1385 accompanied the King on an expedition to Scotland where he distinguished himself in battle and ingenuity when he set fire to a besieged castle, causing a breach in its walls – through which he leapt, sword in hand, to claim the victory. The Scots, in recognition of his continued bravery, bestowed on him the name of ‘Hotspur’.
Shakespeare immortalised him in Henry IV, Part II. “… and by his light did all the chivalry of England move to do brave acts.”
All of which has nothing to do with our story and my lost mother, apart from the fact that Alnwick seems to produce acts of innovative bravery…
Through a gap in the bookshelves, I finally saw a flash of her blue jacket, and managed to retrieve her, guiding her to the nearest tearoom and sitting the two of us down. Our food order was taken promptly, and we began to relax.
Barter Books is housed in what was Alnwick’s grand Victorian station. Twenty years ago, the derelict building was transformed from ruin to success story.
Its main inhabitant now stocks more than 350.000 books, ranging from historic collectors items to modern paperbacks. All are good-quality and second hand. Barter Books buys books, too, as long as they are clean, likely to be popular or rare.
You enter into the former parcel room, greeted – in winter – by a blazing fire and a worn but comfortable studded leather armchair. In summer, the old stone keeps things cool.
The owners, Mary and Stuart Manley set out to create an oasis of books for ‘booky’ people: the sort that will stay, wander, eat a cream tea or a bowl of winter soup and, at the end, buy a book and leave feeling that their world now makes a little more sense…
The station hasn’t offered real trains since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, but, thanks to Stuart’s love of model railways, the shelves in the forward part of the building – beneath the spectacular glass and iron entrance roof, are topped with their own ‘garden gauge’ railway, along which locos and their troublesome trucks thunder.
It’s a great love story. Stuart’s wife Mary had little interest in the engineering of precision parts for model railways – which had been Stuart’s source of income in one of the small units on this converted site in the 1990s. Mary had been an art history teacher in Tennessee, but life took her to New York, where she worked in a second-hand bookstore… and met Stuart.
They were both broke, but Mary had the idea of combining their unusual skills…
In 1991, she set up a small stall in a corner of Stuart’s engineering shop in the former Alnwick station. Now, 30 years later, their success story fills 9,000 square feet of the restored site.
The original entrance to the station is focussed on books for children. The old first-class ladies’ and gentlemen’ waiting rooms – which are now called the ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’ rooms -provide seating for the Station Buffet. Good food – and shelter from Northumberland’s changeable climate – is a central theme; as is a cheery welcome and excellent service.
Many of the original fittings were taken when the station became disused; some of them stolen. The couple salvaged a replacement fireplace for the Red Room from a nearby station at Iderton.
The main hall, which was once the outbound platform, is packed with shelves full of books on subjects ranging from woodwork to philosophy.
Barter Books will sell you that ‘I had this as a child and never thought I’d see it again!’ book for cash; but they also operate a true barter system. You may bring back your used books, as long as they are in good condition, and receive a partial credit towards another purchase.
Stuart and Mary also attend upwards of twenty antiquarian book auctions each year, so their stock includes not only rare books, but a wide selection of 1st editions.
Will they continue to be successful? Stuart painfully remembers the time his own children got bored with his model railways and turned, instead, to their video games. He points to their 350,000 customers, and an astonishing 3,000 books sold per week.
“But nothing is certain…”
I hope something is certain. My mother and I want to return again and again to Barter Books, regardless of how many times I have to go looking for her….
Barter Books one-page flyer:
Note: I have no commercial connection with Barter Books, other than liking them, very much!
©Copyright Stephen Tanham
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.