We talk A LOT these days about retail, and how the high street is declining and businesses are having to adapt to stay relevant to their customer in the increasing convenience of online shopping. So it is somewhat heartening to find a business which is thriving in an industry which you might imagine would be struggling. Barter Books is settled in the quaint town of Alnwick in the north of England (sort of near Newcastle like pet if you need a reference). It is the kind of idea that sounds barking mad but totally works.
Barter Books is essentially a vintage book shop (or as my dad would say, vintage is just a rebranded way of saying second hand) and as stacks of books turn up at charity shops day in and day out and you can download of book on your kindle in two nanoseconds, you can be forgiven for thinking this may not work. Yet this book shop is something else entirely, like a slice of Harry Potter magic. It really is like discovering platform 9 and 3/4 for the first time, or watching the bricks shuffle around to reveal Diagon Alley. The bookshop itself is housed in an old railway station, which gives the most charming backdrop to pre-loved books. And the most surprising thing to me, in this sleepy little town was that is was completely packed with people enjoying an afternoon in this destination bookshop. I bet Waterstones would kill for that kind of environment.
Barter Books is the work of Stuart and Mary Manley, a railway enthusiast and a book lover (respectively), who met by chance on a plane and then married three years later. Stuart was already running a business modelling trains and then Mary started her bookshop based on a barter system in a small part of an old train station which was built in the 1880s and closed in 1968. When the book business proved successful, it was time to sell off the models and dedicate their time to the bookshop. The railway setting is woven into the fabric of your experience, there are mini trains on tracks whizzing around your head, station timetables and original features in the furnishings.
A huge mural welcomes you which has been created by local artist Peter Dodd featuring a host of famous writers including Jane Austen and the bookshop is surrounded by literary quotes. There's every section covered, from travel to history and even a section or rare and signed books. There's room for people to sit and have a cup of tea and an honesty box for smaller snacks. The highlight for me was the buffet car, a refurbished series of connecting waiting rooms where hot drinks, food and more importantly, cream tea is served! The room was uncovered by accident and had been hidden for years and years.
Barter Books goes to show that if your business is REALLY special, then customers will come. Retailers really have to go the extra mile these days. The bookshop oozes charisma and authenticity with a pleasant atmosphere. In marketing speak this venture maybe a little like the 'showrooming' concept where you can happily enjoy the experience without necessarily purchasing and the nature of the business creates a community feel to it. Either way, kudos for not only making a viable business from secondhand books but also for making a enchanting railway museum at the same time.
I'd pretty much finished writing this blog when I returned a few days later to sit in front of the fire...and read...well it was Philippa Gregory, ok, I bloody love those books...when a guy who worked there came over to stoke the fire. "I couldn't believe my luck when I got my job," he said to me. "Looking after the fire and working with all these books." He spoke so passionately about the business and even told me he was a published author (his name tag said 'Foxy') and that one day he hoped someone would bring in his book on cycling to 'barter' it and exchange for more books - although on the flip side that meant that someone had enough of it! That's the thing I forgot to mention, you'll also make a few friends there around the fire, so take my advice and head there immediately and make sure you have a couple of hours to spare.
Barters Books Address: Alnwick Station, Wagon Way Road, Alnwick NE66 2NP, UK. Phone:+44 1665 604888
- Angel of the North - Antony Gormley's beautiful sculpture is easy to get to so well worth a visit. "Why an Angel?" Gormley is quoted as saying. "The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The Angel has three functions - firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site cal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future expressing our transitions from the industrial to the modern age, an lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears." Durham Road, Gateshead, NE9 6AA
- Woodhorn Museum - set within the grounds of an old mine this museum is a trip down memory lane to the dangerous and hard life of the miners. Once you've finished being in awe of them and realised that your working day is vastly more comfortable than theirs was, take a look at the famous Pitman Painters - totally inspiring and will make you want to pick up a paint brush immediately. Off the A189, Ashington, Northumberland.
- Bari Tea Brewery - in a whole world of coffee shops the traditional tea room fights back with this little gem. Take a good look and sniff at the many teas on offer and settle in. We also tried the home made soup (delicious) and the Lemon Cake (pictured) all with Earl Grey Tea. 28 Narrowgate, Alnwick NE66 1JG.
- Alnwick Castle - Harry Potter fans will DELIGHT at the famous castle from Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. The stunning Alnwick Castle was sadly closed when I visited (check on their website for times it is open) but you could still (just) see if through the mist a trip. Brooms at the ready, it's Quidditch time! Alwick NE66 1NQ.
- Lindisfarne Castle is a a historical and geographical dream - first off it is tricky to get there - you need to check tide times in order to cross to Holy Island - but once there you can delight in Linidisfarne Castle and Priory which are rich history stretching back to the times of the Norman conquest.