High on my list of ‘things I must do now I am back up north’ was revisiting Barter Books. 2020 may have scuppered the vast majority of my plans, so it felt like a small triumph when, on Friday, a friend who had a weekend off work said she’d be happy to take me on a day trip – and agreed to visit Barter Books.
For those who don’t know, Barter Books has a very solid claim to being the World’s Best Book Shop. A sprawling paradise built in the Victorian station that used to serve the town, the branch line closing might have been a blow to the local populace (traffic and parking are insane – Alnwick could really do with a handy train station, as the nearest one is Alnmouth, although there is at least a bus station bang in the town centre), but it was a lucky stroke to bibliophiles.
The vast space means that the venue maintains both that ‘second hand bookshop clutter’ charm but is also fantastically well-laid out. Instagrammable quotes top every shelf and decorate some of the walls – you’re as likely to trip over a tourist (or, um, me) taking photos as one reading a book – and reading nooks and comfy chairs encourage leisurely browsing. Stock ranges from cheap second hand paperbacks to expensive vintage editions, so there is something for every budget. Everything is clearly laid out and the children’s section is a delight – also if you think you hear rain on the rood, it might just be the sound of the model train that runs the length of the shelves near the main till.
It is responsible for the plague of Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise – the owners discovered the poster in a box of books in 2000 (you can read all about it on their website) – but you can forgive them for that since the shop itself is a total gift.
Normally, the place tends to be very busy, but these are strange times. We had to queue to be allowed in to keep the numbers down (though not for an onerous amount of time), but the friendly staff seem to have an admirable grasp on social distancing measures so once inside, though there were enough customers not for it to feel eerie, there was plenty of room to browse without worrying about someone breathing down your neck.
Since we’d queued to get in and it was raining, we decided to eat in the Station Buffet. Again they seem to be doing pretty well on the social distancing and safety measures – the tables and chairs were sanitised after each party left – and they are offering a fantastic range of food – all reasonably priced and enormous portions, and the staff were super pleasant and friendly.
I had avocado toast just because it’s the one thing I never make at home, with a side order of thrice cooked chips to share, and my friend M had the fish finger sandwich – both were so generous we couldn’t finish them, which was a shame as I’d rather set my eye on a piece of cake or shortbread, which also looked fantastic. (It was pretty affordable, too – our meals and drinks (coffee, Diet Coke, bottle of water – came to under £20, and had we known the portion sizes we honestly could have shared one meal and chips and still come out happy). I am also always a sucker for that old-fashioned railway station vibe so the decor pleased me greatly (though I failed to do it justice in photos, sorry: too excited just to be out!)
The inclement weather put us off wandering the town centre, lovely as Alnwick is, so instead we had a drive along the coast, taking in Seahouses and even making it as far as Bamburgh, though we didn’t do much more there than get out of the car and take photos.
Still, it was something crossed off my list – which feels like a huge achievement given this year – and it was good to see a business adapting so well to what must be terrible times for retail.
If you want to support Barter Books – give them a visit if you can, or check out the website (they have a range of super cute merch: I couldn’t resist this cat tea towel.) It would be a national tragedy if this glorious place didn’t survive.