Hello Book Nerds!
This time on The Book Owl Podcast we’re going to figure out why there’s a train running through a bookstore. Or is it a bookstore running through a train?
Either way, I’ll introduce you to Barter Books in Alnwick, England, where trains and books collide. Not literally…or at least I hope not.
And if you “Keep Calm,” you’ll also discover why books and trains aren’t the only claim to fame for this fabulous shop that’s been called “The British Library of secondhand bookshops.”
Behind the Scenes
The inspiration for this episode came from watching a PBS special featuring Julie Walters (who played Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter movies). She made all kinds of rail journeys across England and made a special point to take small, historic side lines off the main rail lines.
And while the show does dive into history, that doesn’t mean it’s dry and dull. In fact, some parts are hilarious (if you can find the one where she visits a sheep farm, you’re in for a good laugh). Anyway, the show’s called Coastal Railways and I believe you can find it on YouTube, at your local library, via your public television streaming app, or on Amazon if you want to purchase it.
But on to Barter Books. I had a ton of fun with this episode and I hope you enjoy it. Clicking the image will take you to the episode’s web page where you can listen, or you can use the links just under the image to find oodles of other listening options.
Links mentioned in this episode:
Episode Transcript (or Roughly So)
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
It’s episode four and today we’re going to sort out why there’s a train running through a bookstore. Or is it a bookstore running through a train? Either way, we’ll sort it all out and delve into this shop’s claim to fame after this quick sponsor break.
And this week’s sponsor is YOU. That’s right! If you like what you’re hearing, you can show your appreciation by buying The Book Owl a cup of coffee. I know, birds probably shouldn’t have caffeine, but if you don’t tell the vet, I won’t either. So, if you’re able to lend the show a little support, just head over to the book owl podcast dot com slash support and click on the Owl whose cuddled up with a cuppa.
Speaking of a cuppa, get your tea bags steeping because we’re heading off to Jolly Olde England to go book shopping….in a train station.
Alright, so what in the world am I talking about? How can you have noisy things like trains running through a peaceful place like a bookshop? Well, let me introduce you to the Alnwick Bookstore where trains and books collide. Not literally, of course. I mean it would be really bad for business if customers were having to dodge the Hogwarts Express while browsing for a copy of Harry Potter.
So, for those of you not up on your British geography, Alnwick is a small town in Northern England and, although small, it was an important market town for the area for hundreds of years. Then in the 1800s a little thing called the industrial revolution barreled its way in and a huge importance began being placed on making sure people and stuff could be moved about efficiently. Since cars hadn’t been invented yet and horses couldn’t haul large enough loads with any amount of speed, around the 1830s and 1840s Parliament said, “let’s get these goods chugging along,” and approved the construction of thousands of rail lines, and by thousands I mean eight thousand miles of track networking across the country.
Don’t worry, this hasn’t turned into the Train Owl Podcast and this really does have something to do with bookstores.
Eventually, one of those rail lines rugged its way to Alnwick. That shouldn’t be any surprise since this was a market town. But what might have been a surprise to the locals came in 1887, when Alnwick got itself a huge and ornately decorated station designed by William Bell. This station was constructed of metal and glass with decorative ironwork touches in the Victorian style. Now, Alnwick as I mentioned is a rather small town, but at 32,000 square feet, its station is huge compared to other towns of similar size. Why did it need to be so big?
Well Alnwick just happened to have a castle where the Duke of Northumberland spent some time. But the Duke wasn’t up in Northern England, skulking around like some big old broody Bronte character. He liked to entertain. And when you’ve got other nobles, and possibly royalty, popping by for a holiday weekend you do not want them showing up in some little rat trap of a station. You want to impress them from the get go. Alnwick station was designed to impress…and to have plenty of space to accommodate all the many servants, baggage, and other entourage that would accompany royal travelers.
Unfortunately, in the 1960s, finances needed trimming and several of England’s smaller rail lines were shut down, including the Alnwick line. So, in 1968 and the station was shuttered.
At some point, the station made its way into the hands of Stuart Manley who turned it into a manufacturing plant. Then, in 1991, Stuart’s wife — who I’m going to assume is a book nerd — wanted to open a book shop. Stuart said, “Well go ahead and use the front of the building for your venture.” Mary jumped into action, filled some shelves, and soon opened the doors to a little shop she called Barter Books.
So, why was it called Barter Books? Well, because you could bring in your old books, get yourself some store credit, and then take home some new books. The scheme proved quite popular and what started out as just few shelves in the front of a manufacturing plant, grew and expanded and eventually filled the entire station. The shop is crazy popular and has been referred to as “The British Library of secondhand bookshops.” Of course, these days, while most visitors end up paying cash for their books, the practice of bartering still continues.
Okay, so what in the world does this have to do with trains other than being opened in a shut down train station? Well, the Manleys decided that since they owed the building’s existence to trains, they should start their own train line…in the bookshop itself. Today, if you step in, well not today because of travel restrictions, but if you were able to go in today, as you wandered the shelves, if you were able to pull your eyes away from all the tempting tomes, you’d see a model train running throughout the bookstore. And this isn’t just a little loop like you might have had as a kid. This thing chugs along elaborate bridges that connect the tops of most the standing shelves within the shop.
So, I love book shops. Whenever I travel, I’m usually mapping out all the bookstores and, when packing go home, I’ve been known to have trouble fitting my clothes back into my suitcase because I’ve filled it with so many books. Apparently, I’m not the only one with this quirk because Barter Books has become a huge tourist draw. But it’s not just the books, the unique setting, and the model train luring people in. The Manleys commission artists to add to the shop’s charm and to really bring home the theme of books and writing. One of these projects is the…
The Writers Mural by Peter Dodd. I’ll include a picture of this as one of the newsletter bonuses this time around and a link to the mural n the show notes, but if you can picture in your head a mural featuring 33 authors from Charlotte Bronte to Salman Rushdie, Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde all hanging out. And as a very cute touch, the painting includes a few of the authors faithful companions. Okay, now that you’ve got authors and pets in your head, I want you to imagine the size of this thing because each author has been painted life-size, although a bit flatter than real life. Seriously, this thing is huge and complex. Work started in September 1999 and wasn’t complete until October 2001
But there’s one more claim to fame for Barter Books, and when I found this out, I couldn’t believe the luck of the Manleys. See, second hand bookshops can’t rely on people bringing in books to keep their shelves stocked. So how do secondhand booksellers get new, or well, old new material? They go to book swaps and book auctions. So the Manleys are out snagging some new stock at a book auction one day in 2000. They begin sifting through their purchases and they find a poster. It’s a rather striking red poster. They slip it out and see big white letters centered on the red background and topped off with a small crown. The words? “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Even if you know nothing of English history, you’re probably familiar with this sign because it has become insanely popular and is also the source for gobs of knock offs like Keep Calm and Eat a Cookie…excellent advice.
But the original phrase was a slogan from 1939 when a little something called the second world war was going on and the British were really having to maintain that stiff up lip to not break down in sheer terror as Germany bombed the daylights out of them. The Manleys quite liked their discovery, so they popped it in a frame and hung it in the shop. Well, the Manleys must have the midas touch when it comes to selling without trying because customers were soon were asking for copies. From that bargain bin discovery, the popularity of the sign’s simple design and the slogan soared.
As a little side note, for many years after the Manley’s find, it was thought their poster and maybe one other were the only ones left of the over 2 million that were printed during the war, but in 2012 another 15 were found and a few others have popped up since then. But still, the Manleys get credit for starting the Keep Calm craze.
Anyway, the shop also has a cozy cafe, features the works of several outstanding artists, and oh yeah, they have tons of books. If you do ever make it to Alnwick, the shop says it’s open 9 to 7 every day except for Xmas.
Thanks for listening everyone, I’ve got a little personal update coming up but I just wanted to let you know I really appreciate you taking time from your day to listen to my tales and if you haven’t already I would love it if you would subscribe to the show via your favorite podcast app, podchaser dot com or at the book owl podcast dot com slash subscribe. And, if you want to get more out of every episode, you can join the flock by signing up for the newsletter at the book owl podcast slash contact. As ever, all the links are in the show notes.
Cheers everyone, I’ll hoot at you next time!
As for my personal update, last week was Release Day for my book The Return of Odysseus. This is the final book in my historical fantasy series and I have to say, after 6 years since the start of this project, it’s really strange to have reached the end. I won’t go into the whole story of where the series began and the stumbling blocks along the way, but if you are interested in that I get a rather nostalgic on my writing blog and I’ve got the link to that post in the show notes.
Anyway, so what’s this book about? Well, as the tagline says, “The war may be over, but the fight for Osteria’s future has just begun.”
And here’s the description…
With the immortality of the gods resting in the hands of the titans, all of Osteria is at risk of annihilation. As their powers fail and their allies fall, the gods must put their trust in the unlikeliest of heroes in the unlikeliest of places.
As the weakened gods limp their way toward a final battle against the titans, one man simply wants to return home from the war in Demos. But getting home may just be the toughest challenge Odysseus has ever endured.
Captured by a vengeful foe who makes the brutality of war seem like child’s play, Odysseus faces torture, indignity, and despair. His only hope proves to be a cunning sorceress, but even she has tricks that keep Odysseusâ’s goals impossibly out of reach.
With Odysseus’s world about to fall apart, with Osteria teetering on the edge of ruin, and with titans on the verge of supremacy, can the gods band together and intervene before it’s too late?
For both gods and mortals, it’s a race against time for survival, for love, and for Osteria in this emotionally-charged final installment of the Osteria Chronicles.
If you’re interested in the book you can find it on most retailers, and if you haven’t started the series yet, Book One is always free on those same retailers. The links you need are in the show notes.
Okay, that’s it for me. Have a great couple weeks!
The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.
Theme Music “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License