Balancing the books for 21 years

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It falls most approprately under the category of famous last words - the customer who exited a fledgling Alnwick business in 1991 proclaiming: “I give it six months.”

Whether he came back or not is uncertain, but 21 years later and Barter Books in Alnwick is bigger and busier than ever.

In the last two decades, owners Mary and Stuart Manly have seen their dream become a reality, with six million visitors and counting passing through the doors of what used to be the town’s railway station.

It’s perhaps one of the most unexpected and fortuitous outcomes resulting from Beeching’s axe falling on the nation’s branch lines in 1968.

With the station no longer being used to ferry passengers between Alnmouth and Cornhill, the magnificent Victorian building - erected in 1887 - was turned over to commercial use.

By 1991, it was variously split between a car dealership, storage space and Stuart’s small-scale model manufacturing enterprise.

In Stuart’s words, however, the building itself was down on its luck. But Mary, a native of Missouri whom he had married two years earlier, had a brilliant idea.

“I was volunteering at Lindisfarne Castle at the time,” she said. “When I lived in New York City, I worked in a little second-hand antiquarian book shop and it made a big impression on me.

“I thought, why not open up a bookshop of my own? So I asked a colleague at Lindisfarne, who thought it was a good idea.”

Mary brought the idea to her husband, who was persuaded to turn over some of his space at the station.

“We had what is now the front room,” said Stuart. “In fact, for about the first year, we only used about three-quarters of it. But people came, so we went hell-for-leather to expand and in the following year we had opened up a second room. It was then quite clear that our future was in books.”

But what has continued to make Barter Books stand out from other second-hand sellers is its continual adaptation over the ensuing years – which Stuart puts down to Mary’s perpetual flurry of ideas and sheer creative flair.

She, on the other hand, refers to Stuart’s head for business and solid accounting skills.

“We’re so lucky to have a partnership which is built on strengths and weaknesses which almost perfectly counterbalance each other,” says Mary. “It just works so well for us.”

A major coup for the couple came in 2000, when Stuart chanced upon a little-known poster from the late 1930s in a box of books he’d bought at auction. It read ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

A year later, following massive demand from customers, the store began to sell copies of the iconic red and white notice - something which made Barter Books a global phenomenon.

And as the years have passed, the store has crept further into the back of the building. Space had become so tight that Mary had to do office work from home. And on top of that, she wanted to add a buffet to the business.

“I knew there was no space for one,” she said. “But then our shop manager, David Champion, found me a room, which had been closed off since 1968. “The only problem was that the access door wasn’t in our part of the station.

“David had been looking for extra office space, but when I saw the beautiful skylight I knew that this would be the buffet I’d wanted for so long.”

Access was gained by creating an archway through from the shop side, which was rebuilt by a master mason in the exact style of the original building.

That was three years ago and there have since been as many extensions to the buffet, which does a roaring trade.

But there have been challenges along the way, not least the arrival of books to download in electronic format.

The Manleys are unperturbed, however.

“All we can do is strive to go forward and maintain our quality,” says Stuart.

Mary added: “There’s something magical about books.

“Books operated by batteries don’t appeal to me.”