Hello Book Nerds of Bloglandia!

Oops, with all the excitement (read: self-promotion posts) around my latest book release, our poor little Book Owl got left all alone in his nest.

And believe me, I got quite the beak-ful about being so late with this month’s silly dive into book-related history. He may look cute, but that Book Owl has certainly got the surly tongue on him!

So, without further delay, let’s get our tickets punched, find our seats, and ride the rails to Barter Books….where trains & books collide. Not literally…I hope.

Now, if you’ve no idea what this Book Owl thing is all about…

(if you do know, just keep scrolling to get to the good stuff!)

Every second week of the month (or so), I’m repurposing some entertaining (and hopefully humorous) tidbits of book-related history.

These tidbits originally appeared on my podcast (The Book Owl Podcast). I loved doing the podcast, but I was losing out on far too much writing time to keep it up.

But, since there really was a ton of good stuff in those episodes, I’ve decided it’s time to recycle the Book Owl (do NOT attempt with real owls) by sharing the content with you in blog post form.

*I would share the audio portion, but those old recordings have a lot of book news and shout outs that are now far out of date, so I figured just the written side of things would be better for recycling.

If you’d like to catch up, you can do just that….

The Book Owl Podcast delights your inner book nerd and feeds your reading addiction with everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about books.

Delivered with plenty of light humor, each episode spins tales of tantalizing tomes to luscious libraries, and literary lore to quirky bookstores.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what book will kill you, whether dogs read, or why a bookstore has a train running through it, it’s time to get caught in The Book Owl’s beak.

The Book Owl Podcast, we give a hoot for book nerds.

But enough with the introductions and explanations, the conductor is beckoning us on board!

On this visit from the Book Owl 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.

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). in the special, she made all kinds of rail journeys across England and made a special effort to ride 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.

All Aboard Barter Books!

All right. Got your tea bags steeping? Good, because today we’re heading off to Jolly Olde England to go book shopping….in a train station.

Wait. 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.

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.

A little thing called the Industrial Revolution happened

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.

Which begs the question of….Why did it need to be so big?

If you’re a duke, size does matter

Well Alnwick just happened to have a castle where the Duke of Northumberland spent some time.

Now, our Duke wasn’t up in Northern England, lurking 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.

Which is why 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.

From train station to The British Library of secondhand bookshops

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.

Today, 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.

Book nerds meet train nerds

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.

The Writers’ Mural

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 don’t want to infringe on any copyrights, so if you want to see the mural pop over to THIS LINK when you’ve got time. But for now, just imagine 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 wait, there’s more!

There’s yet another claim to fame for Barter Books, and when I found this out, I couldn’t believe the luck of the Manleys.

See, secondhand bookshops can’t rely entirely 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.”

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 upper 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. Still, the Manleys get full credit for starting the Keep Calm craze.

Anyway, in addition to trains, murals, and catchy red signs, Barter Books also has a cozy cafe, features others works by several outstanding artists, and oh yeah, they have tons of books.

If you do ever make it to Alnwick, the shop’s website says it’s open 9 to 7 every day except for Xmas.

Okay, that’s it for me. Chip chip cheery-o!

Do you have a favorite, historic bookstore? Have you ever been to Barter Books? Any unique features of your local bookshops? Pop a comment in the box below!

Hoot at you soon!



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Speaking of bookstores…be sure to check out my humorous novella,

The Unwanted Inheritance of the Bookman Brothers

Wills often come with unexpected surprises. This one especially so.

Read a sample and discover where to get your copy!!

Reggie and Enton Bookman have just inherited their grandfather’s bookshop. The place is profitable, well-loved by the community, and situated in a lively shopping district.

But the Bookman brothers want nothing to do with it. After all, who in the world would want to waste their time around books when they could sell the place, pocket a few million, and experience VIP airport lounges and first-class flights?

With such a hot property, selling it should be easy, right?

Not when every scheme the brothers come up with to rid themselves of the shop hits obstacle after obstacle. 

And the more time Enton spends in the shop, the more he starts to believe it’s not just bad luck thwarting their efforts.

If you believe in the magic of books and enjoy a bit of humor with your magical realism, you’ll love the exploits of the Bookman brothers.

Read a sample and discover where to get your copy!!

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