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The Secondhand Book Shop

Updated on May 22, 2012
Barter Books, Alnwick: the main room.
Barter Books, Alnwick: the main room. | Source
Barter Books, Alnwick: the first room that you see as you step through the front door.
Barter Books, Alnwick: the first room that you see as you step through the front door. | Source
Barter Books, Alnwick: I love the painted signage on the bookcases.
Barter Books, Alnwick: I love the painted signage on the bookcases.
The view from the road.  At the end of the road where we stayed - how delicious?
The view from the road. At the end of the road where we stayed - how delicious? | Source
Just a sample of the choice delights you might see in Barter Books, Alnwick.
Just a sample of the choice delights you might see in Barter Books, Alnwick. | Source

Something special ...

I have just been on holiday, and while I was away I discovered something amazing, something that in three years of holidaying in the same area I cannot believe I have never discovered before. And more than that, something that exists in my home town, but which I have never visited.

The secondhand book shop. (I wondered about how to write that: second hand bookshop, secondhand bookshop? But the bookshop is not secondhand, nor does it sell second hands. It is the books themselves that the word 'book' refers to, and not to the shop. Neither does any of this have anything to do with clock faces. Well I'm not sure what the correct way is, so I've gone with secondhand book shop, which I hope is okay for you.)

It's a place that, when you step through its doors, makes something happen to you. Something alters in your physiology, so that every cell in your body is instantaneously in tune with your olfactory functions and your aural workings. This place has a special kind of smell that's unique to the treasures it offers for sale - you'll find no library in the world that smells quite the same (that's possibly a lie: obviously I have not been to all of the libraries in the world). You can smell dust that you dare to believe may be centuries old, and that may contain the ghosted skin cells of the early Georgian lady upon whose copy of Pepys's Diary they fell, and upon whose Restoration bookcase Pepys reposed for several decades (I can make good use of free online encyclopaedic sites, oh yes) until her death, at which time Pepys was passed down for five or six generations until he came to rest in the attic of the great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of said Georgian lady. (We may as well continue with the journey of Pepys, since we've come so far.) Pepys slept in the attic, completely undisturbed for one hundred years, the house changing hands only three times in those decades. At the end of the hundred years a princess hauled herself up into the attic to see if there was anything half-decent that she might be able to flog on the carboot sale. She uncovered the dusty box of books tucked away in a dry corner wherein lay Pepys and his companions, coated in a thick covering of the Georgian lady's skin cells. The princess brushed most of the cells onto the floor, and inhaled a few, and blew many more into the air as she coughed and sneezed. Eventually she carted the book box out of the attic and out of the house, and round the corner to Barter Books, since she thought she'd get more for them there than at the carboot, trading them in for a few quid and a good copy of My Story So Far By Katey Pryce, by Ghost Wryter.

That's what you smell when you step into Barter Books, of Alnwick, Northumberland, or indeed any good secondhand book shop. Slightly different versions of the same story are available at other shops across the country (and no doubt, the world).

What you hear are the books themselves telling these stories, as well as the stories they were printed to tell. Barter Books sell newer books, of course, thousands of them, but that's not what we're interested in. We're interested in the locked glass-fronted cabinets where the first editions sleep, the books that we cannot afford. We're interested in the tiny leather-bound treasures that hide, blushing, between larger and newer paperbacked bestsellers. We're interested in the whole shelves and shelves and shelves of beautifully bound and beautifully battered beauties that are The Classics. Austen, Dickens, Conrad, Thackeray, Wycherley, Eliot (George), Shakespeare, Sheridan (some of my classics; we all prefer different authors), and all of these could be found in the most delightful collection of similarly bound books in the Everyman Library (I am now a collector of books from the Everyman Library).

I entered this hallowed place and felt my voice and my breath catch in my throat. As I wandered, carefully, slowly, I repressed the urge to run gleefully up and down every aisle until I might fall, exhausted, but happy, at the feet of the bookcase containing something very special. No, I was patient, yet I was expectant; I knew that some of my new best and most loyal friends were waiting here for me, and had possibly been waiting, gathering skin cells, for a very long time. How thrilling!

After a few minutes of wandering I did allow myself to pick up a book. It was sitting patiently in the children's section, smiling up at me, impossible to resist. It wore a dulled red leather jacket, bearing a flag of the British Isles and the delicious words that promised something wonderful, The Empire's Children. I creaked the book open sedulously and held it close to my face, so that I could inhale a little of its dusty scent (it's got to be done, don't wrinkle your nose in disgust). The way I decide whether or not a book is for me may differ from the way you decide. With the greatest of care I turn to a page roughly in the middle of the book, and glance at a sentence or two. If they seem readable - in other words, not too clever for me - then I will find the first page proper and begin to read. I cannot tell why I do this; perhaps because in the past I have been disappointed by a book with a first line that promised so much, but this is what I do. The Empire's Children, the first book I picked up, was readable, it had a wonderful first line, and was tantalisingly split into chapters containing stories about children from different countries within the British Empire. It became the first book on the 'yes' pile. I moved on.

But I had not moved far when I spotted something by Archibald Marshall, joy of joys! A book I had never heard of, by an author I had likewise never known: the title was Simple People, and those delightful two words caught my attention. Oh, I just cannot tell you the raptures I enjoyed when I opened at a page that had on it an illustration - pictures by George Morrow - of a man sitting down to tea in front of an open fire with his wife. Simple line drawings, to illustrate the simple occupations of simple people. But the drawings were imbued with such personality and gentle humour to make me need to find out more about them, that this book had to be the next on the 'yes' pile.

And so on it went. I picked up old battered book after old smelly book, the 'yes' pile growing taller and more unstable all the while. What could I do, since this Aladdin's cave was not in my home town? I would not be able to come back and buy treats another time.

In truth, I had four visits to this treasure trove. I intended to visit only once, but it cast such a spell over me that I could not resist making excuses to nip down the road and into the temple of books to turn a quick five minute peek into an hour and a half of frantic searching; searching for what, I was never quite sure, but found it I did, in several colours, sizes and conditions.

The real gems, which I must just tell you about before I finish, were part of a beautiful set of works by William Makepeace Thackeray, one of my very favourite authors. I found them on my final two days in Alnwick. Anything bound in green caught my eye - which is how I ended up with a pretty set of Shakespeare's works, published by the Everyman Library - and these pretty little British-racing leather-bound jewels had a teensy bit of gilding still intact which just happened to reflect a single shaft of brilliant sunlight as it pierced an unnoticed high window precisely at the moment I walked past.* I picked up the book that had almost blinded me, and a smile warmed me from my top to my toes as I felt the soft, soft leather, beautifully yielding to my touch. But the best was yet to come: when I opened the book for my first look at the inside, oh my, such a crinkling and a crackling, you would not believe. I put my ear close to the book and gazed out of a lower window as I turned a few more pages, listening intently, shutting out all other sounds save for the delicate crisping of the feathery leaves of the book in my hands - only onomatopoeic words beginning in 'cr' can truly describe the sound that these beautiful books make: you can almost hear them saying 'cr, cr, cr, cr' in their papery voices. But here are some pictures that might help: they sound like real wood fires, winter nights, ladies in thick woolen skirts knitting socks, hats and scarves; they sound like mulled wine, roast dinners, good brandy, smoking jackets, mantelpieces, black and white photographs; they sound like horse-drawn ploughshares, home-grown winter vegetables, festive garlands of holly and fir, and laughter amid the tinkling of fine crystal goblets. I bought these books - how could I not - and several more besides, handing over a small fortune with barely a second thought. I had no regrets, because, although I could not afford the books, they will bring me happiness for a very long time to come, and will be loyal and true friends for the rest of my life. A small price to pay for such a gift to oneself, no?

The secondhand book shop. How will I ever pass one by again?

* That didn't really happen, except in my head. Actually I was just scouring a particular shelf for something old-looking.


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    • cre8ivOne profile image

      cre8ivOne 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      No worries Linda!

      I am glad you saw the comment, that's the most important thing. I look forward to you checking out some of my hubs as well. :)

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 5 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      Sorry cre8ivOne, for not responding to your lovely comment sooner. It's been a while since I've been on the Hub. Thank you though. I want to get back into hubbing again, and part of that will involve reading the work of others. I will pop over to your profile soon and take a look at your work.

      Thanks again.


    • cre8ivOne profile image

      cre8ivOne 5 years ago from Midwest, USA

      What a find! I like your writing style, a lot! The visuals you create are multi-dimensional and the interjected candor of your thoughts is delightful. :)

    • Perry the Cat profile image

      Perry the Cat 6 years ago from Mouskin, Texas

      maybe second-hand book shop

    • profile image

      writeronline 6 years ago

      LW, OK, so first off, this beautiful, stylish and evocative piece of writing (sorry, deja vu.. ;) is even more powerful on my now fourth reading. It's got layers and textures that gradually reveal with each new read, so it's like the books themselves - much more than just the written words.

      Second, I don't leave gratuitous comments, if I don't really like something I don't comment at all. But if I do, I try to offer something that adds a little to the hub itself.

      But all I could offer to this, is praise.

      I don't have even a fraction of the literary knowledge you've woven into the story, so can't comment on any matters of detail, or accuracy.

      I do know, from a working life spent in advertising, about the need to write with emotion and flow and flair. How vital those elements are to attracting and holding a reader, and yet, in so much of what we read these days, distressingly rare.

      Which is really the point. Quality has value. Rarity has value. Emotion can’t be quantified. That's why I suggested you sell the article, it has a value beyond money, but not one you can bank. I don’t know the magazines of which you speak, but from their titles, I assume they’re specialist mags, maybe like the LRB? If so, maybe you’d prefer ‘being in that company’, to selling your work for actual money.

      That’s your business entirely, but from a commercial point of view, it seems to me that this article has the potential to provide the centre-point around which consumer magazines, Sunday newspapers, national and regional booksellers could build Christmas features, reminding us everyday people of the intrinsic magic of ‘the book’. And how appropriate it is, and always has been as an enduring, personalised gift. (Can’t imagine anyone in the year 2070 waxing lyrical about a recent holiday involving the discovery of well-thumbed old-age Kindles...can you?)

      That’s all a bit crass and commercial I know, but if you’re going to sell the story, why not sell it high? If it were me, I’d be finding someone to pitch it to at The National Booksellers Association (or whatever it’s called), where it could be bought once, and disseminated widely for use by any and all ‘Bookseller Association Members’ putting Christmas promotions together. Even online ones... :)

      If they can’t see its power and relevance, or don’t wanna pay, sell it to the Sundays. They tend not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

      Best of luck.

      PS. NB: Before you start the pitching / selling process, be sure and take this Hub down. You're selling an original article about secondhand books, but you won't get real money for a *secondhand* article about secondhand books...

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 6 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      INFJay, Indigital, writeronline, Angie, Queenpoetica (Mum!), Will, Ian, Chris and Elizabeth,

      Thank you all for reading my hub, and for taking the time to comment. I so pleased to get this bagful of comments, because I was quite proud of this hub (if I do say so myself!). I'm glad you all liked it enough to tell me what you thought, and what it made you think of particularly.

      writeronline - serious question, do you see anything in this hub that needs some attention, some sorting out, some fixing? Because I've taken your comment seriously, you see (you may have been joking, just buttering me up so that I'd look at your hubs and leave OTT comments! - you'd be quite right to, of course, I don't comment on the work of others enough), and have been looking into places to send it for possible publication. I've decided to send it to Mslexia, the only magazine that I subscribe to, because they do welcome submissions. I'd thought about sending it to Intelligent Life, but they don't seem to like unsolicited articles, and I didn't want to annoy them by not playing by the rules. If Mxlexia don't want it then I might try IL anyway - you may not know either of these magazines, sorry! But I didn't want to send it if it had some major flaws in it that I hadn't spotted. So any advice and criticism would be greatly appreciated, from anyone who cares to help. Ian, Angie, Will, Chris and Mum - you're all great writers (not to say that the rest of your are not: I just don't know you as well yet!) and know what you're talking about. Be brutal, and tell me anything you didn't like about this little essay.

      Ta mates,


    • elizabethmcgriff profile image

      elizabethmcgriff 6 years ago from South Alabama

      Great story! I was transported. There is a great shop in New Orleans called the Librarie Bookshop that I visit every chance I get. Your hub conjured sights and smells as well as some of the classics. Thank you

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      What a fantasy. I love old books myself, especially old schoolbooks.

      Thanks for that excellent hub Linda.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Linda, a lovely, evocative hub. I would just like to wander around in there, and your writing was so capable that I felt that I had already.

      What is there about opening a second-hand book for the first time?

      I love it and as soon as I do I immediately wonder who read it last and whether it was a well loved book that had been passed down and then passed on, or a present

      "To Dear Aunt Elise, I love this book, I hope you do too, form Elizabeth"

      and Auntie Elise never bothered to read it because...

      Thank you Linda, I loved it.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Very well written! Up and awesome.

    • profile image

      Queenpoetica 6 years ago

      As i've been thete in that actual book shop, i was delighted to revisit it through your hub. It truly is wonderous. There's no kindle or any other technological piece of technology that could evoke the same feelings that thousands of musty books can. I wouldn't enjoy searching on line for old books. Like you, i have a ritual that helps me to buy books, feeling and sniffing my way into their leaves. I agree with writeronline - you should be paid for this and it should be published world wide. You have written it so beautiful and have missed nothing out.

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 6 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi LW - I WANT ONE!

      It's not fair ... that wonderful bookshop is at the other end of the country from me ... I want to sit on that squashy sofa in front of the fire and read ... now look what you've done. ; )

      Super hub ... I was right there with you ... spending money I couldn't really afford to spend.

    • profile image

      writeronline 6 years ago

      LW, I just tweeted this as well: "Take a trip into the extra-sensory world that separates the Book from the Kindle."


    • profile image

      writeronline 6 years ago

      OK, so first off, this beautiful, stylish and evocative piece of writing pressed all my buttons, so I just pressed all yours. Including 'funny' because that's the nearest available button for "I like the easy elegance and subtle wit that pervades the writing". If there was a 'smells good' button, I'd have pressed that too.(A bit OTT? Sorry. Maybe I should audition for a gig as an article reviewer..).

      Second, if the book trade is ready to recognise their desperate need for a compelling piece of lyricsm, (vs advertising), in support and defence of the enduring extra-sensory power of the printed word in book form, over the fleeting flutter of the emotionless form that is the e-reader, they should pay you royally for the rights to this article. And publish it everywhere.

      I don't have that many HP followers, but I'm going to share this with them. I know there are several who will be every bit as impressed as I am. With the story, the substance, and the style.

      Loved it.

    • profile image

      Indigital 6 years ago

      It's like heaven to my eyes! Which sounds unbelievably sad, but true. I wish I had one in my local area, I'm lucky the library is still standing.

    • INFJay profile image

      Jay Manriquez 6 years ago from Santa Rosa, California

      A small price indeed! What a wonderful hub and adventure - Thanks.


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