Barred by Barter Books!

I spend a lot of my time on this blog writing about my adventures in book shops, but my local bookshop is the behemoth that is ‘Barter Books’ in Alnwick, housed in a Victorian railway station and one of the town’s main tourist draws. Needless to say, I’ve had a bit of a strained relationship with the shop (I’ve been going in there for over two decades). My disillusionment with the shop began before the spike in tourism to the area, it began when I was told that I was bringing in books that required specialist attention and as such I was going to be rationed to one lot of books per month, instead of week as it applies to any other member of the public.

Maybe I should explain – Barter Books operates a bartering system whereby people bring in their old books and the shop appraises them and offers them shop credit in return. It’s a nice idea in theory, but in practice rather imperfect. But the purpose of my blog today is not to give the shop any more publicity, but to show you simply how draconian they are should you dare to voice your dissatisfaction. A couple of weeks ago I wrote this review, on Google reviews, and posted it under my own name because I don’t hide behind pseudonyms. I gave the shop a three star rating and followed it up with this review:

I live just around the corner from Barter Books and I’m forever having to fend off people saying that I’m so lucky to do so. Sure, I go in here regularly but that’s only because it’s close and the North East of England is so lacking in secondhand bookshops. I can’t believe that in a large University city like Newcastle there is really only the Amnesty Bookshop on Westgate Rd!

Anyway, I’ve been going to Barter Books for over two decades and I do use their barter system – bringing in my old books in exchange for credit. But it’s all rather like a Victorian miner getting tokens for the company store. The books in the shop are extremely expensive to account for this unusual system, but rarely are you given anything near half (or even quarter) the shop value in credit. The last lot of books I took in I got £60 credit for, and the ones they listed online (not all of them) came to over £400. This is not to say they’ll ever see that £400, but that’s still a hefty mark up considering no money is changing hands, only barter credit.

The other issue is that if you bring in books of genuine interest or value, they are often sent to a ‘valuer’ (who in effect looks them up online). This service takes longer and when the shop is busy (as it always is now) it causes frustration to the staff. As such, I am limited to bringing in one box of books a month, whereas any other member of the public can bring in a box of anything (from Readers Digest / Book Club Editions etc) once a week without any problem. As regards staff, some are utterly lovely, but considering the shop has 50+ employees, there are a few attitudinal ones as well.

Because the shop has a bartering system (and I accept this is one of its main ‘USPs’) it means that they have an enormous pool of people with barter books accounts full of credit just waiting for a book to come in to pounce on and spend it on. As such, anything really rare or unusual often comes straight in and out of the shop and anything popular has a short shelf life too. In effect, you end up with an immense bookshop with over quarter of a million books, a lot of which are hard to sell, outmoded and stick around for ages.

The shop is also what you’d call a classic case of a ‘victim of its own success’, it is rarely a relaxing experience now to go in there, as there is a constant flood of visitors at all hours, in all weathers. Also, their laissez-faire, live and let live attitude regarding dogs has meant that a lot of the time dogs outnumber humans in the shop (and Northumbrian weather is often a bit dreich and rain and wet dogs indoors are not always a winning combination).

A lot of the people reviewing Barter Books on here will see it as charmed tourists, who visit for the day then leave. People like myself who live locally often have a rather different experience. I still use the shop regularly, but it is mostly now as a means of recycling books I’ve read and no longer have shelf space for, in the hope that I’ll find something to spend my credit on, rather than a recreational activity in its own right (which it really should be).

Conceptually and aesthetically, it’s a grand place, but in practice it leaves a fair bit to be desired.

Two weeks later I got this letter in the post (apologies for the blurriness):


If this is my reward for simply writing an honest, and not even particularly harsh review, it begs the question ‘Why even have a reviewing system, if you are going to penalise people for being critical?’



George Ramsden (1953-2019): Gentleman bookseller

In King’s Bookshop, in Callander, there’s some gilt writing on the shop window that boasts ‘It’s why you’re here!’. While this might not be the truth for some tourists passing by, it’s certainly the case for me that the only reason I want to go to Callander is to visit that bookshop. The same sentiment applies (or applied, rather) to George Ramsden‘s elegantly cluttered bookshop in Fossgate, York. On the extremely rare occasions I found myself in York, I was always heading for George’s ‘Stone Trough Books‘ – it was why I was there. The other bookshops in York are all rather predictable in terms of dull stock and bullish pricing, but George always seemed to come up with the goods, the better books with fascinating provenance and ex-libris plates, and his pricing was a very personal and emotional thing – not merely dictated by the internet.

The very lamentable fact is that George took his own life in April this year after enduring bipolar depression for a long time. I was never a friend of his (I only found out about his death, now in November, by accident), but on the handful of visits I’d made to his shop in recent years, he remembered me and with each visit, our conversations got longer, more revealing and meaningful. He reprimanded me in jest once for never having read anything by Anthony Powell, nor caring for anything written by Powell.

The most upsetting thought is that my last visit to the shop was just in March this year and he outwardly seemed much the same as before, same old tweedy jacket and threadbare (probably Jermyn St) double-cuff but uncufflinked shirt. I spent my usual hour or so in the shop but struggled (for once) to find much to buy until George recalled that he had a signed copy of a Sydney Goodsir Smith book in a cabinet downstairs. It turned out to be a spectacularly drunken, funny and effusive inscription, so I bought the book on the spot. George seemed a bit surprised at how pleased the book had made me, as if it had found its most sympathetic ’emptor’. When I left he made sure that he had my contact details noted correctly, because he was working on a new catalogue. This catalogue was finished two days before his death and has been published by London bookseller James Fergusson as a memento of Ramsden, who took inordinate time and care in making some beautiful book catalogues, such as one of AJA Symons, which is an essential addition to any Symons or Corvo collection. It was from George that I bought a copy of the first edition of Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, signed in beautiful cursive hand by the author. I was already an inveterate bibliophile before I read it, but it triggered my interest in collecting Corvo, as it must have done for legions of readers.

But the fact that at the time of my final visit he must have been struggling with immense burdens was not apparent to me. He seemed subdued and a little terse (a cliche, but ‘still waters running deep’ is the impression I got), but then he always had been (with me, at least). I’ve read a few obituaries for George and I’m struck by how many describe him as rather gruff or forbidding, and that his shop was some sort of ‘anti-bookshop’. I don’t recognise these depictions of him or his shop. The relationship between bookseller and customer is always a professional and financial one, but there are a small band of truly great booksellers who make you feel like an acquaintance, simply by remembering your name and your interests and engaging in some bookish talk with you. George was certainly in that latter camp. His death diminishes an already endangered world where secondhand or antiquarian booksellers care about something other than merely profit margins and still soldier on, trying to eke out a subsistence existence in order to be close to what they love. I think that’s it – that’s what distinguishes an average bookseller from a great one – the love of literature and the love of the book. George Ramsden was imbued with these very qualities, and I will very much miss him and his shop.  

He can be seen here (though, regrettably, largely unheard), in his natural habitat, in the first fifteen minutes of this interesting (if rather self-important!) short documentary called ‘An American Bookman in England‘.


Doing a Bernard Black

I don’t think I’ve ever made any secret of the fact that I love (esp. second-hand) bookshops and I know that, alongside proper pubs, they’re a curious institution that is under threat and needs our support these days.

But there does seem to have been a bit of a breakdown in relations between the owners and workers in these shops and the members of the public who patronise them. Maybe it began with Dylan Moran’s very funny Black Books sit-com, set in an elegantly faded London bookshop with a less than elegantly wasted and grumpy owner, Bernard Black. I doubt it, I think Moran merely bottled, or tapped into something that had always been there.

Second-hand booksellers are a beleaguered species – they’re up against the ruthless might and avarice of the online giants but they’re not trying to win our affections, at least not quickly. It’s taken me many years to get on first name terms with a lot of booksellers, and that’s after spending hundreds of pounds in their shops. There is now even a humorous sub-genre of journal-like books written by bookshop owners who have observed the endlessly baffling weirdness of the vagaries of their customers. First there was Jen Campbell’s series Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and now we have two instalments of Shaun Bythell’s diaries as a bookseller and owner of ‘The Bookshop’ in Wigtown.

The sad fact is that I suspect that Bythell will be making more money through these two ‘bestseller’ books than he has done trying to peddle second-hand or antiquarian books for many years. Compared with Bythell’s ‘year in the life of a bookseller’ approach, Campbell’s admittedly funny series, is rather shown up as perhaps being a little contrived, or maybe embellished – the anecdotes are simply too polished and bizarre. Bythell’s by contrast are more believable and curmudgeonly, showing us that there’s ‘nowt a queer as folk’. But if he takes the piss, affectionately or otherwise, out of his customers, who does he expect will read his own books? Maybe you read them thinking to yourself, ‘well at least I’m not one of those’ but the truth is the Bernard Black attitude will do its best to make you one of the legion of annoying time wasters.

I’ve been to ‘The Bookshop’ in Wigtown about four times over the years, being where it is, it’s almost impossible to reach from Northumberland, about a round trip of eight to ten hours. I did once try to buy a book from the shop over the phone – a signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sorley MacLean’s great poem ‘Hallaig’. It was listed at (I think £150), and the attitude was one of someone being massively put out. I was told they’d phone once the book was tracked down. No phone call ever came. I bought an unsigned copy a couple of years later for £15 from Last Century Books in Innerleithen.

I don’t think I’ve unwittingly given him any material for his books in my encounters with him, and I did buy a number of books each time, but I do recall him being prickly in general. Again, this is no personal criticism of Bythell – this seems to be the default defensively haughty mode of most booksellers. Perhaps they become inured against customers from years in the trade and having to put up with a lot of bollocks in general. Years ago, I was in Armchair Books in Edinburgh when I realised that a number of books in stock had belonged to the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith. At that time a lot of rather toffee-nosed Edinburgh students were employed in the shop. I went up to them to ask if they’d seen any other books in the shop with this signature of these initials in, to which they actually snorted with laughter. They were thrilled because I’d given them license to go into ‘Bernard Black’ mode. ‘It’s not our policy, har har har, to memorise the names in all of our books, har har har’. I did bite back and say it was their loss, because they should be aware of famous associations, because that’s where a lot of a value in a book lies.

The treatment of customers in bookshops is merely a symptom of a larger issue that I’ve noticed – in any public space that is set up for cultural or intellectual reasons, there’s this off-putting ‘de haut en bas’ attitude of those in charge. You’re more likely to be treated with a modicum of friendliness or politeness in a pub than you are in somewhere more highbrow, like a bookshop or an arts centre / hub. I’m a book collector with a literature PhD, and I’ve often been made to feel small or stupid or not worthy in these places, asking perfectly reasonable questions. I will say that via a war of attrition after many years of going back to the same shop, most booksellers open up as genuinely lovely and friendly people, others are resolutely disagreeable, even if you buy a £200 book off them. But please don’t try to be Bernard Black – it’s funny when Dylan Moran does it, tiresome when anyone else does.