Mary Manley, Barter Books and Mantras

So, day one of my very first literary festival up in Berwick… and my first as a festival blogger. Score out of ten so far? Ten. The festival’s twitter account describes it correctly… it is small and friendly, with the bonus of not being in a tent and being in a historic walled town. I’ll add: with winding alleyways, stylish shops and cosy cafés. And the festival is  very well organised. The steering group and organisers should feel proud. The Anchorage Guest House, where I’m staying, is welcoming too –  thank you Sandra and Ian. But that’s for another blog one day on lush guest houses.

I’ve just come away from the venue across the Tweed in Spittal, where Torben Betts asked the question: What the hell makes me do this? He meant about the craft of writing for stage and screen. More on him in my next blog. Earlier though I was at Mary Manley’s talk in the Holy Trinity Parish Centre, about her second-hand bookshop – Barter Books, in Alnwick. I get the feeling she and her husband probably asked something similar to Torben, while first setting up Barter Books, in an old Victorian railway station, back in 1991, with a huge overdraft and a hyper- ventilating bank manager. I could provide you with more facts about her, but Wikipedia would do a better job. Plus, I blogged the other week about Mary and Stuart and their bookshop… have a look at Bookworm Heaven on this website. What I want to give you here, with all of my festival blogs, is what Wikipedia or the flyers don’t tell you. I want to tell their story.  Tell you what you missed out on.

Mary Manley, an American, came to England with failed jobs and relationships behind her (her words). She then found herself living in Alnwick, with an English husband and her life quietly ticking over volunteering on Holy Island. But she had an obsession… books. And once that comes in to play, then everything’s to play for. As she was driving up to work one day, a kernel of an idea sprouted… the desire to open her own second-hand bookshop. Her husband had his own business, the acumen and the canny but ethical knowledge about profit margins, so he was the ideal partner for this venture. However, Mary had the imagination, the empathy, an eye for detail and the previous experience of having worked in an antiquated bookshop in Greenwich Village, New York. At this point she had me… I could see old books, yellow taxis, pretzel sellers, deep snow, mugs of coffee… I just needed Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks to rock up to the Parish Centre to complete the image.

The enthusiasm from Mary was palpable as she carried on describing those early years setting the bookshop up. Her pride and delight at what they both have achieved came across. And they should be proud… it is now one of the biggest second-hand bookshops in Europe, with the cheapest book being sold for only 30p and the most expensive £38k. She relayed all the pitfalls and perks along the way. Pitfalls such as dealing with: breast cancer; a twitchy bank manager; a bid for the station once they had moved in; sexism and that glass ceiling and ironically… not much time to read books due to the stresses and time spent on the shop. Not easy, but anything worth doing usually isn’t.

Perks include: book auctions and the thrill of the book chase; realising three 40ft murals in the shop; meeting famous authors and not so famous ones. In fact, people seem to be at the core, Mary doesn’t see tourists visiting Alnwick, she sees people coming to browse and barter and buy. Her guiding mantra is – What would I want? Would I like this? If you haven’t been you must visit, there are comfy nooks and crannies to sit in, coal fires, a café,  dogs lazing around and books and books and books! At the last count, half a million books.

Mary spoke of the good luck that has graced their life too. That is not to be taken lightly; I believe a positive mind-set engenders good things to happen and it keeps growing – the good luck tree. However, the hard work over the past 26 years and perseverance is not to be air-brushed. I saw a quotation on Instagram today; If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. That seems to be Mary and Stuart’s mantra.

The media’s mantra appears to be – The printed book is dead. Mary is dismissive of that, saying Barter Books has had its best year ever this year and figures show paper books have out sold e-books this year. As I stated in Bookworm Heaven: research out recently claims that the smell of old, second-hand books releases endorphins. You see, I knew books are good for us, and in more ways than one. Books, words, and language… open doors, lift us up, give us joy, bind us.

The mantra: Like What You Do – is a lesson to us all and Mary and Stuart are an example. So, I’m going to carry on relishing this weekend of books, words, laughs, writing and backstories… that’s what I like doing.  Hope you do too.

Wendy Errington

Geordie girl who loves words and being creative