Buy the Book: Part 2 – Keep Calm and Curate

I’ve been on a book tour of sorts. Someone (in fact a lot of people) said that their favourite book stores were alive and well despite the Amazon apocalypse, so I went out to find them. Last time I was in Hay-on-Wye, where I found an entire village of bookstores. This week my adventure continues north. 

Meet the ruthless curator

My trip through the UK was beginning to enlighten me. I suspected that ‘experience’ had a lot to do with the success of retail, and clearly this was something that savvy bookshop owners had cottoned on to. I had a few more stops to make on my travels to validate this, so further north to Inverness I went, deep into the Scottish Highlands.

Leakey’s Second-Hand Bookshop is situated in a beautiful old church by the river in the middle of Inverness. The experience walking in is familiar, the smell of old paper pages flushing over you as you enter, carried by the warm air from the massive wood burner fireplace in the middle of what was once the nave of the church. Every other space was filled with books.

Where once the faithful used to sit facing the pulpit with a single book in their hands, today they wander around two floors of books stacked high. A circular central staircase spirals up to the balcony level, and in the pulpit stands not the priest but Charles Leakey, battling with some cardboard and packing tape. He was packing an order of books for one of their most devout patrons. Charles is well known for his ability to locate all manner of unique books.

The fireplace itself appears to be located precariously close to stacks of old flammable books. It grumbles warmly to itself, snacking on what I hope is just wood or coal and not the unworthy books Charles needed to dispose of.

“Isn’t it dangerous to have an open flame in the middle of a bookshop? Or is that where you burn the books you don’t like?” I ask grinning thinking I am somewhat clever and original.

“If I hear that question one more time I may go mad,” Charles groans. 

“I should make a sign,” he continues, “You would be surprised to know that everyone asks me that. It drives me crazy.” I quickly drop the grin and carry on with my questions.

“Have you always wanted to open a bookstore in a church?”

Charles is a tall grey man, who reminds me almost of a holy man, not that there is a stereotypical look or anything. There is just a certain aura — a calmness — about him. Perhaps it’s because we are standing in an old church. He goes on to explain the history of the bookstore.

The church is not where Leakey’s began. His first store was the front room of his flat, where people would stumble through and browse a very few select books in the tiny space. His store became increasingly popular and from there he grew his business, upgrading to a bigger store three times, but it was when he found the church that he decided this would be the final perfect home of Leakey’s. 

“Who are your customers?”

“Well, everyone — some people discover the store when visiting Inverness, some people hear about us. Some people know we curate books, so they come because we can help them with their particular collection.” Curation definitely appeared to be a thing in the store, with carefully-considered and appropriately-labelled sections. 

“Some people collect certain subject areas, you know. I have a couple of customers who are keen on miniature books. I have a couple of customers who are interested in collecting books with wooden covers. You know, a whole range of interests.”

“How do you pick all the books here?” I ask, wanting to learn more about Charles’ curation techniques.

“Well the most important thing is to only let in the books people want. We get boxes and boxes of books and if I kept every book we had we would need a dozen or more churches. No, the key is to be very ruthless about the books you let in.”

It sounds very un-church-like to not let all the secondhand books looking for a new home in from the cold, but it made sense. With something like 100 million books in the world, and two million new ones being published every year, it seems increasingly important to have secondhand booksellers who can curate the books people want: sorting them and making them discoverable so that their next owner can fall in love. I can’t imagine people wanting 130 million books – not even on Amazon.

A hungry fire feasts on… logs. Logs. It burns logs.

Not all products are equal, and great retailers are ruthless curators. You have only so much space to deliver delight to customers in your store, so you need to know what are the right products and which aren’t – then only let the right ones take us precious space. 

I did, however, check the fireplace again on the way out, though, just to make sure it wasn’t filled with the ashes of books less fortunate.

Keep Calm And Carry On Selling

My next stop was Alnwick ,  just across the border of Scotland back into England. Like in Hay on Wye I began to suspect fringe activities were happening on the English border. Alnwick itself was hard to find. Asking locals for directions was met with bewilderment. 

“Alnwick” I kept asking, trying to get directions. Perhaps it was my thick New Zealand accent. I tried again with my best (very slow) English one: “Alllllnnwicck.”


Best Scottish now: “Arrrrllllgneeeck.”


Was this town so small no one knew of it?

“Oh Annick. Annick, yes lovely place”.

A shibboleth is a traditional way of pronouncing names that only the locals are familiar with, a clever way to spot the foreigner who isn’t from around these parts. Perhaps Alnwick was a shibboleth. Coming from New Zealand we tend to make any place name a shibboleth with our mangled vowels, too-fast speech, and weird vocal inflections at the end of each sentence. I did wonder if the letters ‘L’ and ‘W’ were generally left out in these parts.

“There’s a nice cast’e there,” I tried, dropping my ‘L’s.

“A what?”

“A cast’e. ‘Ere the ear’s, barons and ‘ords ‘ive,” I continued.

“What is wrong with you man? Are you okay? But while you’re there do go and visit Annick castle too.”

“Yes that’s what I said.”

Alnwick is home to Barter Books, one of Britain’s largest secondhand bookstores, which made its home in the now defunct Alnwick train station. Inside are rows and rows of shelves that, quite frankly, go on forever. A cafe can be found at the far end of the store, rejuvenating the otherwise lost explorers with enough energy to make the epic return journey back to the front door. Couches are dotted around the place, often with sleeping old men on them, or perhaps they just died, unable to find their way out again. 

Overhead, miniature trains rattle and shuffle on tracks that run along the tops of the shelves. The store is a fusion of a train spotter and an old bookseller, but not in the way you would expect. People young and old stream in and browse shelf after shelf, regardless of the cold outside.

The counter is staffed by hip shop assistants who would look more in place ringing you up in H&M. Behind them, at the front of the store, hangs a familiar framed poster: “Keep Calm and Carry On” it says. Advice to those overwhelmed by the choice of books? No this particular framed copy has a bit of a story behind it. Not just a story, but THE story. The start of a meme that came from nowhere in 2009.

The original Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Photo © Neil Theasby (cc-by-sa/2.0)

This particular poster has been hanging in the store since 2000. It’s an original, one of the official prints produced by the then-Ministry of Information during the Second World War in case of a large-scale invasion of Britain. They planned to paste them up all over the country to raise morale but they were never used, luckily. Instead, they sat in boxes and crates for 70 years until Stuart and Mary, the owners of Barter Books, found one in a bunch of old books and decided it would look great at the front of the store. People often commented on the poster, asking if it was for sale, prompting the pair to make their own prints to sell. By the time it had made its debut as an internet sensation, they had already sold tens of thousands of copies. Since then, it’s become part of the store lore: how they discovered the anthem of a generation.

Keep calm and carry on.

The phrase was also somewhat fitting for retailers in the face of disruption and Amazon invasion:  keep calm and keep selling. It was clearly working for them.

Barter Books is situated a stone’s throw from Alnwick Castle, home to a very real and alive Duke and Duchess. You might recognise parts of the castle from the Harry Potter franchise, as it was a filming location for the first two movies. As a well-maintained and functioning castle, it was perfect for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to roam around in. Lots of high walls and towers without the crumbling parts. 

I can’t help but spot the significance of the castle and the Harry Potter references to one of the reasons why Barter Books and other booksellers have remained in business. J. K. Rowling almost single-handedly revived the passion for reading in the last couple of generations with her Harry Potter series. The timing of Pottermania, the location of the castle, the fantastic physical asset of the old train station, and the lore of Keep Calm and Carry On must have all been contributing factors to Barter Books’ success.

But was Barter’s success simply due to beautiful serendipity, a result of being in the right place at the right time?

I don’t think so.

A great entrepreneur can surely pick trends and know which ones to ride. I had seen this in Hay with Richard, and now, here was something similar with Barter Books. It wasn’t just about selling books, but selling the stories around them too.

A great retailer figures out how to use the assets around them. We are all familiar with the time tested phrase, “location, location, location.” Richard created one, Charles kept moving store until he found his, while Stuart and Mary leveraged theirs for existing reasons.

But they all added another layer by crafting a whole experience around their stores. Creating not only a lore and history, but stories that others could share.

Word of mouth is by far the best form of marketing, after all. Richard himself never spent a penny on marketing. Instead, he knew how to get people talking about him and Hay-on-Wye. Charles had his reputation of curation. I suspect Stuart and Mary were the same. They didn’t need Google AdWords to grow their business. They just needed to tap into their customers’ passions and give them stories to tell, which is quite fitting given that they are in the business of selling stories. 

Before I left Barter Books I admired a giant painted mural 20 feet high. It was a mural of all of Stuart and Mary’s literary heroes, hanging out at the store in their larger than life form. Jane Austen, George Orwell, Oscar Wilde.

Even in the age of the internet, I imagine if they were all still alive that is very much what they would like to do.

Books, a miniature train set and a mural of literary greats. Photo © Jim Barton (cc-by-sa/2.0)

About Vaughan Fergusson

Vaughan is the Founder of Vend. An entrepreneur and technologist, Vaughan's goal is to make retailers' lives easier. When he's not leading the team, Vaughan is working on his charitable foundation and raising his kids.