Well into middle age and stone-cold broke, my husband, Stuart, helped me begin what started off as a tiny secondhand bookshop called Barter Books.
We began it in part of the front room of Stuart’s own business which was located in a once magnificent Victorian railway station – one that had dominated the lower end of the town’s main street almost as much as its great medieval castle still dominated the upper end. But as the last train had long since left, the station was now, in its own way, as down on its luck as we were.
This is what we had to start up my new business: £4000. That was it. That had to cover everything, including stock. What else we had was an overdraft of £40,000 against Stuart’s model-manufacturing business, faltering in spite of all. What else we had was a bank manager (remember them?) who had taken to crossing the street when he saw us coming.
But let me not put you off before you even begin the story. Let me cut forward instead some twenty-five years and tell you that Stuart would very soon become my business partner (just incidentally, the world’s best) and without our ever getting any grants or costing the public a single penny (not that we didn’t try), our bookshop grew from its original 800 sq ft to over 8000 sq ft, and its stock from 10,000 books to over 350,000. Which makes it one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain. Or, to put in another way, the world. Or, to it yet another way (who’s to argue?), the whole universe.
It has also become, to our surprise (shock, more like) one of North East England’s biggest tourist attractions. We think the bookshop ranks maybe third or fourth on the list (it’s hard to get actual figures up here), with visitor numbers showing no signs yet of abating, eBooks or no eBooks. (Ebooks – that was scary, too. More on that later, you can imagine.)
Anyway, for all the inevitable traumas along the way, nevermind a huge learning curve, it’s been a wonderful ride for both of us. Two people, both going nowhere, meeting, marrying, and somehow swimming to the surface to find ourselves going somewhere after all.
If you’re still with me, I’ll tell you the story of Barter Books.