Rowan Recommends: Bookbarn International

I’m sure my excuses for the yawning gaps between posts are beginning to wear a little thin, so I won’t bother to make any this time. Just rest assured that I have excellent reasons for disappearing into the ether, and as usual I promise I’ll try to do better from now on. As an apology for my silence, here’s a quick roundup of a weird and wonderful place Dom and I stumbled across yesterday: The Bookbarn. 

How do you get to The Bookbarn?

The Bookbarn, I suspect, is a bit like the Room of Requirement: you only find it when you really need it. My hour of need cropped up when I tried to meet up with Dom in Bristol, under the painfully naive impression that this would be a convenient midpoint between Llangrove and his hometown of Salisbury. However, unbeknownst to me, the easy one-hour drive to Bristol was to be infinitely prolonged by Christmas shoppers into a parking nightmare of epic proportions. Without exaggeration, I drove round the centre of Bristol for over an hour, alternately weeping into the steering wheel and shouting at traffic lights. Eventually, I gave up on parking, and after another half hour of driving blindly in circles, I made it to the station to pick Dom up, in a state of unparalleled hysteria.

This lengthy prelude is by way of explaining that Bristol was full, and after a quick crisis meeting we decided to leave. Some rapid internet research established that only one source of vegan food exists in the area around (but not in) Bristol: a café called “Bookbarn International”. It’s lauded by Tripadvisor as attraction #1 of 1 in Hallatrow, and what a place it turned out to be.

What is a Bookbarn? Why is it also a veggie café? And why do they sell carpets??

Based on our two minutes’ research, I’d assumed that this was some cosy village café which happened to sell a few second-hand books. But no. Bookbarn International (situated in a village about 50 minutes’ drive from Bristol and graced with a reassuringly plentiful number of parking spaces) is apparently “THE WORLD’S LARGEST SECOND HAND BOOK WAREHOUSE” and contains”OVER ONE MILLION BOOKS”. These facts are proclaimed loudly and abruptly by huge roadside signs in a fetchingly Ryanair-esque livery of blue and yellow. So far, so weird.

img_20161220_141153The ‘barn’ itself is an enormous warehouse, and as well as housing OVER ONE MILLION BOOKS, it’s inexplicably the home of another business: Oriental Rugs of Bath.  Some of their merchandise was pleasingly draped around the foyer, and more was hung from the ceiling just inside the MASSIVE BOOK WAREHOUSE. Despite the enticements of the rug-mezzanine, we passed on the opportunity to peruse the full selection in favour of having some much-needed lunch.

img_20161220_163449Here we hit upon the next incongruity – the quirky vegetarian café which nestles at one end of the MASSIVE BOOK WAREHOUSE. I guess there’s a certain hipster logic behind the combination of lots of very cheap books and lots of very cheap, wholesome vegetarian fare, but it all seemed a little too serendipitous to be true. The food was pretty good – I had red pepper soup – and the hot chocolate was excellent. Reinvigorated, we moved on to the books.

The main event

In Llangrove, there’s an old red phonebox which has been repurposed as a “village library”. It contains a selection of second-hand books whose only common trait is that people wanted to give them away. This means they’re books that have been replaced by a later edition. Books you were misguidedly given by a relative you haven’t seen for ten years. Trashy books you simply don’t read more than once. Occasionally, they’re books you have eight copies of because they’re classics. But mainly, the phonebox houses books that are unwanted for a reason.

If you want sheer obsolescence and you want it in bulk, Llangrove village library has got nothing on Bookbarn International. Just to clarify, this isn’t intended as a criticism, for two reasons. Firstly, I have no doubt that there are lots of decent buys to be found in the Bookbarn if you go with a list and a sense of purpose, perhaps even use their search facility (if you’re an amateur, of course). Everything on display is £1, so whatever you pick up is bound to be good value. Secondly, and more importantly, sifting through a semi-random collection of books from the past is a surprisingly entertaining pastime.

After few hours of browsing, I came away with a deep sense of awe at the scope of oft-misguided human creativity, and a few observations. The main thing I noticed was how much publishing has changed since the advent of the internet. When did you last buy a How-To book? I don’t mean proper guides that get filtered and honed by the publishing process, I mean unscientific tips and life-hacks. That stuff just ends up on Pinterest and Wikihow now, right? Wrong. It ends up in the Bookbarn. Here, it dwells in peace, side by side with a plethora of manuals for technology that became obsolete at least a decade ago.

The other striking thing about books from the past is how prescient some of them are. I stress some – I found plenty of hilariously outdated tomes. But this speculative sociological specimen (pictured below) seems to have hit the nail more or less on the head, although its chronology is out by 16 years.

However, not all books from the past are this forward-thinking, and the biggest culprits reside in the “dating, marriage, divorce, relationships and erotica” section. I won’t talk in detail about this absolute goldmine, mainly because my blog is SFW and also because I don’t think I could do justice to the entertainment value of old dating manuals. But we came across one infamous classic that I couldn’t ignore: The Rules. Written in the enlightened 90s, it’s all about how to manipulate men into marrying you, and it’s truly, hideously regressive. If you want to know why feminism didn’t stop being relevant in the 1980s, this is a pretty good example.

On that depressing glimpse into the recent past, I must leave you. BUT WAIT! I’ll be back sooner than you think! Once again, it’s that time of year where I masochistically commit to publishing 12 cartoons in 12 days, a feat which (to my shame) may almost double this year’s Anglophone output. That’s right – look out for the 12 days of Christmas, coming your way soon. Happy holidays.


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