A Tale of Two Bookshops: Bookbarn International and Wonder Book

A friend’s wedding in Bristol last Saturday provided the perfect opportunity for a return visit to Bookbarn International, a terrific secondhand bookshop near Bath in northeast Somerset. Between the stock on their shelves and in the warehouse from which they sell online, they have millions of books, and all the ones in the shop are either £1 or 50 pence (children’s books and, when I went, all paperback fiction as a summer reading promotion). It’s like heaven for this bibliophile. I first went a couple years ago on the way back from Cornwall – although, on both occasions, my longsuffering husband protests, Bookbarn wasn’t really ‘on the way’ in any sense.

First visit in June 2013

First visit in June 2013

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Well worth the detour, though, as Bookbarn is basically the British equivalent of my beloved Wonder Book, a chain with several branches in Maryland. I first encountered the store when my sister worked for WHAG television station in Hagerstown, and when I chose to go to college in Frederick, I wouldn’t say that the town’s two Wonder Book branches (one has since closed, alas) were a deciding factor, but they were certainly a bonus. I even worked there as a part-time book assistant during my senior year at Hood College, and it didn’t quite spoil my love for the place – though I’ll admit it’s much better to be a customer than an employee.

The Frederick location (photo from their website).

The Frederick location (photo from their website).

Say it ain't so! You never know what you'll find in terms of categorization at Wonder Book.

Say it ain’t so! You never know what you’ll find in terms of categorization at Wonder Book.

I’ve lived abroad for over eight years now, but I still manage to get back to Wonder Book once or twice a year during visits to family. Like Bookbarn, it’s an enormous warehouse-like place with dozens of different categories and subcategories of books, most at very reasonable prices. Again like Bookbarn, it’s the kind of place where you’ll need to allow time to root around, since within sections the books might not be in perfect alphabetical order. The stock rolls over so quickly or, especially in the case of theology, is so overwhelmingly large that there’s just no way to sensibly organize it all. Come with a list, but be willing to browse at a leisurely pace and let serendipity guide you as much as the subject headings. You’ll also find snacks and book-themed gifts such as (at Wonder Book anyway) mugs and T-shirts.

free old book smell

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On this last visit to Bookbarn I got 18 books for all of £12 – bargain! Pictured below are my purchases, minus the ones certain readers or their children might be getting for birthday or Christmas presents later in the year…

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For the greatest concentration of wonderful bookshops in one place, I can’t recommend Hay-on-Wye, Wales highly enough (see my article on Book Towns for more). See also Jen Campbell’s The Bookshop Book for more ideas of bookshops to seek out wherever your travels take you.


Are you a devoted secondhand book shopper? What are some of your favorite bookshops in the United States, United Kingdom, or further afield?

10 responses

  1. I am so jealous, both bookstores look fantastic, I wish we had a good secondhand one here! I still miss my favorite one in Fort Wayne, IN: Hyde Brothers. Such a great place, I spent way too much time and $$ there over the years 🙂

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    1. I remember going there with you however many years ago (2008? 9?) and coming out with quite a stack! 😉

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  2. My favourite book shop is Barter Books in Alwnick, Northumberland.
    http://www.barterbooks.co.uk/
    It’s in the old station building and is full of character – it even has open fires in the winter. A model train trundles overhead, there are squashy chairs and sofas and a huge range of books.
    It also has a Buffet Café that does lovely food including bowls of twice cooked chips (excellent).
    I was browsing in Barter Books last summer when I got a phone call from my daughter saying she was engaged – so it’s an extra special place for me!

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    1. That sounds wonderful, Penny! I’ve never been to Northumbria but would love to go. I know friends enjoyed a trip to the castle there, and it’s not far from Holy Island and some good birdwatching spots. Such activities could certainly be combined with an afternoon in a cosy bookshop to make a great weekend.

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  3. I love Bookbarn. You were far more restrained than I was when I visited last year…

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    1. Ah, another Bookbarn fan! This time there was an unexpected road closure and by the time we got there we had less than an hour until we needed to head on to the wedding, so I think that partially accounts for the reduced haul. We couldn’t even glance at the unsorted sections, for instance. Next time we’ll make sure we get a whole afternoon there, preferably a rainy one, so we can spend a long time browsing and also take advantage of the new cafe. Bookbarn also tell me that there are a few good B&Bs in their area should one need to stay.

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  4. I’ve only been to Bookbarn once (I live in south-east England so wrong side of the country…) and would love to go again… I felt like I had barely scratched the surface last time!

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    1. It would be easy to spend hours and hours there, especially going through the unsorted areas. Well worth the occasional pilgrimage 🙂 Do you have any favourite bookshops closer to home?

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  5. […] hour and a half to just 35 minutes before store closing. It had been almost exactly one year since my last trip to Bookbarn International, and after weeks of wheedling I’d finally persuaded my husband to make the detour […]

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  6. […] one, as the many cross-outs and additions on this sheet show. Finding specific books at my beloved Wonder Book can be a challenge, so I usually just keep in mind the names of authors I’d like to read more by. […]

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