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Meet the Owners Behind Whitley Bay's Best Antique Bookshop, Keel Row Books

Keel Row Books
March 2024
Reading time 5 Minutes

A stunning store, rare books and friendly faces - what's not to love?

With a recent relocation to Whitley Bay, Living North caught up with Alice and Anthony, owners of the rare and antiquarian bookshop Keel Row Books to find out about the move and how they are helping the next generation of booksellers.

Airy, bright, filled to the brim with books of every kind and perfectly suited to the street, you’d be forgiven for thinking the bookshop on Whitley Bay’s Park View had been a staple of the town for decades. But no. Keel Row Books, owned by couple Alice Laverty and Anthony Smithson, is a new addition to Park View’s row of independent retailers having only moved from their previous shop in North Shields this past summer. ‘We’d seen the shop trade slow down and decline a little bit in North Shields so we actually started looking for an alternative property about five years ago,’ Anthony explains. ‘We’ve been talking about moving for a long time. We live in Whitley Bay and had passed this property for probably about three years. It looked almost semi-derelict and we, through the land registry, found out who owned it and sent them a letter saying that we were a local business and we would like to take the building on.’

Alice and Anthony didn’t have high hopes. ‘I’ll be honest, we were quite blasé about it because we knew that a lot of people were interested even though the building was almost derelict, and we didn’t really have much hope of being the ones who would get the chance to buy it,’ Alice explains. ‘But the person who owned the building really liked the idea of the bookshop, and local history and community, and totally bought into the idea that we could be an important part of Whitley Bay town centre.’

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Beautifully styled, the rare and antiquarian bookshop focuses primarily on local history and has certainly made an impact on local residents already. ‘In the first few weeks, nearly every person who came through the door, you could just hear them gasp,’ says Alice. This, too, was no happy accident. ‘We thought it through,’ says Anthony. ‘I’ve been a bookseller for 30 years and I’ve seen bookshops all over the world and Alice, before she joined the business, was an interior designer and worked for architectural practices in Newcastle,’ he continues. ‘We drew up plans and we really thought about how people would move through the space and where everything went in advance - because the job of moving 40,000 books couldn’t have been done haphazardly, we had to plan it. Once you move 5,000 books in and you don’t know where they’re going, the next 5,000 would be a nightmare.’

Alice and Anthony are continuously expanding their collection. ‘We buy a lot privately. We buy a lot at auction, and a lot of books are brought into us,’ Anthony says. ‘I drive all over the country looking for rare and collectible books and we specialise in the history of Northumberland and Newcastle specifically. We also sell a lot of, and specialise in, 20th century literature, so modern first editions for want of a better expression, and collectible children’s books. That’s what a lot of people come to us for.’

‘When we’re buying this stuff we purchase from members of the public directly,’ adds Alice. ‘We do buy some stuff at auction, and some stuff from other book dealers as well, but most of it comes from our own customers and from people who contact us.’

Although the location may be new, Alice and Anthony are pros in the trade, with years of success under their belts. In the past 10 years, they’ve turned their minds to how they can help the readers they so love. ‘Alice and I founded YABS (or the York Antiquarian Book Seminar) back in 2014,’ Anthony says. ‘It’s a four-day course and we teach people the basics of the rare book trade, including how to catalogue a book, how to identify rare books, how to operate a successful bookshop, and the avoidance of fakes and forgery in the book trade, particularly forged signatures; it’s hugely popular. It’s held once a year in York and now it’s an international course. I mean, this year we had people from Spain, Germany, a couple of institutional librarians from the United States, and someone from Australia.’

Over the years the pair have noticed a shift in the attendees on their course. ‘What’s interesting now is a lot of the people who come on that course are really young,’ Alice says. ‘They are often bright young things in their 20s maybe early 30s, who really want to get a foothold in the trade, who want to open their own bookshop, who want to work for other book dealers, but with their being fewer shops and fewer rare and antiquarian bookshops on the high street there aren’t the same opportunities for people to get work experience or Saturday jobs to get a foothold.

‘So the course addresses that. It gives all that information that you might have got from a Saturday job when you were 16 in 1980. It’s addressing that balance now and giving people the experience they need. And people going through that same business experience of trying to get themselves established, they’re not alone, they’re with another 39 people all learning that same thing.’

Anthony agrees. ‘It’s been described as a boot camp for booksellers,’ he says. ‘There’s a big shift towards wanting physical premises and opening shops so a lot of these kids in their 20s have been brought up on social media, and I wouldn’t say they’ve had enough of it, but they’re aware of the toxicity of social media sometimes and they want to run a physical high street shop.’

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With attention from outside the UK there are plans for a similar course to be run in France. ‘There was an ILAB [International League of Antiquarian Booksellers] conference in Oxford last year and all the presidents of the international associations were there. I gave a short talk to them about the course and so now I think France are definitely going to duplicate it, and Australia is looking to duplicate the course too.’

With a thriving business that continually highlights and celebrates the history of the area, Alice and Anthony’s love for the region is clear to see. ‘I’m from a pit village in County Durham. I come from Northern mining stock and my grandad was a miner. The North East of England is awash with industrial heritage and has a great and illustrious history, in the 18th and 19th centuries particularly, for being a pivotal area and Newcastle as a pivotal city in the history of England,’ Anthony says. ’That’s what we specialise in, whether it’s John Brand’s 1789 two-volume history of Newcastle, which is a cornerstone history of the town, or John Hodgson’s 15-volume history of the county. You know those are the kind of books that we like to sell and there’s still a real thirst for the history of the local area.’

To find out more about Keel Row Books, visit

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