Since the Darlington Lions Club Charity Book Shop opened in 1961, it has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for good causes. Now, the shop is embarking on an exciting new era. PETER BARRON paid a visit.

AS he sits in a chair and watches a steady stream of customers come rattling through the door of the little gem of a book shop, Robert Hillary can’t help smiling.

For every book sold, he knows that more money is being raised for a charity close to his heart.

As this year’s President of Darlington Lions Club, Robert has nominated St Teresa’s Hospice as his chosen charity – and he has very good reason for doing so.

Last September, he lost his beloved wife, Marsha, and St Teresa’s was a priceless source of support. “They provided the most amazing home care for my wife, and I can never thank them enough,” he says.

The Northern Echo: Robert Hillary, Pat Di Martino, and Kevin Winkworth at the Darlington Lions Charity Book Shop

The Darlington Lions Charity Book Shop, manned by volunteers, has been raising charitable funds for more than 60 years. No one knows how many books have been sold in that time, but it’s safe to say that hundreds of thousands of pounds have been raised, with the Lions’ share going to local good causes.

Over the years, the bookshop has been in at least ten locations, including Bondgate, Priestgate, High Row and, most recently, Blackwellgate.

It’s one of Darlington’s treasures – and now it’s not so hidden. The shop has been given a new lease of life after moving out of the shadows, and into a more prominent location, with a shop window that looks out to Binns department store, the cornerstone of the town centre.

The Northern Echo: What a team: Left to right, Robert Hillary, Pat Di Martino and Kevin Winkworth

Since 1994, the book shop has occupied a room at the back of Blackwellgate Mews, making it harder for passers-by to discover. But, earlier this year, Darlington Lions saw a window of opportunity, and moved into an empty unit at the front, next to what used to be the much-missed Guru Boutique.

“There’s so much more footfall, people walking past can look in the window, and we just feel so much more a part of the community,” says Kevin Winkworth, joint chair of the book shop committee.

The room at the back has been retained for additional space but the move – along with a smart new shop frontage in the club’s yellow and blue colours – means business is booming.

The Northern Echo: Come in - we're open

To boost sales ten years ago, the price of a book for grown-ups was reduced from £1 to 50p, and it stayed that way for a decade. However, the increased cost of utilities and rent has resulted in the price for adults returning to £1, although children’s books have always stayed at 50p.

Darlington’s longest ever sale may have come to an end, but the shop remains remarkable value, with Kevin quick to point out that three books can be bought for £2, with every penny going to good causes – 90 per cent of them local.

“One of our aims is helping children develop a love of reading, so during the school holidays, we’ve been giving a free children’s book to any young families coming into the shop,” adds Kevin.

The shop is blessed with a dedicated team. Kevin and Fred Thompson share the role of chairing the committee, while retired primary school teacher, Pat De Martino – this year’s vice president – passionately manages the children’s section.

The Lions’ motto is ‘We Serve’ and it is estimated that around £15,000 will be generated by the Darlington club this year – a figure that makes the 2023 president beam with pride.

“We have such a marvellous team of volunteers, but we always need more,” says Robert, who is well known for running a butcher’s shop opposite St Herbert’s Church, in Yarm Road, for 50 years.

He first discovered the value of Darlington Lions after he and Marsha married in 1971. Their daughter, Fern, suffered collapsed lungs on the night she was born, and Darlington Memorial Hospital didn’t have the life-saving equipment needed, so she had to be rushed to Bishop Auckland General Hospital.

The Northern Echo: Left to right, Kevin Winkworth, Pat Di Martino and Robert Hillary outside the new book shop

Coincidentally, Darlington Lions had just started an appeal to buy the equipment, so Robert and Marsha played their part by organising coffee mornings and other fundraising events. When Robert retired in 2007, he joined the Lions, going on to chair the book shop committee for 10 years, so he’s thrilled that his year as president has coincided with the new era for the shop.

Many of the customers return so often that they’re treated like friends by the volunteers, and grandma-of-two, Sue Beadle, is a case in point. “I just love to come in, have a rummage, and buy a book, knowing that I’m supporting good causes at the same time,” she says. “I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve bought here, but the prices are so cheap, and the staff so lovely. It’s just a great place to come.”

Books by Northumberland author LJ Ross, who writes the DCI Ryan series of romantic suspense thrillers, are a particular favourite at the moment.

As well as those arriving to buy or browse, the door frequently opens with people donating boxes and bags of books to add to the stock. Many of the books end up being returned for recycling, and the shop has also become an important community hub.

“We try to provide a safe, welcoming space and we have a number of regulars with mental health issues coming into the shop, sometimes with their carers," explains Kevin. "And then there are the bereaved and lonely, desperate for someone to talk to."

Recently, a student arrived in search of a particular book but only had 50p. She was told she could take the book and pay the other 50p whenever she could. The next day, an envelope containing 50p was pushed through the door with the message: “Thank you for your kindness in trusting me to come back. You are very special people.”

Surplus books are regularly taken to York Lions, who send them to schools in Sri Lanka, so the joy of reading is spread internationally.

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The Darlington Lions Charity Bookshop, and the volunteers behind it, are a credit to the town, and there are plans to build on the success of the past 62 years. Currently, the shop opens on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but the ambition is to open on Tuesdays too if more volunteers can be found.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” smiles Robert Hillary as the till rings with another customer handing over a pound for a book they’ve discovered on the shelves.

  • Darlington Lions are grateful for all book donations. They can be dropped off at the shop, or collection can be arranged. New volunteers and members are also welcome. For more information, please go to or call 0345 8339874.