Barter Books and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series

While on holiday we visited an incredible second-hand bookshop in Alnwick, Northumberland, called Barter Books. My friend Harriet had recommended it to me, and I’m so glad she did, as it’s the closest to book heaven I’ve been in years.

Barter Books was set up in 1991 by Mary and Stuart Manley and is housed in Alnwick’s lovely former railway station. It’s a vast, but beautifully personalised space, with hand-painted signs, murals, inspirational quotes and a model railway running on a track above the bookshelves. There are plenty of comfy places to sink down and read, as well as a lovely cafe in the old station buffet. It’s also where the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phenomenon began.

It’s so good to see places like this thriving. Food for the soul! Here are a few photos I took surreptitiously while wandering around (it was a lot busier than it looks, as I didn’t want readers to feel they were being papped):

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A happy find was an entire section of vintage Penguin crime, including some novels from Ed McBain’s hugely influential ’87th Precinct’ series. I have a real soft spot for these 50+ police procedurals, which were written between 1956 and 2005, and feature a characterful group of detectives solving crimes in Isola (loosely based on Manhatten in New York). I purchased two – Like Love (1962), in which the team suspects a suicide pact is not all it seems, and Ten Plus One (1963), which focuses on a series of sniper murders.

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The novels are wonderfully detailed police procedurals, and well ahead of their time in depicting an ethnically diverse set of detectives operating in an often racist society. American-Italian police detective Steve Carella is frequently shown using his Italian language skills when carrying out investigations and is regularly partnered with American-Jewish detective Meyer Meyer. The novels also contain brilliant, hard-hitting subplots or vignettes – such as the fallout from a young woman’s suicide or the brutal police treatment of an innocent suspect.

In a complete change of scene, I’m off to Berlin with Peabody Jnr tomorrow. We’re looking forward to tracking down some film locations, paying homage to Bowie, and visiting some great independent crime bookshops (well me not him…). Bis bald!

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20 thoughts on “Barter Books and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series

    • Yup. A little bit of heaven on earth. I had to spend the first half an hour just wandering around with my mouth open. An amazing place.

  1. What a lovely place! I have also read and enjoyed the Ed McBains in spite of a slightly uneasy feeling about Carella’s wife, Teddy. The perfect wife – and she is deaf and dumb!

    • Ah Teddy… Yes, I agree there’s something rather dodgy about that depiction, though their relationship does also read like a genuine love story. Gender is probably the series’ weakest point, but have read a lot worse from the 1960s (such as the ‘Travis McGee’ novels, which are truly dreadful on that score).

  2. Barter Books used to be a regular haunt of mine, and they gave you a decent price for your own books. I think I still have £47 credit, but I’m in Essex now. Will have to have a jaunt to Northumberland some day. For any readers who don’t know Northumberland, it’s a wonderful destination, and not just for Barter Books. By the way, Ann Cleeves’ series featuring Vera is set in Northumberland, both in the books and TV series.

    • A regular haunt – lucky you! The ‘barter corner’ was piled high with books when we were there – such a great idea. You should definitely head back with that credit at some point.

      Thanks for flagging up the Vera connection, and absolutely agree about Northumberland – lots to see and do.

  3. What a lovely bookshop, Mrs. P.!! A person could put in a cot and kettle and just move in! I’m so glad that such places are there. And I’m with you about the 87th Precinct novels; they’re great, aren’t they? Safe trip!

    • Now there’s an idea, Margot! They had a lovely little area with self-serve coffee and some sofas (they light a fire in winter), which looked very suitable for a long-term stay.

  4. When I was about ten years old, I got lost in a bookshop, in a book, for hours while my parents panicked and the police were called etc, I finished the book and emerged hours later bewildered and groggy to find myself in the “real world” . I can imagine that happening in Barter books – at any age! Have fun with Jr.

  5. Yes remember seeing it on tv a while ago, certainly a place to while away a day one two, or longer! Never read any of the Mcbain books, must give them ago. The ‘Dying Detective’ was brilliant, worth the long wait! Enjoy Berlin, that’s when Bowie got really interesting.

    • Hello Brian. Very good to hear that the Dying Detective lived up to expectations. MUST get hold of a copy.

      And thanks. We’ll be making a pilgrimage to the Hansa Tonstudio and Bowie/Iggy’s apartment block 🙂

  6. Barter Books looks as though it could have come straight out of Hogwarts, which considering it’s in Alnwick isn’t surprising. I watched Robson Green’s series on Northumberland on the telly not long ago. Stunningly beautiful countryside. One day perhaps!
    We had a very old bookshop in Southampton called Gilbert’s, long gone 😢 I’m afraid. Used to spend hours in there. Happy days. Enjoy Berlin Mrs P.

  7. Love Barter Books and love Northumberland, Great beaches with no one on them! The North East very prominent in books by Mari Hannah and Danielle Ramsay. In the Winter Barter Books has open fires roaring, very welcoming on a cold day.

  8. Gosh, this is a fantastic bookstore! I’m green with envy. To curl up for hours with books, go to the cafe, read some more, just spending a whole day there. My idea of a vacation plus seeing the beautiful sights, of course.
    I’ve never read Ed McBain’s books. May try one or two. I agree on Travis McGee, as I could never read one.
    Also, as a teenager I saw covers of Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer books which were very sexist with women victims on the covers, so I skipped those.
    Can’t wait to see what else you read on vacation, but I so wish we had a bookstore like Barter Books in my city. A crane would have to extract me from a comfortable chair while holding a good mystery.

  9. I love that shop! And of course, you hame at the mere mention of the 87th Precinct series – hope to get there one day (the shop I mean, McBain’s ‘Isola’ may be harder to find on the map …)

  10. Ed McBain – Be still my beating heart!
    I LOVE all the 87th Precinct books which I discovered in the early 1960s – Steve Carella, Cotton Hawes, Meyer Meyer, the Deaf Man, et al – I knew them all intimately. The first book I read was ‘Killer’s Wedge’ – I was 14yrs old and I was hooked. The best police procedurals ever – they set the standard. And you know what? they are still as good when re-read nearly 50 years later.

    • There are lots of us fans about, it seems! I totally agree with you that they stand the test of time beautifully. I’ve yet to read them all and plan to savour the experience.

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