Essay by Kate Stine
A fun look at the mystery fan’s resource – History and background of mystery booksellers and mystery-specific book stores
When the first customer wandered into New York’s Murder Ink on June 14, 1972 it was a historic event. Located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, this small store was the first bookshop ever entirely devoted to selling mysteries. Murder Ink’s owner, Dilys Winn, was gambling her future solely on the lure of “whodunnit?”–a gamble that must have seemed very risky at the time. Yet, on that fateful June day the essential ingredients for today’s booming mystery marketplace were already present: an expert bookseller with an infectious love of mysteries and a well-stocked store.
It would be hard to overestimate how just how effective a recommendation by a knowledgeable and friendly bookseller can be. Both Sue Grafton and Robert B. Parker started out as booksellers’ favorites as have countless other writers and the tradition continues today. Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, for example, offers a separate display area for award-winning mysteries as well as “Picks of the Store.” Bruce Taylor, owner of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore, has a table for recommended books in the store–but he also keeps his current favorite right next to the cash register for handselling.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been effective–and entertaining– innovations by other mystery booksellers. Tom and Enid Schantz, now the owners of the Rue Morgue in Denver, pioneered the mystery mail-order business in the early 1970s. Rue Morgue’s entertaining monthly catalog, The Purloined Letter, keeps their customers abreast of the newest releases and accounts for a large part of the stores’ annual revenue. The proliferation of newsletters, catalogs and websites points to the importance of mail-order in the overall business plan of many mystery bookstores.
Mystery booksellers have had great success in both creating and serving a market for collectable mysteries. Booksellers, by educating customers about the genre, the writers and the intricacies of book collecting, have fueled the market for both modern and older collectable mysteries. The Mysterious Bookshop in New York, in particular, is a well-known haven for collectors of vintage crime.
Many mystery bookstore owners leave the premises to teach classes and give speeches thereby garnering publicity and new customers for their shops. For example, Mary Alice Gorman of the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA, runs a program for junior high students on the “History of Mysteries” as well as a “Holy Whodunit” presentation which is popular for Sunday adult education programs.
Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, sponsors the annual AZ Murder Goes… Conference, each year picking a different topic. (In February, 1998, AZ Murder Goes… Alternatively will showcase gay and lesbian writers.) Mystery bookstores have a long history of sponsoring fan conventions most notably Bouchercon, the genre’s most important international gathering.
Increasingly booksellers are creating events to lure customers into their stores. Signings, of course, have long been a staple of mystery bookselling and are particularly popular with collectors. Partners & Crime offers classes for fledgling mystery writers by drawing upon New York’s plentiful supply of writers, editors, agents and crime enforcement professionals. Other stores offer lectures or musical performances that tie in with particular books, start monthly reading groups, invite customers to Sunday tea, or similar events.
These strategies and others have proven to be extremely successful. From one little bookshop in 1972, today there are well over 150 mystery bookstores around the world. Crime in Store in London, Krimi Galerie in Austria, Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto, Die Wendeltreppe in Frankfurt, Gaslight Books in Australia–all of these stores and many more around the world attest to the growing popularity of mystery fiction.
Certainly mystery bookselling has come a long way in the past 25 years– as has Dilys Winn herself, now the owner of Miss Marble’s Parlour in Key West. Still, the role of the mystery bookseller in the life of a mystery fan remains essentially the same–they are our partners in crime, aiding and abetting us in our search for “whodunnit.”
Before establishing her editing and consulting business, Kate Stine worked for many years in mystery publishing most recently as Editor-in-chief of Otto Penzler Books. She also served as Editor-in-chief of The Armchair Detective Magazine from 1992-1997. Both the magazine and her mystery reference book, The Armchair Detective Book of Lists, won Anthony Awards at the 1996 Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. She currently serves as a senior editor at The Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine.
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