Theydunit: Mystery Retailers Are Surviving

WASHINGTON POST

Across the country, the independent bookstore appears to be going the way of the white spotted owl or the snail darter, its habitat ravaged by the great marauding superstores.

But in Kalamazoo, Mich., Deadly Passions Bookshop is hanging tough. So is Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks. And in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Poisoned Pen is prospering as never before.

The mystery bookstore--devoted to the fine arts of murder, fraud and double-cross--is refusing to lie down and play dead.

"So much has been made of the inability of independent bookstores to survive in the marketplace against chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders," says Jim Huang, who owns Deadly Passions and serves as director of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Assn. "But we're optimistic about our market. We're not cowering in the face of the competition."

There is no precise count of mystery bookstores in the United States. The Independent Mystery Booksellers Assn. has 60 members. According to most estimates, the count of stores runs between 100 to 120. Bearing such exotic names as Murder Ink, Aunt Agatha's and the Black Orchid, they can be found in every major city in the United States and many medium-size ones. New York City claims five. The Washington area has long had two.

"It's a surprisingly stable business," observes Sharon Villines, who started researching the subject in 1993 for "The Deadly Directory," an annual directory of mystery bookstores and related organizations. "One or two stores may close each year, but then another couple open up. . . . Those that close usually belong to people who've been running them for a long time and are ready to quit. You do get tired! Barnes & Noble can always bring in another manager, but each mystery bookstore is unique unto itself."

Salesclerks Know Their Mysteries

In most cases, the stores are the outgrowth of their owners' devouring passion.

"These aren't people who have tossed a coin to see if they'll open a mystery bookstore or an espresso bar," says superstar mystery author Lawrence Block. "It's a labor of love for them. They have a real enthusiasm for the genre, and that enthusiasm is communicated to the customer. I love the places."

Mystery writer Annette Meyers goes so far as to say that "they are like family. . . . I don't know what we'd do without them."

Salesclerks are often incipient mystery writers or fans who work free or take their salary in books. One employee of MysteryBooks in the District of Columbia is a federal marshal who moonlights there on weekends. When it comes to the merchandise on the shelves, booksellers can usually quote you chapter, verse and murder weapon.

"Somebody came in here a while back and said he was looking for a book that was mentioned on TV six months ago," says Otto Penzler, one of the movement's pioneers (he owns Mysterious Bookshop in New York, with branches in Los Angeles and London). "All this person knew was that a linguist was the main character. . . . I remembered two books with linguists, but neither one was the right book. Then Jim, the guy working for me downstairs, said, 'Oh, yeah. "Double Negative" by David Carkeet.' That was it. At Barnes & Noble, you can't get that kind of help. That's why we survive."

The mystery bookshops can't offer the discounts given by the chain stores, and most don't try.

"We're selling knowledge," Huang says. "We're matchmakers. We have the ability to put the right people and the right books together."

The first mystery bookstore in the United States, Murder Ink, opened in 1972 in a small room on New York's Upper West Side. It was started by Dylis Winn, who has since retired, although the shop lives on in two New York locations. Penzler, a onetime sportswriter who started his one-man publishing house in the early 1970s, came along not too long after. In 1978 he bought a six-story apartment building on West 56th Street for $177,000, using his life savings for a down payment. He converted the first two floors into the Mysterious Bookshop. He opened April 13, 1979. A Friday, naturally.

The boom took place in the 1980s.

"It seems you could hardly turn around, but another store had opened," says Penzler. The pace slowed in the '90s, but it hasn't stopped.

Take Joanne Sinchuk, a CPA in New York for 20 years. Fed up with corporate life, she migrated to Miami, researched the market and opened Murder on the Beach in December 1996. (She carries Agatha Christie in four languages for tourists.)

"A lot of people come into my store, see what they want, write down the title, then go to the library to get it," she admits. "But I'm steadily building a client base. Each month, I get closer and closer to breaking even."

Mystery Readers Are All Shapes and Sizes

Most mystery bookstores won't disclose figures. However, Huang, of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Assn., says it is safe to assume the smaller ones gross $250,000 or less annually. About half probably fall in the $250,000-to-$500,000 range. Those that do an annual business of more than $1 million can probably be counted on the legs of a tripod.

Huang admits his Deadly Passions Bookshop is one of the small ones in a small market. But he says, "We've raised the awareness of mysteries in Kalamazoo and sold a lot of books that wouldn't have been sold if we weren't here."

Tina McGill, who took over MysteryBooks in the District of Columbia more than two years ago (it has been in existence for more than 11 years), says she has a base of 400 serious collectors.

"It's far more work than I ever anticipated," she concedes. "But the place has the most amazing clientele. They want the store to be here. And when they come in the door they're happy, happy, happy!"

Mystery readers come in all shapes and sizes, but the standard profile suggests the average reader is female and in her 50s.

"When I opened, I thought for sure little old ladies would buy Agatha Christie and young guys would buy Raymond Chandler," Penzler says. "But it turned out that plenty of men liked Agatha Christie and plenty of women went for the hard-boiled stuff. The common denominator is that they tend to be educated and have good jobs. . . . Part of it is that those people have more money."

Jean McMillan, who ran the Mystery Bookshop in Bethesda, Md., with her husband for nine years (she sold it recently to Sue Miller, a longtime employee), says her big revelation was customers' zeal.

"I'm a mystery reader, but the fans are truly devoted to the genre and take it very seriously," she says.

"The average customer might spend $30--maybe a hardback and a paperback, or three or four paperbacks--but the fan thinks nothing of spending a couple hundred dollars," she adds. "Thank God 35% or 40% of our customers are fans, because, frankly, I don't think I would have done very well with readers like myself."

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