'Mystery' a twist on local shops

Last fall, I spent a week in Seattle, and I didn't truly feel that I had left Orange County until I stepped into my first independent bookstore. My first of many, as it turned out, because Seattle is one of the few cities that might stand a chance of putting a Barnes & Noble out of business. In the rain-streaked area around Pioneer Square, I found hole-in-the-wall establishments piled with used volumes, poetry pamphlets and left-wing incitements.

A cynical friend of mine recently said that before long, America will be dominated by Walmart, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. For the third to triumph, it would have to knock out Borders, but there doesn't seem to be much brick-and-mortar competition in the book trade, though Amazon remains a force to contend with online. As one-of-a-kind shops across Orange County have folded in recent years, it's gotten rare to encounter an owner who remembers your last three purchases and has a new recommendation for you.

So when I heard that a new small bookstore had recently opened in Huntington Beach, I headed over as fast as I could – mostly to figure out how the owner planned to stay afloat. As it turns out, this is no ordinary shop with Sarah Palin's memoirs stacked by the cash register, but one that specializes in one of the great niche markets of literature: mysteries. It also has a statue of a skeleton in a pirate hat in the corner, which should lure a few customers.

Mystery Ink Bookstore at 7176 Edinger Ave. is the latest endeavor of Debbie Mitsch, a Surf City resident who has worked for years promoting and setting up readings for authors. Mitsch opened a mystery bookstore in Laguna Beach in the 1990s, but ended up folding it after the brush fires drove away business.

Still, Mitsch held onto her dream of running a store. She also held on to her love of mysteries, meeting her favorite authors at readings and conventions. Her shop sports a glass case full of autographed volumes by Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly and Jeffrey Deaver, plus three shelves of signed first editions by other authors.

Speaking of signings, the store has a grand opening planned for Saturday and Sunday with 13 writers – including Christopher Rice, Craig MacDonald and contributors to the recent anthology "Orange County Noir" – expected to meet the public. Call (714) 960-4000 for a schedule.

"It's nice because when you have a niche, you know the authors," Mitsch said.

Note: Mystery Ink is the unlikely savior of a former Surf City institution, the gift shop California Greetings, which closed this spring. Owner Debbie Moussafir had kept some of Mitsch's books on consignment, and now Mitsch is returning the favor by stocking greeting cards, necklaces and candy next to the bookshelves.

Given the morbid content of most of Mystery Ink's books, I was about to call that the oddest combination business in Huntington Beach. But that honor still goes to the shop at Old World Village that sells coffee beans and dachshund merchandise.

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