A Model For British Bookshops
The Mysterious Bookshop, now on Warren Street in New York, has been going since 1979 and is run by the avuncular Otto Penzler. This makes it the oldest mystery specialist book store in America. It’s a treasure trove of mysteries old and new – a niche market that’s run buy experts in the field, and isn’t that what you want your booksellers to be? I remember the late and very unlamented Books Etc., a chain that categorised books from a central computer that couldn’t be altered when stock mistakes were made. Many an author had their career ended through categorisation mistakes.
I think it’s one of the reasons why small bookstores can survive. They work better when they specialise, and The Mysterious Bookshop is a mystery bibliophile’s dream. But funding is still difficult when you’re in an area of expensive rents and only have irregular browsing customers. So you build interest with social media and online updates, or better still, like Persephone Books, have your own imprint and sell them through the store. Otto’s Mysterious Press restores the lustre to forgotten mysteries and finds new ones. What’s more – and as far as I can see this is a unique idea – he publishes a series of commissioned novellas in small hardback editions, around four new each year.
Especially for aficionados of mystery fiction, these stories feature a background of bookstores, libraries, rare books, manuscripts, priceless volumes, eccentric book collectors – and a crime. All the stories feature books and/or those who write them, buy them, read them, collect them, sell them or are in some way involved with them. They’re written exclusively for the store and are not available anywhere else at the time of writing. There are hardcover editions limited to 100 copies, numbered and signed by the author, and paperbacks. They’re also available in eBook format from MysteriousPress.com.
Now the shop has gathered together two volumes of these ‘bibliomysteries’ featuring many of the novellas that have been exclusively written for Otto (I wrote one, ‘Reconciliation Day’, but it was published after this lineup). The hefty volumes feature tales by everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Mickey Spillane, and are essential mystery reading.
What if a bookstore in the UK adopted this idea to help fund itself? The good will of authors is there, along with the richness of variety you get among UK writers, Could such a scheme be started? It’s hardly complex to set up but it requires expertise, and could be done in partnership with a publisher. We have a huge resource in this country, and should make use of it.