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.

11 comments on “A Model For British Bookshops”

  1. Tony Walker says:

    We were in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week, when we visited The Poisoned Pen bookstore. Excellent source for murders, mysteries, and mayhem, and I bought a copy of ‘Full Dark House’ for an American friend, who insists on always reading the first book in a series. Hopefully, she’ll enjoy it, and you’ll earn a few royalties into your Dollar account.

    They have regular visits from authors, but I didn’t see your photo in there. Maybe you need a trip to the sunny Southwest….

  2. David says:

    Hakan Nessar hada grumpy detective who retired and opened a bookshop, and I think Lawence Block had a burglar who also ran a bookshop, must be some connection between crime and books. There was an american authoress who wrote a series of crime novels, well two at least, with a rare book theme, I’ve been trying to recall her name for years, pretty shure it began with D, but never been able to track them down again.

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    David, this is probably not who you were thinking about, but there’s woman called Kate Carlisle, who’s produced a series of a dozen or more books about Brooklyn Wainwright who is a book restoration expert who gets into . They have those sort of wince-making titles – “One Book in the Grave”, “If Books could Kill”, “The Book Stops here”. Someone bought me one as a gift, and I confess I lost it, and didn’t look too hard to find it.
    I’m pretty sure someone here ought to be able to find who you were after….

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    Ooops. Meant to say “….expert who gets into all sorts of scrapes.”

  5. Brooke says:

    David, there is a male writer John Dunning, an antiquarian and bookstore owner, whose detective is a disgraced cop turned bookstore owner. Dunning’s plots usually revolve around a rare book. Dunning has won several awards and his work gets great reviews from NYT and Wash. Post. Imo, he is a good efficient writer.

    I’ve found many interesting crime/mystery series through Poisoned Pen Press; like their publishing policy–no manuscripts with plots focused on incest, child abuse, psychopaths, etc.

  6. Jess R says:

    When I first moved to NYC over ten years I found three bookstores that specialized in mysteries – The Mysterious Bookshop, Partners & Crime, and Murder Ink. Partners and Crime was the one I originally went to a lot when I first moved here; it was, in fact, where I first discovered Bryant & May when I picked up a copy of Full Dark House that was sitting on a shelf titled “First in a great series”. Unfortunately, both Partners and Crime as well as Murder Ink have since closed – although Partners and Crime does live on in a sense through Felony & Mayhem Press, which was founded by one of the co-owners of Partners and Crime. Now I am a regular shopper at The Mysterious Bookshop. It is a jewel of a bookstore that has survived (and I hope survives for a long time to come) along with a small set of great independent bookstores in NYC that have ridden out the storms of the large chain discount bookstores and the rise of Amazon. I think their survival is due how they well they serve their shoppers both broadly (as you mentioned with things like the Mysterious Press) but also locally with how they continue to connect to their neighborhood communities with weekly readings and other events.

  7. John says:

    David — It’s Elizabeth Daly you’re trying to remember. Her detective Henry Gamadge is a rare book expert who actually specialized in authenticating manuscripts not books. All of her mystery novels have been recently been reprinted by the US indie publisher Felony and Mayhem. Also, if you live the in the US chances are you’d be able to find any of her books in cheap paperback reprints in used bookstores. They were reprinted several times, the most easy to find are the Bantam reprints from the 1970s-80s. Trivia: Agatha Christie once said that Daly was her favorite mystery writer.

    Otto may have more shelf space in the not so very new space which I visited about five years ago but I find it cold and sterile. I so much preferred the original Mysterious Bookshop which was in his brownstone apartment. Loads of character. Loved climbing up on the ladders and looking at all his antique furniture.

  8. kevin says:

    Funny you should post this now because I’ve been thinking about how much better it would be if Mr. Penzler would print his wonderful story collections in a format that is easier to hold in the hand such as the trade size paperback. I see his various collections every time I visit the bookstore and think how delicious they look. I bought his big book of locked-room mysteries and read as many of them as I could but gave up in frustration. The book is too big and irregular for cozy arm chair reading and I find myself twisting and turning way, searching for a comfortable position too much. And they are all this strange size. What gives? To my frustration, I’ve never bought another collection.

  9. Brooke says:

    John, thanks for the reminder about E. Daly. Haven’t read Gamadge series in years; must revisit her work.

  10. David says:

    Thank you, Brooke, Martin & John, I will follow your leads up, they all sound interesting. I checked online and Fulham library has several Elizabeth Daly volumes in store, Westminster has Kate Carlisle in it’s Home Library van, leaving just John Dunning to be hunted down. Although I would have sworn the book I had in mind was written by a lady, I have a feeling now it was probably a John Dunning, just shows how memory can play tricks on you.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve read several of the Kate Carlisle books, mostly because Brooklyn Wainwright is a book restorer. The plots are more than a little shaky but fun and the book details are fascinating (to me at least) As for the fact that the fictional siblings are all named for the place of the conception; Brooklyn has a sister Savannah – well, whatever.

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