Prose 'n Cons™ Mystery Magazine


Mystery & True Crime • News, Features & Interviews

The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca:

Almost More Famous Than the Authors Featured There

Reprinted from Fall 2014 issue of

Prose ‘n Cons™ Mystery Magazine

Image Courtesy of Mysterious Bookshop

Before we get to the shop itself, we must discuss Otto Penzler. True fans of mystery know that Otto’s “Mysterious Press” released works by greats such as Robert Bloch, Ross MacDonald, Isaac_Asimov and others. They’re also, of course, familiar with The Armchair Detective. Can you please describe for us Otto’s role in The Mysterious Bookshop?

Otto founded the bookshop back in 1979 and has worked nonstop to make it the icon it is today. Although he is also the owner and publisher of Mysterious Press and MysteriousPress.com, and a very busy editor, he is still actively involved in running the bookshop. He acquires and catalogs rare books, helps to arrange signings, and looks for publishing projects that we can do as a bookshop. This includes limited editions of popular authors and series projects like our Bibliomysteries.  

When did the shop move to Tribeca, and what’s the best thing about that location?

We moved to Tribeca in October of 2005. It was not an easy transition to say the least. The neighborhood was still in re-building mode from 9/11 and scaffolding covered every street. But the bookshop powered through and today we’re more successful than we’ve been in a long time. Tribeca itself is a quirky little neighborhood. Not exactly a shopping destination, but since it is only steps from the WTC [World Trade Center], and very close to Wall Street, Battery Park, and South Street Seaport, it is a very popular tourist destination. Best part about Tribeca: it’s very easy to get here. Almost every subway comes down to this neighborhood.  

We can only imagine that mystery/true crime/suspense writers must consider a signing at your shop a bit of a trip to the Holy Land. Do you have more requests for signings than you can accommodate?

We have way more requests for events and readings than we can accommodate. The one bad thing about this neighborhood is the lack of community, though this is changing. We just don’t have regular customers who are willing to come out, meet a new author, and stay late to hear them speak.  So, when an author is visiting from Saskatchewan and wants to do an event, we often have to decline. Not for lack of interest on our part, but for difficulty in drawing a crowd.

  That said, we do often compromise by having the author sign stock. This way we can note it on our website, monthly newsletter, and weekly email update, thus hitting a much larger audience. It also gives us a chance to get to know the author and establish a rapport. We want to help sell as many copies of each author’s books as possible and we want people around the world to get to know them. The best way for us to do that is through offering signed stock.

There must be plenty of celebrities that stroll through your shop. If so, who is your most frequent or well-known customer?

We do have a number of celebrity customers, but I will say my favorite visit was from Ian McKellen. He was looking for a copy of Mitch Cullen’s wonderful Sherlock pastiche, A Slight Trick of the Mind (McKellan will star in the upcoming film adaptation). What a gentleman!

Have you ever been completely surprised by a celebrity’s choice of reading material, and if so, can you share the story?

Nothing surprises us anymore.

What’s the biggest difference between your shop and one of those big chain stores?

A few things. First and foremost, our staff actually reads these books. We know the new stuff. We know the history. We are always reading and learning and doing our best to be educated in the genre. When you ask for a recommendation, we can point to any number of great titles we’re sure you’ll love. We have a whole host of regulars here who come by every week and just say, “give me something good.”

  Second, we offer a lot of signed first editions and we don’t charge extra for them. We believe in supplying both readers and collectors with the finest mystery titles out there.

  Third, we’re lucky enough to have an owner who is one of the foremost experts on mystery fiction. So the rare books we carry can range from the well-known titles such as The Maltese Falcon, to the more esoteric and obscure.

  Finally, we have the largest Sherlock Holmes collection in the world!  Newcomers and diehard collectors can all find something to love.

Why do you think readers are so enthusiastic about, and loyal to, the mystery genre?

Everyone’s got their reasons, from reading mysteries as a teenager to wanting an escape from the humdrum of everyday life. And all of those are valid answers. But I think those of us who really love the genre are all detectives at heart. We love a challenge.  We love puzzles.  We live to solve. We want to right the wrongs and shine a spotlight on the darker aspects of the world around us.  

Is it possible that you have a “favorite” mystery/crime/suspense book or writer?

Yes and no. For the most part I love anything well-written and creative. I often tend to go more for standalone mysteries than series. That said, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels have been one of my most consistent favorites from the very beginning. I’m also a huge fan of John Dickson Carr. Locked-room mysteries are, for me, one of the best sub-genres. It’s a shame that few authors attempt them these days. It takes a certain level of creativity and technical skill to pull off.  

In your opinion, who is the best mystery writer no one has ever heard of?

There are a number of writers that I think don’t have as much of a following as they should and I couldn’t tell you why. All are masters of their craft and consistently seem to deliver exceptional novels. This is not to say the following authors don’t have their fans, but we’re always surprised when a customer doesn’t know them. John Lawton, Denise Mina, Reed Farrel Coleman, Thomas Cook, Christopher Fowler, Loren Estleman, Michael Koryta, and Megan Abbott are some of our favorites. If you haven’t read a novel from one of these folks, do it now!

Is your business primarily face-to-face, or do internet sales constitute a larger percentage of book purchases?

Due to our proximity to the court system, city hall, Wall Street, and the WTC, we have a pretty fair amount of walk-in traffic. These folks are mostly looking for paperbacks and just straight up good reads. We also have a very large community of readers and collectors that we speak to over the phone and via email. Some of these folks have been customers for over 30 years! We also sell books through our website and Abebooks, both of which are slowly but surely catching up to our other sales options.  

Which statement do you hear most often: I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore, or, I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

Actually, what I hear most often is, “I wish I had bookshelves like these!” Our entire shop is floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with rolling ladders to access the books. It’s what we all desire to have in our homes one day (though not conducive to NYC apartments, I’ll tell you that!).

What is the actual square footage of your shop?

I’m not exactly sure, but I think it’s around 800 square feet. I do know that we have easily 5,000 to 10,000 books in the shop between paperbacks, hardcovers, and rare books downstairs.  

Would you classify your customers as more “readers” or “collectors“?

Readers for sure. Even our collectors do so because they love reading mysteries above all else.  

If one of our readers wanted to start collecting first editions in these genres, what is a good and reasonably priced book (or books) that they should consider purchasing?

First rule of collecting: always pick those books and authors that mean something to you. They may not always be the most valuable, but you’ll be proud to have them on your shelves. If you start collecting books that you think may go up in value just for that sake alone, you’re going to end up with a whole lot of books taking up room on your shelves.  

  Second rule: educate yourself. There are a variety of reference books out there that can be invaluable. Hubin’s Crime Fiction bibliography is one of those absolute musts if you’re going to be collecting classic to late 20th century mysteries.

  Third, find a few trusted booksellers and stick with them. If you start ordering willy-nilly over the internet, you’re going to get a bunch of poorly and falsely described copies. In most cases it’s just a mistake, either the dealer pulled the wrong copy or they don’t have a full grasp of the book’s true bibliographic information. But some of it is malicious. Buyer beware!

Are signed copies of books always more valuable than un-signed?

Most of the time. Condition, I think is more important. Personalized copies, though, on the whole do detract from a book’s value. No one wants to buy a signed first edition that says “To Bob, Merry Christmas.” (Unless your name is Bob, of course). The one caveat to this is association copies. So, should you come across a copy of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time inscribed to Agatha Christie, well that would be quite a find.  

Any books or writers that new collectors should avoid?

Nope. Collect what you want to collect. You can and should take chances, but do so for those books that sound interesting to you and that you would actually want to read.  

What’s the most expensive book you’ve ever sold in your shop?

There have been a number of really interesting books pass through these doors. First editions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Agatha Christie… you name it. One of my favorites was a copy of Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service inscribed by Fleming to his mistress.  I believe we sold it for $10,000.

How do you see your shop changing in the future, if at all?

I think as a whole, the buying habits of the bookselling world may need to change. Selling unsigned hardcovers seems to be more and more difficult these days. People either want the paperback or the ebook and don’t want to pay full-price for a regular hardcover. If it’s signed, that’s a different matter.  Adding value to new books, either through offering signed copies or hosting events, is a must. More so, I think booksellers need to really engage their communities.  Right now we seem to be at the mercy of Amazon or the big publishers, neither of which seems that concerned that whole neighborhoods, towns, and cities are bereft of independent booksellers, or even any booksellers for that matter. Right now we are one of only three booksellers in all of lower Manhattan - and the other two are a Barnes & Noble and the wonderful, if super-specialized, Nautical Bookshop. That’s it. For a city that boasts the headquarters of much of the publishing world this is shameful. Engaging the community, working with independent publishers, and collaborating with other independent booksellers is the way to go.

How do your customers feel about digital books? Do they prefer a book in hand, or have they evolved to read both physical and digital editions?

Physical books aren’t going away any time soon.  There are millions of readers out there, many of whom prefer a hard copy. But ebooks are a wonderful thing too. Learning to balance the two is where we’ll find success.

  I’d say that most of our customers prefer a hard copy. But we have many who come in and say that they use an e-reader and still buy physical books. They like the ease of travel with the e-reader, but still enjoy the tactile pleasure of reading hard copies. I think it will stay like this for a while yet.

  Books are not dead. If anything it’s a cultural devaluing of art (books, film, music, etc.) that’s the real problem. Everyone wants something for nothing.  

What’s the most unexpected thing a visitor to your shop might learn?

The breadth and depth of mystery fiction. It’s not all just old ladies solving tea cup crimes and serial killers stalking the streets. Not only does the genre have a very long and rich history, it’s infinitely adaptable.

  There’s a reason that many of today’s literary authors are turning to the genre for ideas.  Look at J.K. Rowling and John Banville. Look at Joyce Carol Oates who’s been walking that line for decades. You want a well-written heist novel set in Bangkok with themes of tragedy and personal discovery? There’s probably one out there.  

What else would you like to tell us about your shop, upcoming events, other details...?

Come visit and sleuth around! Support independents everywhere!

Prose ‘n Cons intended to interview the staff, then write an in-depth and entertaining feature on The Mysterious Bookshop. When we read Ian Kern’s answers to our questions, however, we realized he had already done the job for us. And so, we present the interview in its entirety:

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