BY OTTO PENZLER
It is an unhappy fact, though no less true for its sadness, that independent bookstores in America (and soon, I’ll wager, in the rest of the world) are in jeopardy.
There are many reasons for this, of course, as no large and dramatic changes ever seem to be caused by a single sudden event, except possibly the Big Bang.
It is easy, and necessary, to point to the proliferation of the big chains, like Barnes & Noble and Borders, which, in spite of their denials, have malevolently established many of their superstores as close as possible to well-established independent stores. They then offered astonishing discounts, advertised heavily, brought in comfortable easy chairs next to their coffee bars, and welcomed authors for readings in order to capture local book buyers. Inevitably, the established stores saw their customer base diminish and, ultimately unable to pay rents, salaries, insurance, utilities, and the myriad other bills shoved through the mail slot with the regularity of tides, they were forced to close their doors. Without exception, this occurrence is accompanied by the lamentations of many of the very same book buyers who abandoned these stores, seduced by the siren song of discounts. These discounts, of course, not to mention those padded easy chairs, dramatically diminish or go the way of the dodo bird as soon as the competition has had the last shovelful of dirt tossed on its grave.
The rise of Amazon.com and other online sites has also contributed to the demise of “brick and mortar” stores. With no expensive urban rents to slice away at profits, and fewer salaries and benefits to pay to employees, Amazon.com and its relatives have been so successful that several chains have found themselves in their own expanse of quicksand.
We have all seen the depressing, even chilling, statistics about the reading habits of Americans. A survey titled Reading at Risk, commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007, found that 57 percent of our countrymen had not read a single book in a year. Just mull that over for a moment. Can you imagine going a full year and finding nothing-nothing!-that you needed or wanted to read? As someone who makes his living as a bookseller, editor, publisher, and author, I feel that maybe I didn’t make the smartest career choice. Actually, it wasn’t my first career choice, which was playing center field for the New York Yankees, but that’s not really the point.
There’s more. The average American reads five books a year. When you factor in students who are assigned a fair number of books, plus those of us who read many more than five, there are a lot of folks out there pulling the average down. It would be enough to make you laugh, if you don’t weep, to learn that 27 percent of the pollsters admitted that they hadn’t read a single book in the year. A pertinent quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, is “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” If you want to shudder, the question that leaps to mind is whether those 57 percent of Americans don’t want to read or can’t read. Neither is an attractive option.
Not at all surprisingly, then, The Mysterious Bookshop, which I opened on Friday the 13th of April, 1979, found itself in financial straits a few years ago. It had been struggling for a while, and the move from its first home in midtown Manhattan to hip downtown Tribeca did nothing to improve its circumstances. Not being wealthy, partially by accident of birth and the failure of my parents to leave me an obscene fortune, I was faced with the increasing difficulty of supporting a business that was bleeding money-some months a mere trickle, others a rushing, roaring hemorrhage.
To illustrate the level of desperation to which I had fallen, I called for a staff meeting. There are many reasons to risk the perils of going into business on your own, and one of the best is to avoid the meetings that seem to fill the days of those who toil in the corporate world. At this unprecedented event, I told the people who work with me of our situation, holding nothing back, and asked for ideas that might help us save the store (and, not to be blithely overlooked, their jobs).
A pertinent digression: Every year, I commission an original short story from one of the authors I know. The story has three requirements: it must have an element of mystery, it must be set during the Christmas season, and at least some of the action must transpire at The Mysterious Bookshop. We print the stories in handsome pamphlets and give them to our customers as a small Christmas present to thank them for their patronage.
Back to the meeting and the discussion of the sinking ship. Someone said that our clients really love those Christmas stories; maybe we could commission another story and give it away in the summertime. This seemed a nice idea, but counterproductive. We needed to find a way to make some money, not another way in which to spend it. When we broke up the meeting, I threatened to have another one but, in the meantime, asked everyone to keep thinking.
In the dead of night, as I waited for sleep to rescue me from worrying about the store, the pamphlet idea popped up again, and I came up with a twist. How would it be, I wondered with the optimism that three a.m. can induce, if I asked some of my author friends to write a biography, or profile, of their series character? We could then print them in handsome little pamphlets and give them to our customers-but only with a purchase. They would, naturally, love these profiles so much that they would come back every month to get the next one, and our sales would soar. The next day I got the cost estimate from my printer, and the idea suddenly seemed shaky. Let me rephrase that. The idea suddenly seemed stupid. Furthermore, I never ask writers to write for free. Adding the authors’ fees to the printing cost made the whole thing prohibitive-until the mercenary niche of my brain, incredibly, shook off years of rust and provided another suggestion. For the collector market, produce 100 copies of each of the profiles in hardcover, ask the authors to sign them, and sell these very desirable limited-edition collector’s items. And we did produce them, the authors signed them, and collectors bought them.
More than two years after initiating this series, we’re still in business, which, against all odds, has picked up nicely. Many clients come in, call, or write each month to ask who will write the next profile, and then buy books in order to get a copy. The limited editions frequently sell out, covering all costs and even a little more. Many of the authors, beyond the reasonable call of friendship, have forgone their fees, generously calling it their contribution to the well-being of the bookshop.
Regrettably, not every reader of mystery fiction is a customer of The Mysterious Bookshop, so it made sense to bring these essays and stories to a wider readership by collecting them in a single volume with the broad distribution that Little, Brown can provide. This handsome volume, The Lineup, is the result. As for the profiles themselves, you are in for a rare pleasure. You will find that these remarkably talented and creative writers have taken many different and colorful approaches to telling readers previously unknown facts about their creations. There are short stories tucked into the biographies, interviews of the characters, revealing looks into the authors’ lives and creative processes, and even frequent insights into the characters that came as revelations to their creators.
It is impossible for me to find words to express my gratitude to these wonderful writers, for their quick and positive response to a humble call for help. Take a look at the names of the contributors, and you will see the truth of the old adage that “the bigger they are, the nicer they are.” As a mystery reader, you will find many of your favorite authors in these pages, and maybe you will also get a taste of someone you’ve not read before now, thereby gaining an opportunity to enjoy a whole new series about a character to whom you have just been introduced.
I do not hope you enjoy these splendid character sketches; I know you will.