04 April 2016

Care and Feeding of a Mystery Bookstore

by Jan Grape

It's almost a forgotten thing which is a shame. Independent mystery bookstores. Yes, still a few around but not so many as there were at one time.

My late husband, Elmer, and I were looking for something for him to do when he retired from commercial construction in late 1989. He had been doing handy man work, house inspections prior to their sale and he had decided he was getting to an age where crawling around attics and under floors in the TX heat was not fun anymore.

We discussed a few options and then our daughter, Karla said, "Why don't you open a mystery bookstore? Mom's writing mysteries and you both enjoy reading. Dad can sit around and read." Oddly enough neither of us had thought of it. We came up with the name Mysteries & More.

We talked to a few people who owned a mystery bookstore and got good advice. It only took a few weeks to realize you'd never have enough time to read all the books you wanted to. We also discovered it might be a little better to mainly have used books. We had a swap policy where the customers could trade in books and we kept a record of their credit.

Our store, Mysteries & More, started about twenty percent new and eighty percent used. It soon became 20 to 30 percent new. And we did offer science fiction, biographies, historical, non-fiction and a few romance if they were romantic suspense, but we didn't routinely order anything new except mysteries. However, we did order any new book a customer requested. Thus the & More in our store name.

We rented a nice space in a strip center near our home. Elmer built all the bookcases and the front counter. In the back we had a small rest room and nice little lounge and storage space. In the beginning, we had a couple of chairs so people could sit and read if they felt like it. That didn't last too long because we need more space for bookcases and books. When we first opened, our shelves ran around the sides and across the back. We had to place books on their backs to make the shelves look full. Later on he built more bookcases which lined the middle part of the store.

Elmer & Jan Grape with Bill Crider & Vivian Vaughn
Grand Opening of Mysteries & More
We opened in July, 1990. And our grand opening was on July 9th and our first author signing for that opening was this mystery writer guy who is the second most famous person from Alvin, Texas. His name is Bill Crider. (Most famous, of course, is some baseball player and owner.) We also had a Dallas lady named Vivian Vaughn who wrote historical romantic suspense.

I'm not sure if Susan Rogers Cooper remembers but we met her that day and I think her second book, Houston In The Rear View Mirror had just come out or was due to come out. We asked her to do a signing shortly after that, which I think was her first ever book signing.

We decided to specialize in local authors (Austin and all of Tx and soon included OK, Ark and NM.) I had started attending Bouchercon in the fall and at least one other mystery con in the spring. Edgars, Malice Domestic and Magna Cum Murder or Left Coast Crime. While attending these cons and meeting authors I was able to set up signings with authors who were not regularly doing book signings in Austin. As my husband always said, he ran the store and I talked about it. I did all the promotions and public relations work.
Elmer, Sue Grafton, and Jan

In Austin, at that time, the major bookstores were Book People, B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble. We began ordering author's back list. Like Sue Grafton's. Guess what? The big box stores began ordering back lists to compete with us. Our first signing with Sue Grafton was such a huge success. We ordered 400 copies, sold out and I had to go to B Dalton a couple miles away and buy fifty more books. Fortunately, I had already made friends with the manager. He sold them to me 30% off which was so nice.

Sue likes to stand up while signing because she likes to be on eye level with people. Elmer had built a large table for author signings. He built a box so Sue could stand and sign comfortably. The box sat on the large table he had built that could seat three or four authors at once and we always tried to do a group signing. That way the author didn't feel alone plus if a person only knew and read one author they might meet someone else they liked.

We also did drive-by signings. Authors who were in the area and just called to come by and sign. I'd call a few regular customers and especially if I knew the customer read that author and invite them to come and get a book signed.

Of course, I did signings in my own bookstore. One of the most fun things we did during this time was host a mystery con in Austin. We named it Southwest Mystery Con.We had bid on Bouchercon and didn't get it. We did our presentation in California and the other group bidding was in Seattle, WA. Most fans attending were from CA and they kept thinking they could drive there easier than to Tx. Turned out that was a blessing. It wasn't until we did the Southwest Mystery Con that we realized how much work was involved.

We had 476 people attend and 125 authors. We had BBQ for our banquet and stopped in the middle of dinner to let everyone who wanted to, to go outside and watch the bats fly out from the Congress Avenue Bridge. It was Memorial Day weekend and the Mexican free-tail bats had just returned for the summer.

We had a wonderful volunteer group but Elmer had to handle all the book stores attendees and their placement and spaces in the book room. I handled the programming, the authors, editors, and agents. (I don't know how Judy Bobalik does it.)

We enjoyed the store and were in business until 1999 and we decided that we wanted to buy an RV and travel. We needed to retire and weren't able to sell the store so we liquidated. We traveled for three summers coming back home in the fall until 2002 and we moved into the RV full time. Our store was able to cover expenses but we never made any real money doing it.

It was a labor of love. Of people and of books. This is what most indie bookstore owners say. There are two or three that have made it. But we enjoyed every day of it. We honestly enjoyed the authors, the customers and being able to read new books and help promote new authors.

6 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Your store sounds terrific, Jan! A real labor of love. And I lament the loss of so many great independent book stores along with you. But I hear that hard copy book sales are coming back, so maybe there's hope.

janice law said...

The charm and enthusiasm that made your store a success comes through. A great piece and weren't your area authors lucky to have a good store.

Leigh Lundin said...

It sounds idyllic, one of those daydream jobs like owning a bar or restaurant, but the work involved must have been enormous. In fact, a local business combined a bookstore and coffee shop quite successfully until they went upscale.

I visited a sweet bookstore in Dublin or Columbus, Ohio run by a couple of creative women. The store was deep and narrow, but they cleverly divided it with a comfortable, garden-like reading area between the two halves, a summery haven on a winter’s day.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed your bookstore, Jan. You have a way of making people feel comfortable and welcome. Great article!

Eve Fisher said...

Great bookstores are priceless. There's one - The Antiquarian - in Omaha that I always spend hours in...

Bill Crider said...

That was a great store, Jan. I remember that signing well, not to mention a few others I did there. And some of the books I bought while I was there, too. You and Elmer had a good thing going.

Vivian Vaughan wasn't from Dallas. She was also living in Alvin at that time. She's since moved to Houston, and I've lost touch with her.

Barb Goffman said...

I love that you made your dream come true. Even if you didn't make huge profits, you were able to break even and make it work, which is great. Thanks for the inside look.