The Charms of A Small Bookstore, Vol II
What makes one small bookstore stand out from another in my estimation? Several things come to mind and are best explained in the context of a specific example.
The Seattle Mystery Bookshop is a venue I cherish highly. The shop is located underneath the southwest corner of Second and Cherry in historic Pioneer Square. They specialize in mysteries – a genre I love to collect. Many of their customers come to them for the latest mysteries, but their shelves also include collectible copies of older books, from good reading copies of out of print material to truly rare volumes. Their inventory of new material is consistently varied and of far greater depth and scope than can be found on the shelves of your local chain bookstore; their used inventory is extensive, eclectic, and dependent upon whatever serendipitously comes their way. You can always be certain to find something of interest in the new inventory; you can never know what you might find among their used books. This blend of certainty spiced with serendipity makes it the perfect venue for a collector of mysteries.
Here is what the Seattle Mystery Bookshop has that cannot be found anywhere else in the greater Seattle region:
• Focus – While they can order any book in any genre you like, their passion is for mysteries. They focus specifically on the genre and know the publishers and authors active in the genre better than anyone else in the region.
• Knowledgeable, Friendly Staff – Their staff knows their subject matter well, and different staff members have specialized knowledge of various sub-genres. It isn’t unusual to find yourself dealing with one staff member who eventually invites another into your discussion because of the other’s greater depth of knowledge as to a particular sub-genre. Each member of the staff reads mysteries for personal pleasure, so their involvement with their inventory is personal and passionate.
• Extensive Inventory – As noted, they have an entire store – 1500 square feet – devoted to mysteries. I don’t know of another bookstore in the city with this much space devoted to new and used books within a single subject area. Their books are arranged alphabetically by author, so finding books is easy. If you are looking for new authors, the staff will point you toward possibilities based upon your likes and dislikes. And they won’t press you to buy something you don’t like the looks of; rather, they will offer two or three suggestions for you to explore, and offer their own take on what each suggestion brings to the table.
• Depth of Inventory – Not only does the store have the latest volume by your favorite author, but they most likely will have several of his or her earlier volumes as well. So when you first discover an author new and dear to you, you will often find his or her earlier material readily at hand in their inventory.
• Collectibles – For a crazed bibliophile such as myself, the availability of rare books – first editions, limited editions, and the like – in a store carrying the most current inventory is a true bonus. Within this inventory lies the serendipity I spoke of, for these items come along only when their previous owners decide to sell. The store often has new additions to their collectibles inventory, so each trip in to pick up a current new book can be spiced with a romp through the rarities. I bought my first Raymond Chandler first edition from the store and well remember the day I walked back to my office carrying it tightly under one arm while I savored the pleasures it promised.
• Quality of Collectibles – You will never find a collectible book in their inventory which is falling apart or lacking pages. The condition of older books will, of course, vary in accordance with how well they were treated by the previous owners, but the staff does not purchase used books which are in poor condition. And a visit to their store will not leave you disheveled or dirty, because they keep things neat and clean – ok, maybe some dust here and there.
• Ordering – What they don’t have, they will find or order. They can always order current material which they don’t presently have in stock, and you can leave a list of older titles you are searching for with them and they will keep an eye out for them. If you aren’t a collector of first editions and are simply searching for a good reading copy of a particular older title, they are well versed in which publishers republish older authors and can quickly identify what is currently in print.
• Quarterly Newsletter – They publish a quarterly newsletter of upcoming publications that frequently extends to five or more pages and covers both large publishers and small presses. This is very helpful to anyone who loves mysteries. In my own case, I read each new issue of the newsletter carefully and email them a list of upcoming titles I want to purchase, and whenever I visit the already published books on my list are waiting for me – leaving me time to look through their remaining inventory.
• Author Signings – They offer frequent author signings by both well-known and relatively unknown authors. Author signings are published in advance in the newszine, and, on occasion, by email. Where else could I have shaken the hand of Ellis Peters, John Straley, Jayne Anne Krentz, Dana Stabenow, or Ian Rankin and his wife? Where else could I have shown an upside down bound volume of White Jazz to James Ellroy and have him fuss with it, only to laugh when I revealed the mis-binding – and to have him sign that volume and a correctly bound version with the hand written advice to read one upside down and the other right side up? Where else could I have been privileged to have Ian Rankin teach me the correct pronunciation of the Gaelic toast ‘sláinte’? Authors like the store because the staff is friendly and makes their appearances easy and efficient, and frequently return when they could be spending their time in a large chain store.
So why patronize bookstores like The Seattle Mystery Bookshop if price is one of your goals? While it is true that you will pay the full list price for the books you buy there, your purchase will come not only with the benefits I’ve listed above, but also with the ability to inspect, handle, and hold each book you buy before you pay for it. If, like me, you are a true, dedicated bibliophile, you will instinctively understand the joy and comfort this adds to your life.
Without your support, book stores like The Seattle Mystery Bookshop will not succeed. They have rent, staff and books to pay for, and they cannot do so without a sustaining group of regular patrons. Invest in friendly folks who are likely to become some of your best friends.
- Steve Ellis