Seattle Mystery Bookshop: Serving the Northwest and the Nation Since 1990
By Bill Farley
In the Fall of 1989, while I was working at the Whodunit? mystery bookstore in Philadelphia, Aaron Elkins came in for a book signing, and talked at some length about the need for a mystery bookstore in Seattle. He could not have known that my wife, B Jo, and I had noticed that need while vacationing in Seattle, and were already considering a move to Seattle ourselves.
Before Whodunit?, B Jo and I had had our own general bookstore in Michigan, but working in a mystery specialty store was like a homecoming for me. I’d been reading mysteries since childhood, when I had the Hardy Boys books and my sister had the Nancy Drews. I read them both, and concluded that the Hardy boys were wimps (or whatever we called them then), while Nancy Drew had spunk. I think of her now as a precursor of McCone, Warshawsky, Milhone, etc. In adulthood I soon found the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, which remain my all-time favorites to this day. And, though I’ve always been an accumulator of books, Rex Stout is the only author I’ve been driven to collect seriously. Thank goodness for that, because my Stout collecting became as manic as book collecting can get – from one copy of each book, to a copy of each printing, of each edition, in every language… When I found myself collecting gardening books written by Rex Stout’s sister (I have no interest whatsoever in gardening), I realized it was time to stop. So I no longer collect; I simply set aside for myself a copy of each new Stout reissue as it comes along. But I still treasure my photocopy of his birth certificate, and my one book personally inscribed to me by Mr. Stout (thanks to B Jo).
My time at Whodunit? was as pleasant as life can get, but by the time Aaron Elkins came to sign, I was feeling called to have my own shop one more time, and The Seattle Mystery Bookshop it would be. I wanted it to be a place where you’d feel surrounded by books, and where you’d find the widest possible selection of mysteries. I hoped to have items for the collector, but I visualized it primarily as a reader’s shop. How I expected to accomplish all of this single-handedly I have no idea, but not to worry: one of the first customers in the door was a young man named J. B. Dickey, who looked around at the dozens of unopened boxes and said, “It looks to me like you need help.” I just hope that I’d been half as helpful to Art Bourgeau, proprietor of Whodunit?, as J. B. has been to me in the years since then.
In addition to J. B., there were others to come who would help make the shop happen: Tammy Domike, who came in to sell new releases for NAL/Penguin Books to us, and has stayed on to sell lots of books for us. Sandy Goodrick, who came in as leader of a motley group called The Seattle Mystery Readers Club; she produced such a charming newsletter for the club I asked her to create one for the shop. She’s doing it still, and along the way became our bookkeeper, too. Susan Dennis, good customer and computer maven, led us from learning to use a mouse to having our own website. And most recently Karen Duncan, one of the motley mystery readers of 1990, became our newest mystery bookseller. With all these talented people in my future, I understand why I had felt called to Seattle.
In addition to staff, the support by authors has been instrumental in our success. Visualizing primarily a readers’ shop, I had no idea that we would soon begin hosting a stunning list of mystery writers for signings and informal discussions, including many of the biggest names in the field. The day that Ellis Peters (ELLIS PETERS!) walked into the shop unannounced, my heart nearly stopped beating. With the growth of our signing schedule, and the growth of interest in signed mysteries generally, plus the interest and expertise of J.B. in this area, we became more of a collector’s shop, without (I hope) losing our appeal to readers.
Collectors and readers, which is to say customers, are of course the real reason the shop has been successful beyond my wildest expectations. Aaron Elkins was right, that Seattle needed a mystery bookstore, and the response of customers, almost from day one, has proved that.
Actually, it began before day one. In June of 1990, as I was getting ready for a July 1 opening, J. A. Jance kindly stopped in to sign our initial stock of her books. While she was here, a customer wandered in and wanted to buy a signed book. I wasn’t prepared yet with small bills and coins to make change, but Judy Jance proceeded to make change out of her own purse, thus completing Mystery Bookshop’s first sale. (As it was a Saturday and banks weren’t open, I had to go door-to-door to break the $20 bill to give Judy her change back.)
By the end of 1998, I felt I’d accomplished what I had felt compelled to do, and I should step down (a whole year ahead of Bill Gates, heh, heh). J.B. had become the de facto decision-maker anyway, so I put a gun to his head and explained that it was time for him to buy the shop from me. In the first year of his ownership, the business has continued to grow, and I hope that owning it will continue to give him as much joy as it has given me. And I’m still around enough days to enjoy the books and to greet customers, many of whom have been coming in ever since 1990.
The Great Move 1 & 2
In 2005 we moved down a few doors to our current location! Then in 2014 we moved back!
Here are some photos to commemorate our 15th anniversary!