Fifteen years ago, at the start of the millennium, PW named Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., one of 11 innovative businesses destined to influence publishing in the 21st century. That would be a tall order for anyone, much less a mystery bookstore in a tourist area. But by 2000, Poisoned Pen, which opened in October, 1989, had already proved that a small independent can have an outsized importance in its community and the book ecosystem beyond.
Since then, Poisoned Pen has transformed itself into a literary bookstore with strong mystery, thriller, and history sections. Founder Barbara Peters, a self-described “book lover who’s figured out how to sell books” after careers as an attorney and an intern at the Library of Congress, attributed the store’s success to its ability to change with its local environment. “I feel very strongly,” she said, “that bookstores reflect their community.” From the beginning, that has meant creating a strong mail-order (and later online) business. “We were driven to doing mail order,” explained Peters, “because we’re in a tourist community. I remember the day after we opened, [my husband] Rob went out and bought a fax machine and programmed it with 15-digit international numbers.” Although the fax has long since been replaced by the store’s website (poisonedpen.com), e-tailing continues to complement sales at Poisoned Pen’s nearly 4,000-sq.-ft. location in Old Town Scottsdale’s art district.
Poisoned Pen also began partnering with area writers early on. In addition to selling signed first editions of local authors’ books, the store began handling fulfillment for those authors’ websites, beginning with Diana Gabaldon’s in 1993. It has since added sites for Clive Cussler, Sue Grafton, and Kevin Hearne. Online sales now represent about 60% to 65% of the store’s sales.
The Pen continues to invest in both its physical space and its online presence. For its 25th birthday, it spent $93,000 to create a new website and update its software, as well as adding a new sound system, new furniture, and a new cash wrap to the store. On top of that, the Pen restained its floor, painted two bodies on top, and put up crime-scene tape.
But it’s not just in online or international sales, which comprise 15% of overall sales, that the Pen has been leading the way. It was also one of the first stores to add a publishing program. In 1997, before there was even a hint of an Espresso Book Machine, Peters and her husband, Rob Rosenwald, began publishing books to fill in inventory gaps at the bookstore, particularly early titles in long-running mystery series. That soon shifted to original publishing and the creation of Poisoned Pen Press. Operated as a separate corporation, the press releases 36 titles a year. The bookstore gives Poisoned Pen Press titles a prominent location near the cash wrap. “Otherwise,” said Peters, “we promote Press books just as we promote Putnam or Harper or Hachette, on equal terms.”
The bookstore was also an early adopter of taping its events and making them available online, beginning with local-library video interviews in the 1990s, which are still available on YouTube. About eight years ago, it began to record its events and now makes many available on livestream. Its livestream archives go back nearly two and a half years, with authors including Karin Slaughter, John Sandford, and Louise Penny.
Not every initiative that Poisoned Pen has tested has worked. In January 2005, Peters opened a second location, Poisoned Pen Central, as part of Bentley Projects, a renovated warehouse in downtown Phoenix with an art gallery, restaurant, and framing shop. After the city temporarily shuttered the building two years later because of code violations, the bookstore was unable to regain its momentum and closed. Peters walked away from that episode virtually unscathed and focused her attention on her main store, where she added a back room. Her take-away: “We cannot clone us. Poisoned Pen’s about the people who work here. We need to put all our energy into the one location we have.” The store continues to host and staff events in libraries and other venues throughout metropolitan Phoenix.
Over the past few years, Peters has turned the store into what she called a “show business.” That’s because Poisoned Pen holds 200 events a year and can seat 160 people. In-store events are held at night; Peters is looking for new ways to draw people into the store during the day and to that end this winter Peters plans to add a third discussion group and with writers’ workshops taught by visiting authors. “It may be that we’ll put a lot of effort into it, and it flops,” she said. But she’s willing to take the risk. As she likes to remind staffers, “You have to embrace chaos to work here.”
Sales so far this year have been strong, but Peters doesn’t want to grow just for the sake of growth. “It’s not so much about working too hard as it is about having to expand the space, hire more staff, and retool. That can result in lowering profitability while increasing effort,” she explained. Not that the decision is entirely hers to make. “It’s up to the staff,” she said. Peters, who turns 74 this month, has written the staff into her will. Her succession plan is to give them the bookstore corporation when she dies.