Bookseller-publishers Otto Penzler and Barbara Peters launched their specialist bookshops a decade apart, and that’s just the start of their differences.
In 1979, Penzler, seeking additional space for his four-year-old publishing house, Mysterious Press, opened the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.
Peters, a former librarian at the Library of Congress and an apprentice attorney, wanted to open an independent bookstore for her local community in Scottsdale, Ariz. She founded the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in 1989, and eight years later, with her husband, Robert Rosenwald, started Poisoned Pen Press.
Now approaching her third decade in business, Peters is quick to launch into informed analyses of industrywide publishing trends. Penzler, by contrast, is more apt to talk about the deluxe limited editions that he publishes, which can only be purchased from his store.
Perhaps nowhere are they further apart than on the issue of Amazon. When Peters heard that a number of authors whom she’d supported for many years had signed deals with Thomas & Mercer, Amazon Publishing’s mystery imprint, she did something highly unusual for an independent bookstore. “I opened up a dialogue with Amazon and got very favorable terms [for purchasing books] and publicity support,” Peters says. “In many cases we’re the only bookstore event they’ll have.”
The decision, she notes, boils down to loyalty: “Mine was entirely predicated on not abandoning authors I have a relationship with. And if I was criticized by my fellow booksellers, I was willing to live with it. We have authors with whom we’ve dealt from the very beginning of our careers.”
The arrangement reflects her underlying concern about the state of mystery publishing overall: “Where’s the new surge of authors comparable to the 1990s?” she asks. “How do you build a brand for a new author with far fewer bookstore outlets?”
It’s a serious matter for a bookseller who prides herself on spotting new writers, cultivating relationships with them as they develop their careers, and inviting them to participate in one of the nearly 300 events she hosts each year. Author events are so central to the success of Peters’s shop that she describes her bookstore space as “a theater” where “we don’t do book signings—we do programs.”
In January, for instance, the shop will host Douglas Preston (in person) and Lincoln Child (via Skype) for a joint interview, q&a, and signing in support of City of Endless Night. Peters expects to sell 4,000 copies of Preston and Child’s book in conjunction with their event.
Peters acknowledges that mysteries are a major component of the store’s sales but says: “I’ve spent the last 18 years unbranding us as a mystery bookstore. Primarily we’re a fiction bookstore and slanted toward commercial fiction, with science fiction and romance.” She cites the bookstore’s relationship with Diana Gabaldon, author of the time-traveling historical romance series Outlander, as one example. Gabaldon lives nearby and stops in regularly to sign first editions of her books.
On the other hand, Penzler’s devotion to mystery fiction is so great that he’s hesitant to extend his true crime section beyond a shelf or two of space; his basement is packed with 2,000 Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
Where Peters sees a decline in up-and-coming mystery authors, Penzler is having none of it. He believes there are as many major authors today as in previous decades, and he’s unconvinced that big names are the only draw for events.
“What does really well is a local novelist, because then it becomes a huge party,” he says. He’s fond of local police officers, lawyers, judges, and journalists who write books. “We rely a lot on the authors to bring in friends, family, colleagues, followers,” he notes. “If a cop has a book and invites his friends, they show up and buy a book.”
Penzler won’t carry Thomas & Mercer titles, and is emphatic when he says he will never stock titles from any Amazon imprints in his store. He and Peters have known each other for a long time, and understand each other’s operations well, but he describes reaching an agreement with Amazon as a “repugnant” decision. “Why would I support a company that wants to put me out of business?”
Peters respects his position, but is also unwavering in her own. “Every bookstore reflects its community,” she says, “and those of us who have survived have had to find new strategies.”