As demographics shift and readers become unwilling to travel far for books that they could order without leaving their desk, it's become increasingly important for independents to distinguish themselves not only with service and selection but proximity to where their customers live or work. So like Denver's Tattered Cover and Worcester's Tatnuck Bookseller, which are both about to open branches close to their flagship stores later this month, 15-year-old Poisoned Pen a Mystery Bookstore and More in Scottsdale, Ariz., is in the midst of renovating a second location, in downtown Phoenix, to open in January.
Currently, Poisoned Pen's customer base is 70% out of state, but owner and president Barbara Peters hopes to attract more walk-ins at the new store and even out the customer balance to 60% out of state and 40% local readers.
At the new 2,000-sq.-ft. Poisoned Pen Central Bookstore, "we'll be really close to the downtown working crowd," Peters told PW. The store will be in the 85-year-old Bentley Projects warehouse, named for the art gallery that recently purchased it. Other occupants of the building include a cafe and a frame shop.
Although Poisoned Pen was founded in 1989 as a mystery bookstore, in recent years it has broadened its selection to encompass other types of fiction and some nonfiction. "It has happened gradually in response to customer requests," said Peters. "People need someone to screen fiction and narrative nonfiction, and that's our ace." The new store will also focus on mysteries, but have a small core of general fiction and nonfiction, as well as an art and architecture section, in a nod to Phoenix's art district.
Poisoned Pen has long been known for its full calendar of events. Between store activities and community ones, it holds close to 250 author talks a year. (Peters's rule about author events is discuss the book, don't read from it. "People can do that at home," she said.) The Phoenix branch has already begun hosting some events. For Halloween, Poisoned Pen sponsored a fantasy event at Bentley Projects featuring 11 authors, including Diana Gabaldon, Stephen R. Donaldson, Laurie R. King and Dana Stabenow.
Events—and mail orders connected to them—are key money makers for Poisoned Pen, which is why Peters, who refers to herself alternately as "the rainmaker" and "events coordinator," is in charge of both. She prefers to have her staff handle day-to-day operations, while she reads and makes author and publisher connections. "My goal," she said, "is to make the staff self-sufficient. Many small businesses think they can't afford staff; they're not selling books."
Peters estimates that Poisoned Pen sells roughly 40%—80% of each new hardcover novel before it reaches the store. "Almost all the hardcovers we sell are autographed, so we appeal to collectors," she said. For paperbacks, it's a different story. "I can see the effect of Amazon there," Peters added. Customers can find out what's being published by subscribing to the store's newsletter, which costs $40 a year for those who purchase less than $99 worth of books annually; $15 for those who spend more. Currently, 5,000—6,000 customers are paid subscribers. There's also a weekly e-mail, for which the store charges an additional $6.
While most booksellers don't charge for their newsletters, those who take Peters's advice on what to buy find that the newsletter can pay for itself. Customers who purchased signed first editions of Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomasin's Rule of Four (Dial), for instance, saw their investment increase nearly eight times in less than a year. (A $24 mint-condition hardcover of the novel is now listed at $189.95 on Alibris.) "For customers, it's kind of like antiqueing and looking for treasure," said Peters.
Pre-sales at Poisoned Pen frequently rival those for other bookstores, including stores that racked up big numbers from pre-pub appearances by former President Bill Clinton. In late October, one month before publication and before Clive Cussler and his son Dirk's signing of their first coauthored book, Black Wind (Putnam), Poisoned Pen had advance sales of 500 copies. (Some orders came from as far away as Australia.)
If Peters gets behind an unknown author, the store's pre-sales can be equally impressive. This summer, she sold 186 copies of Jeff Lindsay's debut novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter (Doubleday) without any in-store promotion with the author.
For Peters, who came to bookselling after studying law and earning advanced degrees in history and library science, it's all part of the bookselling "magic. The bookstore was going to be a hobby," she told PW. "All the great experiences in life that go into writing books, this is true of bookselling."
In 1996, Peters and her husband, Robert Rosenwald, spun off a separate mystery publishing business, Poisoned Pen Press, where Peters is editor-in-chief and Rosenwald is publisher. "We had become more and more aware that good books we wanted to sell had vanished from our shelves," said Peters. "One day my staff said to me that instead of raging about it, why not reprint some?" The publishing house has more than 200 titles for sale on its Web site (www.poisonpenpress.com) and through national distributors.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Peters was paid a very big compliment by Yxta Maya Murray. The writer was so impressed with the store when she visited for a signing that she wrote a book about it, The Queen Jade (HarperCollins/Rayo, Feb. 2005). In the novel, the store is renamed the Red Lion.