In 1983, Jill Hinckley, a burnt-out urban planner, quit her job and decided to open a mystery bookstore. She had no experience as a bookseller, no experience in retail and almost no seed money. One year later, her friend and customer Carolyn Lane, an educational consultant who also had zero experience in retail, joined the business as partner. Twenty-five years later, Murder by the Book in Portland, Ore., is a solid success, a destination store for mystery lovers from all over the region, and has new blood in an ownership role.
Although Hawthorne Blvd. is now one of Portland's most dynamic inner-city neighborhoods, that wasn't the case when the store first opened. While passion for business and smart decisions have had a lot to do with the store's success, Hinckley acknowledged that being in the vanguard of “the Hawthorne renaissance” played a part, in that a quirky bookstore fit perfectly into what soon became a popular, quirky neighborhood. Inside the store, Hinckley's decision to organize its sections into subcategories proved extremely popular. Today, in 1,100 square feet of active retail space, the store has more than 25 sections, all with punny names: Yardbirds (British police detectives), Prime Time Crime (mysteries related to TV shows or movies), Shot on Location (featuring other cultures). Once customers find an author they like, they can go back to that same section and find others with a similar style. The unusual arrangement has become a defining trait of the store.
In addition, Murder by the Book aims to carry authors' complete series. “Most big stores don't carry much backlist,” Hinckley noted. Each author's series is shelved chronologically, for readers who prefer to start with the first in a series. “We treat shelving as a god,” Hinckley said. That devotion to shelving means “our staff have to know the stock inside out,” Hinckley added. “Since we shelve chronologically, and we started that policy in the days before computers, people have to have the whole series in their mind.” Everyone who works at the store is capable of figuring out from the thinnest clues what book a customer is asking about, and making recommendations. “The recommendations are key,” said employee Barbara Tom.
Service goes beyond responding to questions. Staff members greet customers by name, remember their preferences and make personalized suggestions. Judi Maxwell, a customer for more than 20 years, said, “Jill puts aside things for me, things she knows I will like. She and I have very, very different tastes, yet she knows what I like.”
All this adds up to a place where people enjoy hanging out. Tom compares the store to an old-fashioned general store, while store manager Jean May adds, “We are more than a bookstore, we're part of the community.” This is partly the result of the owners' efforts to forge strong relationships with neighboring merchants.
Technology has given the store new ways to keep in touch with customers, including a monthly newsletter, Murder by the Bye. The electronic version is free, hard copy by regular mail costs $3 a year. They also produce “Murder by the Month”—a list of all mysteries being published each month; subscriptions are $12 a year for regular mail, $5 a year for e-mail. And there is the Book Club, in two versions. The standard version, $10 a year, keeps track of every book a customer buys and even alerts her if she tries to buy the same book twice. It includes a one-time 10% coupon. The premium version, $35 a year, adds free shipping on orders of $50 or more and 10% off every purchase.
To celebrate its 25 years, in May the owners threw a huge party, with 25 days of special events. It was also a time for reflection by the two founders. Hinckley decided to retire, and sold her share of the business to Tom. Lane is semiretired, but still serves as financial officer and consulting partner. Tom wants to maintain the founders' original vision but spread the word more broadly. To that end, she is looking for ways to reach younger readers, such as increasing inventory in harder-edged areas including fantasy and supernatural-themed mysteries and tying-in to television shows and movies. Tom is also looking at increasing her ties with other merchants in the neighborhood. “We are going forward,” Tom said, “with blind optimism.”
Stuckey is a freelance writer and passionate mystery fan in Portland, Ore.