Sunday, March 14, 2004

Ode to my favorite bookshops 

As no doubt I've mentioned a zillion times on the blog, I spent a fair amount of my time in Manhattan working at Partners & Crime, one of the four mystery bookshops in the city. The New York Daily News profiled each of them over the weekend, although they designate Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop as the best of the bunch. Me, I like 'em all and always will. Every time I go back to New York, I have to spend time (and a fair amount of change) at each place, although in some instances, I stay much longer than the average customer.

So, here are my own impressions of each place:

Mysterious is the Collector's Paradise. You go up the stairs (which are kind of scary) and the entire top floor is devoted to first edition hardbacks. If Otto doesn't have it, he knows how to get it and from where. They also have a really nice stock of UK paperbacks, and I've replenished a few backlists from shopping there. I admit that it's the shop I know the least because for some reason, I had amnesia about the location (yes, it's behind Carnegie Hall, but it's amazing how many times I'd get lost if I walked from my school towards there) but the last few times I've been there, the customer is greeted by Dan, who mans the paperback section. He's pretty cool.

Murder Ink is on the Upper West Side and has been for many, many years. Because I lived there during my NYC days, I haunted the shop a lot (probably too much, if you ask certain people there, but what the hell.) But along with the rows and rows of out of print stock, shelves of paperbacks and hardcovers that greet you at the window and are located in droves in the high shelves (the better for authors to sign stock with), there's Gus. I love him. He's a shaggy dog of some breed (I forget which) and he would alternate between sniffing the grocery bags I inevitably carried while browsing and sleeping on the floor in a distinctly catatonic manner. Tom Cushman, the manager who was interviewed for the DN piece, is someone I really enjoy talking to during my visits. He doubles as a literary agent so his knowledge of the book business is extensive--and often times, rather caustic. But whenever I think I'm letting my idealistic, pollyanna outlook get the best of me, I go chat with Tom for a hefty dose of cynicism. And more importantly, he knows his stock and the business inside out.

If there's a reason why the owners of Black Orchid refer to their customers as a loose, sprawling family, it's because it's absolutely true. Bonnie and Joe are amongst the nicest and kindest people I know. It's easy to love them because they care--about books, about the genre, about people. They befriend authors and it sticks. They have a loyal customer base, and people who would never dream of mail-ordering from another shop. Though the shop, on E. 81st between First and Second, is not the easiest to get to, it's worthwhile every time, because one never knows who's going to drop by. The last time I was there, I talked to Bonnie for a bit and then a friend of mine who had literally just arrived from England turned up, and we had a very nice chat as well. So yeah, it's a family thing, and it's great such a community of book lovers exist.

And finally, my "home" shop. Partners is really the only mystery bookshop that's set up for proper event signings, as it's got plenty of room in the back for seats and the author to do his or her spiel. There's also an extensive UK section--both first edition and paperback--because of the owners love for the UK and their desire to make imported books available to their customers. Because it's in Greenwich Village, equidistant between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, P&C gets a lot of walk-in traffic, but they have a good base of mail-order customers as well. And the staff certainly knows its stuff--can't put much past the two Maggies, Kizmin, and Kate Nesbit, who manages the store and coordinates author signings. I learned a hell of a lot working there, and had I not, I wouldn't be as deeply knowledgeable of the book biz in the first place.

The point is, each store complements one another, and while I suppose they compete, I never really viewed them as competitors per se. Different neighborhoods, different strengths and weaknesses. Tom Cushman thinks Murder Ink will "be around a while," and I agree--but I also think all of them will stick around in some form or another, and hope to hell that's the case. New York is fortunate to have as many knowledgeable book people who devote their energy to crime fiction, and I'm glad I was one of them, at least in a small part.

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