On an uncharacteristically blustery Saturday, Seattle Mystery Bookshop employees Fran and Adele are getting the store ready for an author visit, but they’re happy to stop for anyone who wanders in out of the windstorm. They sometimes greet visitors with the words of the bookshop’s owner, JB Dickey: “you’re welcome to stay as long as you like, but we won’t feed you and we won’t do your laundry.”
Fran has worked at Seattle Mystery Bookshop for over 12 years. Adele can’t recall if she’s been there for five or six years, but she knows she’s been shopping at the store for 17 years. The transition from one side of the counter to the other seems effortless, in retrospect. “I ran into Fran on the street one day and she told me one of their employees was going to be leaving. She asked if I wanted to apply.” She did. Adele laughs, “I was the one employee JB hired who he didn’t ask ‘...and who do you read?’” After all, he’d been talking books with her for over a decade by that point.
A mystery-only bookstore is a unique pleasure. In a general-interest bookshop, the mystery section tends to look trivial, slammed up against the sci-fi section and overrun by cheap-looking mass-market paperbacks. But in Seattle Mystery Bookshop, a browser can see the nuance of the genre. One display features comedy mysteries. Another contains the first books in recommended series. Many shelves, nearly a full wall, are given over to Northwest authors. A walk around the shop will reveal sections full of rare pulp paperbacks, noir stories, young adult mysteries, a Sherlockiana section, and a true crime section full to bursting with books by local author Ann Rule, who passed away earlier this month. (Seattle Mystery Bookshop employees have a ton of stories about Rule’s many appearances at the store through the years, most of which revolve around the way she treated everyone at her signings with kindness, even the people with glassy stares who demanded she uncover the truth about Kurt Cobain’s death.)
As you may expect for a shop specializing in a genre that leans toward series, Seattle Mystery Bookshop has its share of obsessive-compulsive customers who seek out the latest edition of their favorite detective series on the first day of publication. Fran explains that some of their most frequent customers are “people who are insanely loyal to an author. We love those people.”
And the Bookshop loves authors, too. Novelists will return time and again to the store’s lunchtime signing series. For instance, Fran says, “Jackie Winspear will fly up on her own dime to support us [with a signing] if necessary. Author support has been a big deal” for the store. You’d think staff would get a little blasé about all the novelists floating through, but Fran says “we still fall apart on meeting some authors, make no mistake.” She names a few names — Michael Chabon, Michael Connelly, Jasper Fforde — who freaked even the most veteran booksellers out. Adele proudly says Carol O’Connell “threatened to bitch-slap me” because she was so nervous during an event.
After the signings, every visiting author is asked to sign the store author book. They’re assured that the only other people who will ever see its contents, besides Seattle Mystery Bookshop staff, are other authors. Fran encourages the authors to lean to the naughty side of things: “you can draw pictures, you can be risquee and obscene.” She said for a long time, authors would communicate to each other through cartoons. If you haven’t published a mystery she won’t let you flip through the book, but you might be able to convince her to tell you about some of its contents: Mary Daheim sketched a piece of toast, Anthony Bourdain drew a beautiful picture, Jim Butcher composed a haiku.
As you might expect when booksellers and authors get together, gossip flies. Hang around the shop long enough in one of its comfy chairs and you’ll learn about the nitty-gritty of the mystery industry. On book covers, “cats sell,” and so even if there are no cats in the stories, publishers will frequently try to sneak one onto the front. One author successfully argued with her publisher because the solution to her latest mystery was revealed on the cover. A local author originally set his novel in Seattle, but the editor and publisher insisted that he move the series to New York. Another author claims that her contract is so ironclad that there’s even a clause indicating that her work belongs to the publisher even if humanity discovers alien life and sends the book into outer space.
Pioneer Square used to be the closest thing Seattle had to a publishing district, but now Seattle Mystery Bookshop is one of the last bookstores left in the neighborhood. The shop has a defiant feel to it. The staff saw Pioneer Square decline into seediness — everyone remembers the Mardi Gras riots of 2001 — but now they’re watching it sway back to a trendier part of town, with fancy restaurants opening a few blocks away and new tenants moving in seemingly every day. Some customers still stop by looking for Elliott Bay Book Company, which moved to Capitol Hill in 2010, but more and more, people seek Seattle Mystery Bookshop out as a destination in and of itself.
“I told my friends about you,” a young woman with a gaggle of tourists in tow explains to Adele as she walks into the shop, “and they had to come in and see it for themselves.” Adele welcomes them with a huge smile, tells them to grab a book and sit down and make themselves at home. That’s just what they do.