JB Dickey happened to walk into the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on the day that they received their first order of books from late, lamented west coast distributor Pipeline in 1990. There were boxes everywhere. He made a deal with Seattle Mystery founder Bill Farley: “I traded him work for store credit” on that first day, Dickey says, and “a few weeks later, I ended up starting with him part-time so he could do other, non-bookselling things.” In those early days, Seattle Mystery Bookshop was one of hundreds of mystery-only bookstores in the US. Today, Dickey estimates that it's one of "about fifteen, maybe twenty."
Before he became a bookseller, Dickey was a painter — one of his originals hangs behind the register at the Bookshop today — and he never suspected that he’d one day wind up owning the store, even though “I’d been reading mysteries for most of my life, and I was on a heavy diet of mystery movies and TV shows, so I was familiar with all the conventions.”
Turns out, bookselling was in his blood. He concedes that “it was a nice fit.” First he worked one day a week, which quickly became a couple days a week. By the time his son was born in 1993, Dickey says, “it was really evident that it was time to close up my studio and just sort of give myself over” to the store. “I never set out to be a bookseller, and I never set out to be a small business owner.” But here he is.
It’s a Monday afternoon, and Dickey and Seattle Mystery bookseller Amber are on duty. Amber’s specialties include urban fantasy, golden age mysteries, Agatha Christie, and mysteries for kids. Dickey reads literary fiction, big-name authors like Lee Child, and true crime. On the staff, everybody knows everybody else’s beat, but their tastes evolve naturally. Dickey says, “I’ve never been one to assign reading. We all read whatever we want to read.”
Does Amber ever try to convince Dickey to give urban fantasy novels a try? “It’s just not his bag. If I had to recommend one, though, I think the author he’d like the most would be Jim Butcher. But you can’t force somebody to read something they’re not interested in reading,” she says.
So what do they do when someone comes in who says they don’t especially care for mysteries? Amber usually proposes a thought experiment: “think about what you watch on TV and think about the movies you like.” Most people don’t think of themselves as mystery fans, she says, but they'll spend hours a week watching mysteries. “Chances are we can find something for you.” Dickey adds, “sometimes people will say ‘I don’t really read mysteries,’ and then you ask them a few questions about their interests. Maybe they like to travel, so you can get them a mystery set in a foreign land. Some kids are interested in science or computers. There are mysteries that are set in every different kind of passion.”
With such a varied stock, do they ever fail to find a book for a customer? “We couldn’t find an accordion mystery,” Amber admits. Also, “we couldn’t find a mystery set in the French Revolution,” although a few days after that customer search happened, she said she realized that The Scarlet Pimpernel would have fit the bill. Dickey and Amber start sharing customer service stories. They recall the young man in his 20s who was despondent after the staff had to inform him that Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a real person. One woman asked if Jessica Fletcher (of Murder She Wrote fame) ever came in for a signing.
Amber and Dickey start talking about Sherlock Holmes, which turns into a conversation about James Bond. Soon, they’re discussing a wide range of subjects: whether the larger trade paperbacks that have largely elbowed out smaller, cheaper mass market paperbacks are “elitist;” ways the publishing industry could have better handled the transition to e-books; the importance of fan fiction. It’s a delight to listen to people talk about books with such passion and knowledge. When I say as much, Amber nods. “We love our books,” she says. “We love ‘em. You don’t get into books for the money. You have to love them.”