Tribeca Whodunit: Battle Amazon & keep a mystery bookstore open

Otto Penzler, owner of Manhattan’s last mystery bookstore, has managed to hang on. He said Amazon is “rapacious and evil, but they do in fact do a great job.” Downtown Express photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic

Otto Penzler, owner of Manhattan’s last mystery bookstore, has managed to hang on. He said Amazon is “rapacious and evil, but they do in fact do a great job.” Downtown Express photos by Dusica Sue Malesevic

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | (Originally posted Sept. 23, 2015) Mysterious Bookshop’s almost floor-to-ceiling crammed bookshelves — complete with a rolling ladder — would do any library in an Agatha Christie proud.

And like Christie’s mysteries featuring bucolic English estates, the Mysterious Bookshop has lasted.

For 36 years, the bookstore has withstood Amazon, e-books and competitors to be the last of its kind in Manhattan to exclusively sell mysteries.

On a recent sunny Saturday, a steady trickle of customers came into the spacious shop at 58 Warren St. in Tribeca. Books crowded tables while a couch and green chair waited patiently in the center of the store to be used.

“I like that it is an old-fashioned bookstore — they’re not selling candy, they’re not selling T-shirts. It’s kind of rare these days,” said Bill Hoffmann, a Greenwich Village resident who used to go to Partners & Crime, the mystery bookstore in his neighborhood that closed three years ago.

“If this store folds,” he said, “the city is finished.”

Otto Penzler, 73, is the owner and force behind the institution.

Growing up in the South Bronx, Penzler didn’t read many mysteries, but the one he did made an impression.

“I was in the fourth grade, I remember it vividly,” he said last month during an interview in his 2,400-square-foot store.

Seated in the shop’s comfortable brown leather couch across from the children’s nook, Penzler explained how his school had library class, and the first part was devoted to how to properly care for and handle books.

In the second half, he said, students were allowed to take any book they wanted off the shelf. He serendipitously took out an anthology that included Sherlock Holmes’ “The Red-Headed League.” (The back wall of the store is dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation.)

“I started reading and I was about, I don’t know, halfway through the story when the class ended,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what happened and it was driving me insane until I could get back to the library and finish reading that story. I loved it.”

After graduating from college and returning to New York, that Sherlock Holmes story stayed in his mind. He had spent university reading James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Russian novelists and Herman Melville.

“I couldn’t stop reading ‘cause I loved it, but I wanted to read something that wasn’t going to make my head hurt,” he said. “So I thought mysteries would be a great place to go — it’s simple, it’s easy, it‘ll be fun.”

He added, “As I read more and more I came to realize that there was really serious literature in that field — once I came across people like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and [Edgar Allan] Poe, who I had read before, but mostly I read the horror stories.”

In the ‘60s, Penzler started working for the New York Daily News as a copy boy, earning $37 after taxes a week. He liked collecting books and first editions and earmarked $5 of his pay for them.

“I skipped some meals occasionally to buy books,” he said. “It’s a disease.”

He worked as a statistician and then as a sports writer for the Daily News for six years. After that, he joined the publicity department of ABC Sports just as “Monday Night Football” began in 1970. He left to write for “The Reasoner Report,” hosted by former “60 Minutes” correspondent Harry Reasoner.

Meanwhile, Penzler’s book collection grew. When his friend Chris Steinbrunner was commissioned to write a book, he asked Penzler to collaborate. “Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection” was published in 1976 and won the Edgar, a prestigious mystery award.

Steinbrunner wrote the entries on movies, television and radio; Penzler wrote about the authors and books, he said.

Working on the encyclopedia encouraged Penzler to start Mysterious Press in 1975. In the beginning, the publishing company’s office was his apartment in the Bronx and Penzler was a one-man show — negotiating contracts, editing, hiring artists for jacket covers, doing production, typing invoices and sending out review copies, he said.

“It was all fine until I had success and I couldn’t keep up,” he recalled.

He needed help but didn’t feel he could call a secretarial service to send someone to his apartment, he said. So Penzler started looking for a place in Manhattan.

“I couldn’t afford the rents so I wound up — I know this sounds ludicrous in today’s real estate market — but I wound up buying a building on 56th St. with a partner,” he said.

The real estate market was different at that time, he said, and the city was going bankrupt and it was being taxed to death by then Mayor John Lindsay.

“So from my life savings of $2,000, I put a down payment down on this building, which cost $177,000 — six-story building in Midtown Manhattan,” he said. “It’s hilarious. I didn’t even know. I had no idea that it was — I lived in an apartment my whole life. I wasn’t thinking about it as a real estate venture, I was thinking about it now I can have an extra room, I can have some space.”

Now that he had space, he thought it would be fun to open a bookshop. On Friday the 13th in April 1979, the Mysterious Bookshop opened at 129 W. 56th St. The shop could have opened a couple days earlier.

“I just really liked the symbolism,” Penzler said. “I am not superstitious, we’re going forward on this date.”

Mysterious Bookstore at 58 Warren St. also has a small children’s section.

Mysterious Bookstore at 58 Warren St. also has a small children’s section.

For 26 years, the bookshop was in Midtown. When his partner wanted to sell the building, Penzler couldn’t afford to buy his half.

“The real estate market had changed dramatically since 1978,” he said with a laugh.

After selling the building, Penzler scouted for another location in Midtown, but it was by then unaffordable for a bookshop. A real estate agent steered him to the bookshop’s current location. Next month will be the store’s tenth anniversary in Tribeca.

It hasn’t been easy to keep an independent bookstore afloat — overhead in New York City is “astronomical” and the profit margin for books is modest, said Penzler.

Competition has been fierce, first when Barnes & Noble became successful and expanded and now with Amazon.

“Of course, when Amazon opened, it was just brutal,” he said. “A lot of people loved the discounts, a lot of people loved the convenience and look, I’m not happy about saying anything good at all about Amazon, who I think are rapacious and evil, but they do in fact do a great job. That really was a big challenge.”

Penzler said there used to be six mystery bookstores in Manhattan — including Foul Play, Murder Ink, Black Orchid Bookshop — in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but all have since shuttered.

“Now there’s just us,” he said. “I’m just too stubborn to close.”

Penzler, who continues to work as a publisher and has edited many anthologies, said, “A lot of that money went into the money pit here.”

Penzler credited the store’s staying power to its name recognition due to Mysterious Press and his publishing and editing career, which has led to lots of ink.

“I live optimistically thinking that every interview I do, I’m going to find a few new customers,” he said, “and sometimes I do.”

He also lauded his staff, calling his manager, Ian Kern, and the rest of the five-person fulltime staff “unbelievable.”

“I would have gone out of business if it weren’t for him,” Penzler said of Kern. “He held the store together when things were going really really badly.”

 

 

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3 Responses to Tribeca Whodunit: Battle Amazon & keep a mystery bookstore open

  1. Wow.
    I didnt even know that this bookstore even exist.
    Many of my followers in twitter posts this.
    Great post :).

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  3. This is a great bookstore having books all kind of. I know this sounds ludicrous in today’s real estate book market.

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