A storybook ending

Fate conspired to bring a bookstore, a former employee and local diehard mystery fans together

Photograph by Tracy Tucholski

Gus is a regular, but he isn’t Sara Barnes’ best customer. In fact, he might be her worst. But you’d never know it as she flashes him her biggest gap-toothed smile when he barrels into the store, and you certainly wouldn’t suspect it as she giggles when she hands him a sugar cookie and watches as he downs it in one hungry gulp. She even runs into the back room to fetch him some water, nodding approvingly as the wiry-haired mutt laps it up from a dish on the floor. Barnes then scoots over to Cynthia, Gus’ owner, and begins offering reading suggestions, and it’s clear that everyone—four-legged or otherwise—gets the same intimate treatment at Booked for Murder, Madison’s only bookstore focusing solely on mystery and crime fiction. “I get excited when someone walks in the door,” Barnes says with a grin. “I get to show them stuff, help them out and make them happy.” Barnes’ unwavering customer-first attitude is what’s helped make Booked for Murder a twenty-year success story in a market where owning an independent bookstore is anything but a guaranteed proposition. According to Nielsen BookScan, the leading market research firm measuring retail book sales, mystery, detective and true crime titles account for only four percent of the total book-buying market share. Which is probably why, according to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, Barnes is one of only forty booksellers in the country who deals exclusively in crime and mystery. But despite the market share, business is steady thanks to a unique subculture of book lovers who depend on Booked for Murder not just for its offerings—most books are only a mouse click away—but for the community of like-minded readers who gather there. An unlikely story The day I visit Booked for Murder to talk shop with Barnes, we sit on the velvety maroon couch surrounded by a comfortable clutter of shelves, racks and tables in a brightly lit space. She’s dressed comfortably in jeans, with silver earrings dangling below her close-cropped, graying hair. Dance music from the 1920s plays softly in the background, and I decline her offer of one of Gus’ favorite cookies. “Up until recently, owning the store felt a whole lot like being on a horse with no saddle or bridle,” Barnes says. “I don’t know where the horse is going, and all I’m doing is trying not to fall off.” Barnes laughs as she says this, and then launches into the story of how she became the unlikely fourth owner in the history of Booked for Murder. After a five-year stint as the manager of the Ivy Inn, Barnes lost her job when the longtime Madison hotel closed its doors. In the aftermath, she was feeling adrift and unsure of her next move. She unexpectedly came into some money, so her decision was one that did not require an immediate, life-changing plan. She sought out a job she thought might be fun, and ended up working part-time at Booked for Murder. She thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was only three months before her life U-turned once again. Her parents had been in a horrible car accident, and even though they both survived, they were in need of constant attention. Without any hesitation, Barnes packed up her life and moved to Aurora, Minnesota, to care for them. In order to pass the time during the ten stir-crazy months she was there, she began to dream up a bookstore in her mind. “I kept a scrapbook, a little daydream book,” Barnes says. “If I had my perfect bookstore, what would we carry? What would it look like? What would it feel like?” When she returned to Madison, one of the first stops she made was at Booked for Murder. She saw the serendipitous “For Sale” sign in the window, and at that moment she knew what she was going to do. Even though she had completed all of her bookstore prep on a whim and had no bookstore experience save for her previous part-time position, she decided to purchase the store anyway. Booked for Murder’s founder, Mary Helen Becker, still regularly frequents the store and often offers up her experience and advice. Terri Bischoff, the previous owner Barnes purchased the store from, has now flipped roles with Barnes and works there part-time. “It’s a little odd, I guess,” says Bischoff, “but I still get to be in the store and talk to the customers and recommend books.” It’s this kind of give-and-take that begins to explain the enigma of how a tiny 1,680-square-foot space has bucked the odds from the beginning and stood firm beneath looming shadow of its chain competition and the uncertainty of the Internet. Filling a Niche The store’s inventory includes everything from Agatha Christie-type whodunits to thrillers to darker, bloodier ruminations on the human condition. This wide-ranging selection has certainly contributed to its long-term viability, but the store also offers something intangible: a feeling of community for its patrons, who often refer to the store as their own. The Notorious Canary-Trainers, a cult-like crowd who read nothing but Sherlock Holmes mysteries and parse them detail by detail, hold their book groups here, as do others. Many of Booked for Murder’s customers avoid buying mystery books from any other outlet and often spend their free time reading and relaxing there. Unlike Gus, Gary Johnson is one of Barnes’ best customers. Friendly and soft-spoken, his personal book collection is some 1,400 and counting. At any given time he can be found reading five or six books at once. More often than not, three of them are mysteries. Like a lot of mystery readers, for Johnson it’s less about solving the puzzle than it is the connection he finds with the recurring characters and locations in a series. While he purchases from bookstores all over town he always buys his mysteries at Booked for Murder. “I don’t know if people realize how great their customer service is, and how they have always been willing to do anything for anyone,” Johnson says. Sara Steele, a retired UW professor, stops in Booked for Murder monthly and never leaves empty-handed. Barnes, like Bischoff before her, sets aside books she knows Steele might like, and then hands her a stack when she shows up. “They may have tired of walking me through the shelves and pulling out the new arrivals,” Steele jokes. Well-known and respected Madison author Marshall Cook launched one of his murder mysteries at Booked for Murder concurrent with a blood drive. Barnes remembers the event well. “I don’t think the restaurant next door liked that so much,” she says with a smirk. Beyond local writers, some of the biggest names in the field—Janet Evanovich, Dennis Lehane, and Michael Connelly—have held readings at the store. Ben LeRoy, the publisher at Madison’s multi-Edgar Award-nominated Bleak House Books, says these face-to-face events are vital to building relationships, but more importantly, for creating a sense of community around an individual book. And it’s these kinds of connections that lead to a bookseller being able to make recommendations that go far beyond the newest and hottest releases. Alan Abramson, a serious collector with more than two thousand books, including many rare and first editions, has been shopping at Booked for Murder since the day it opened in 1988. “Everyone who works there is an addict themselves, and they have an incredible knowledge in the mystery book field. They’ve always had a sense of what I’ll like,” Abramson says. Barnes plans to keep Abramson, Gus and the rest of her customers happy just as long as she can with a vision for the future that includes website improvements, inventory changes here and there, attracting younger readers, and maybe even adding some more new carpet and paint. No matter what the future holds for a niche bookseller like Barnes, her intentions are clear. “You know, all I really want is for the store to be full of people talking about books. Their favorite books.” Jason Albert is a Madison-based writer.

Madison Magazine - October 2008
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