The Seattle Mystery Bookshop opened in historic Pioneer Square in the summer of 1990. The store sells new and used, a large stock of signed firsts and a selection of collectibles—and it mails books to discerning mystery fans all over the planet.
Seattle Mystery is a tourist destination and an author destination, hosting author signings nearly every week—sometimes every day. The novelist Jacqueline Winspear recently called it “a place where everyone knows your name.”
JB Dickey bought the store from its founder, Bill Farley, in 1999. When we asked Dickey how he came to work at Seattle Mystery, he said: “We all came by working here the same way: wandered in and asked the boss if they needed any help.”
For those of us who haven’t been there, tell us about the store, its customers and its neighborhood. We’re in Pioneer Square, where Seattle began. We’re just a block from Yesler, which began its life as the path down which they dragged the logs to Henry Yesler’s sawmill. The dragging was also called ‘skidding,’ and this gave the name of the route to ‘Skid Row’ and that’s the origin of the term. Pioneer Square is full of small shops, boutiques, restaurants, and characters.
What will we find at Seattle Mystery that we wouldn’t find anywhere else? A depth of selection not available at a corporate shop or most large independents. Since we specialize and have used and collectible books, we have a far wider selection of authors and their books.
On your website, the tagline is “mysteries for those who know what they like and for those who haven’t a clue . . . ” Is your job a little bit like detective work? Yeah, we’re often called on to deduce answers to all sorts of arcane questions, from “I read a book 20 years ago; it was red and had murder in the title. Do you know what it was?” to “I read a review a couple of weeks ago, either in The New York Times or somewhere about a new book, and I can’t remember the name of it but it had to do with cooking.” And then there are harder ones!
Will you recommend a few books for mystery newbies? That’s part of being book sleuths. Folks will often come in saying “I haven’t really ever read a mystery but would like to try one. What do you recommend?” We often will start by asking what else they’re interested in: culinary, the environment, foreign countries, American/British, male/female author, etc. Then we make a few recommendations based on those answers.
Okay, supersleuths, how about a culinary mystery set in the Northwest? Here are three: Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park, which is set in Vancouver BC and involves a restaurant owner; GM Ford’s Slow Burn is set at a convention of global restauranteurs; and Mary Daheim’s latest, out in July, is All the Pretty Hearses, which deals with death by bad hamburger meat.
Nicely done. Do you think there’s a particular flavor to mysteries written by Northwest authors and set in the Northwest? Perhaps it’s a bit darker (like the weather and the forest floor) than other regions, but with a healthy sense of humor (often dark, like gallow’s humor) but utilizing the easy transition from urban/city to rural/wilderness (other regions in the country may not have the close mix of cement and cedars that we do here). Quirky, perhaps, but as wide a range of styles and flavors as anywhere else. People ask why Seattle has so many authors and we always answer that the Pacific Northwest is home to many hobbies that are all indoor pursuits: reading and writing, drinking coffee and microbrews, going to movies, and serial killing!
Will you name a couple of Northwest mystery authors that embody this kind of dark hermit-y-ness? Ridley Pearson’s Lou Boldt series captures this well, I think. And Clyde Ford‘s maritime private eye, Charlie Noble, whose stories are set in the San Juan Islands. John Straley‘s series with Alaskan private eye Cecil Younger and Fredrick Huebner’s series with Seattle attorney Matt Riordan.
Do you read outside the mystery genre, and does that make you feel like you’re cheating on the store? There is continual pressure to read as many mysteries as possible to be able to stay current with what’s going on and what’s coming out. Tourists and regulars are forever wanting something and someone new, so we try to keep up. But we do allow ourselves to read outside the specialty of the shop. Some read history or biography, science fiction or baseball, architecture and woodworking. Sometimes you have to step out of the groove to stay fresh and keep it fun.
Seattle Mystery hosts tons of author events. Will you describe an author event highlight during your career at the store? In the 20+ years we’ve been here, we’ve had the honor of hosting a huge number of authors—names like Dick Francis, Ross Thomas, Donald Westlake, Sue Grafton, for instance—sometimes just once and sometimes for every new book. JA Jance, Jayne Ann Krentz, Ann Rule come to mind. It’s always fun to watch long-time fans finally get to meet their favorite authors. But the really fun ones are the first-time authors who are finally getting to sign their debut novel and bask in the glory of friends and family.
The most recent was a young guy named Urban Waite and his debut The Terror of Living. We’d read it and loved it and had promoted it heavily and we had a large number of reserves (copies to be signed and mailed out around the planet). We take pains to explain to new authors that their friends and family
members are their natural pool of buyers and that they should heavily promote the events and try to get as many of those people into the shop as possible. Well his ‘pool’ of people flooded the shop, and he was ecstatic and aglow, surrounded by all of these people he knew and some he didn’t. Some authors aren’t very good at self-promotion, but those who are can have a very good time. And sell a ton of books!
From what we read on your blog and your answers here, Seattle Mystery sounds like a pretty bustling store. Is that accurate? There are always days when it feels as if someone has locked the gates at either end of the block to keep people out, but, yeah, overall it is a pretty bustling place. From early Spring (when spring breaks start) to end of Summer (when schools start up again), Seattle is a destination for tourists from around the planet, and we get a healthy flow of them through our door. Then, too, there is our mail order business to customers around the planet who may’ve never set foot in the shop. They’re either ordering something that the chains where they live don’t stock or something out-of-print and harder to find, or a signed copy by an author who isn’t touring in their neck of the woods. So ‘bustling’ is fair.
How do you respond to the gloom and doom predicted for the book industry? Certainly, e-books are taking a bite out of printed book sales. But there is also the over-all economy, which is making it tough for everyone. We have a mass-market consumer-driven economy, but the mass-market consumer doesn’t have enough disposable income, and the wealthy can only read and buy so much. Add to that the fact that publishers are pricing their books out of the reach for the mass consumer (e-books have become not just a convenience but also a cheaper alternative to hardcovers), and it all seems fated to collapse. It’s a merry-go-round that is both slowing down and out of control.
If there’s a future for little independents like us, it is in used books (which we’ve always had to broaden our selection) and small independent mystery presses, whose books tend to be more interesting and not as widely available at the corporate shops. But it’s different for every shop, in every city. Seattle is a very literate city, and we get a constant flow of authors in town to sign.
If I could predict the future, I’d be a stock broker, not a bookseller. I’d play the ponies, buy lottery tickets, corner the market on orange juice futures . . . For now we are booksellers, still an honored and respected pursuit. And that’s worth something.