How I made money from mysteries

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When Otto Penzler was preparing the opening of The Mysterious Bookshop in 1979, he enthusiastically planned an opening party. Everything was arranged: the authors were signed, the guests received an answer.

There was only one small mistake: the former sports journalist and bookseller had no money. “The day before I realized that I had no money for wine, vegetables or bread,” says Penzler. “Then I remembered that I had a piggy bank somewhere. I took the piggy bank, poured out $ 385 worth of quarters, and went shopping for champagne and chips. But the first few years [of the business] were a terrible fight. I borrowed $ 20 from my unemployed brother to buy pasta to eat. ”

The former Midtown bookstore Warren Street is now America’s oldest mystery specialty bookstore. It survived and thrived – even in gloomy times. The shop was completely closed in spring 2020 and Penzler had to take all of his staff on leave, except for one person who processed online orders. Things seemed dark.

But a PPP loan allowed him to get his staff back, pedestrian traffic slowly returned, and a tolerant landlord offered rental breaks.

And incredible customer support poured in. An author who wanted to remain anonymous offered to pay Penzler’s rent for him (he declined the offer). Another customer bought a $ 2,000 gift card.

“I had a customer who wrote to me, ‘The day you open, I’ll give you $ 20,000 and it’ll be my store credit,'” says Penzler. “It came back so I don’t want to bewitch it.”

Penzler also founded several publishing houses, including American Mystery Classics, Mysterious Press, MysteriousPress.com, and Scarlet. (“Chloe Cates is Missing” by Mandy McHugh will appear in January from the latter masthead.) They are all profitable, which he attributes to his publisher Charles Perry. “He knows a lot more about publishing than I do,” says Penzler. “The publishers – they’re all in black ink, and that wouldn’t be true without him.”

If you want to open a bookstore, Penzler gives you two pieces of advice: “One piece of advice is to take books that are out of print, not just new ones,” he says. “Then you have something that Barnes & Noble doesn’t have. And get writers to sign in your store. It’s the added value that I can offer that Amazon cannot.


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