Paula Keeney, along with partner Ann Whetstone, is the owner of Kennebunk’s Mainely Murders Bookstore, a two-year-old independent specialty store devoted exclusively to suspense, crime, and detective fiction. We recently asked her for her observations about mystery readers and the books and authors they’re seeking out.
In two years as booksellers and two lifetimes (more than 50 years each) as mystery readers, we’ve learned that there’s a mystery novel for everyone. But books by Maine writers have a special place, both literally and figuratively, in our store–right inside our blood-red doors. It’s the first stop for many new visitors to our shop–shortly after they ask, “Any mysteries about Maine?” Or, “Do you have any mysteries set on Maine islands?”
Here, they’ll find books by every member of Maine Crime Writers. And, because we specialize in quality used books, our selection can include a writer’s entire output, and often in both paper and hard cover.
While we bring in the new releases of all our Maine writers, we do so with the knowledge that it will create greater interest in the earlier titles we stock. Whenever possible, we have a complete run of series books.
For instance, Julia Spencer Fleming, our neighbor in nearby Buxton, first captivated readers with In The Bleak Midwinter (2002). But, each new book sends us readers wanting to “start from the beginning,” a phenomenon we’ve observed across the board.
Over the last two years, Gerry Boyle has been a big seller, with his earlier Jack McMorrow books leading the way. (Newspaperman Jack is one of my favorite characters and I’m always happy to recommend him.) Paul Doiron doesn’t have Gerry’s backlist of titles, but with The Poacher’s Son, and its sequels he’s given readers a new hero in game warden Mike Bowditch. And again, readers want to start from the beginning.
Our customers can’t seem to get enough of Sarah Graves’ Home Repair is Homicide series. It could
be Sarah’s wonderful writing or the fascination with the financial consultant to the Mob moving to northern Maine, but she’s an easy sell–especially from our shop that sits adjacent to our 1790s home (currently undergoing home repairs to the entry hall and stairwell). We’re looking forward to April’s A Bat in the Belfry.
Kate Flora has most recently developed a following with her Detective Sgt. Joe Burgess series, while her Thea Kozak continue to sell steadily. Readers who want a good old-fashion New England mystery (I do! I do!) love Lea Wait’s Shadows Antique Print series. Thanks to Kate’s recent release of Redemption and Lea’s spring release of Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding, they’ll send a new audience back to earlier books.New releases that entice readers back to earlier titles and have readers clamoring for more (and future) books clearly pave the way for more interest in Maine’s mystery and detective fiction.
It is, however, going require that writers, publishers, AND booksellers make a concerted effort to reach readers. As a bookseller, I can say that two out of every three Maine mysteries we sell have been on our recommendations.
As independent specialty booksellers, we see one of our missions as introducing our customers to books we think they will enjoy. (This is probably where I could point out this is something that only local independent booksellers are capable of doing. After all, we truly know our customers!)
The latest blockbuster Patterson-Baldacci-Cornwell book requires little “selling.” They’re available from every discount venue both online and off. But, they don’t rank at the top of Mainely Murders’ bestsellers.
From the beginning, our sales have been dominated by Maine authors and two other widely divergent fields: the “classics,” both American (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John MacDonald, and Richard Stark, for example) and British (Catherine Aird, Agatha Christie, Reginald Hill, and Patricia Moyes) and the burgeoning international field (Cara Black, Anne Holt, Arnaldur Indridason, and Donna Leon).
Many titles in these areas are either no longer in libraries in the case of classics or not easily available in libraries or even in stores in this country. So many English translations of foreign writers and lesser-known books by British authors never make it here.
While, no doubt, the popularity of the books we sell reflects our own interests, it is also explained by the level of sophistication of our customers. Clearly, people who seek out a specialty store like ours are looking beyond the latest New York Times bestseller. More and more, that includes the books of a growing stable of outstanding Maine writers.
Like all specialty booksellers, part of our role is to help our customers find the right books. we have customers we have started, for instance, on Sarah Graves. (Near those books we have a chronological listing of her books.) When they’ve reach the end of her books and say, “What next?”, the fun begins and we start asking questions. What did you like about the books? Often, it’s the Maine setting, so that’s easy. Maybe it’s the character of “Jake;” then we go from there. We ask lots of questions.
Kate Flora: Writers admire anyone courageous enough to open a bookstore these days, so we asked Paula and Ann what led them to this decision:
Mainely Murders is only two years old, but we talked about it for more than 30 years. As I recall it started in about 1976 or 1977, when we were both teaching at a Arkansas State University (Ann, history; me, journalism). A young reporter asked us recently why after all these years did we decided to do it now. Our reply, “Look at us; if not now, when?” We’re old! But, truthfully, mysteries are our passion and spending our time talking to people about them is a joy.
Mainely Murders Bookstore (www.mainelymurders.com), a member of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, publishes a free monthly e-mail newsletter (firstname.lastname@example.org). See website for seasonal hours.