Mystery Bookstore Creates a "Wow" Experience

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The six-year-old I Love A Mystery specialty bookstore in Mission, Kansas, tripled its square footage when owner Karen Spengler purchased a building on a main street and relocated the store earlier this year. The store's move to the new, 2,700-square-foot location on a more traveled street, which was executed without a hitch, has been a positive step for all -- customers, staff, and other local businesses.

As the name implies, I Love A Mystery sells new and used mysteries of all types, from traditional whodunits to thrillers, suspense, and espionage. The inventory is augmented by a large selection of books published in other English-speaking countries, as well as titles published by small American presses. Mysteries for children are also available, and among the most popular titles are those in the Nancy Drew and Lemony Snicket series. The store also stacks some select nonfiction titles that might be of interest to customers, such as Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Spengler said that customers are far more comfortable in the expanded space and they like having a place to put down their armloads of books while stalking bibliographic quarry in the back of the store. "People loved our old store," she told BTW, "because it was cozy and full of mysterious stuff, but since we've moved into our new space, the number-one comment we get when people walk in the door is 'wow!'

"It's still cozy -- we describe it as 'Victorian library with a twist' -- but now it's also 'wow.' We've adopted a new tag line to go along with our new space: I Love a Mystery, It's Not Just a Bookstore, It's an Experience."

I Love a Mystery sells and serves coffees and teas as well as packaged cookies from a popular local cafe. "The coffee that we brew and serve in the store is Dead Man's Reach, which is one of the Raven's Brew varieties," she said.

Spengler, who is currently unable to work in the store due to illness, entrusts the hands-on running of the store to her longtime friend Becci West. "We've been best friends since just after high school. I'm godmother to her two daughters. I like to tell people that when the store was new, I knew a lot about mysteries, and she knew nothing -- she wasn't a mystery reader then, but she did love retailing. Now she knows everything, and I don't, and it irritates the heck out of me."

Door to the office of "Samuel Spade, Private Investigator."

By navigating through the Book Sense lists, Spengler finds a wide variety of titles that fit into her niche. "I go to Book Sense whenever I put out a newsletter -- approximately monthly -- and choose all of the mystery and suspense books that are either Picks or Notables that I haven't already used. I reproduce those recommendations in my newsletter under the heading 'Book Sense Picks: What Other Booksellers Are Reading.' They aren't limited to the books featured as Mysteries in the Picks flier because I think that subheading is a little limited.

"We have an in-store display using the same books that I feature in the newsletter. We also give an extra 10 percent discount on those books to members of the local public television station and use Book Sense fliers as bag stuffers for every purchase. We report to the [Book Sense] Bestseller List and submit recommendations [to the Picks lists]."

Some of Spengler's biggest mysteries are not on the shelves, but in the real world. For one thing, the possibility of a new Borders store hangs like a dagger over I Love A Mystery. But despite that, Spengler decided to "take the bull by the horns," leaving the old 960-square-foot location and buying a new building about six blocks away to house her new store.

The Mission City Council has never responded to her concerns about plans for a new Borders Books & Music in a mall currently under development. Although in 2004, residents' protests prompted local politicians to pass zoning laws successfully deterring Wal-Mart from building a store at the same mall site, a year later, new developers convinced the city council that a new Borders would supply "missing retail components" to downtown Mission.

Spengler responded in an op-ed article in the Kansas City Star, reprinted in Bookselling This Week in November 2005. "Bookstores, however, are hardly a missing component," she stated. "The proposed Borders is three-and-a-half miles from Barnes & Noble, six miles from another Borders, a mile-and-a-half from Rainy Day Books, and a third of a mile from I Love a Mystery bookstore in Mission."

Residents and city council members were concerned that a superstore [Wal-Mart] would drive local retailers out of business, Spengler told BTW, "but they don't see the same problem with a Borders.

"When I talked to some of the council members, they were dismissive of my concerns, which I've come to realize is indicative of how little they understand of the dynamics and difficulties of running a small business -- even though I have no doubt that their intention is to be conscientious and thoughtful in carrying out their duties as elected officials."

The move to a new location has been good for I Love A Mystery, however. Soon after the relocation, the street in front of Spengler's old store was closed indefinitely to through-traffic, as a result of city's flood plain redevelopment project. "We really needed the space and a busier location. Major redevelopment in town is adding a lot of new residential space with much more foot traffic," said Spengler. "The new store is getting rave reviews from our customers and the media. I'm so glad I took the plunge." --Nomi Schwartz