Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Closing the Book on Murder Ink

I want to tag on to Dick Adler’s earlier post by noting the news today that Murder Ink, New York City’s first independent mystery bookstore, will close on December 31 after 34 years in business. This is of particular interest to me, not only because I am fond of crime-fiction bookstores in general (including my local one, Seattle Mystery Bookshop), but because Murder Ink was the first establishment of its kind I ever visited.

This was sometime in the early 1980s, when I was making my initial, post-college journey to Manhattan. Although financial constraints and family obligations compelled me to stay with my mother’s relatives in New Jersey, I bused in to New York every morning for a week, and stayed until the last daily departure from Midtown’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. What I remember best is walking--everywhere, uptown, downtown, miles and miles. And at one point, my feet took me to West 87th Street, where Murder Ink was then located. (It has since moved to 92nd Street and Broadway.) I was already familiar with the store’s existence, thanks to the fact that it had lent its name to a Dell paperback imprint, and its then-owner, Carol Brener, was acting as an editorial consultant for Dell, sanctioning the publication of one intriguing mystery title after another (the first of that series being Sheila Radley’s Death in the Morning, released under the Dell banner in 1980). But I didn’t quite know where it was to be found, and Manhattan was an unknown country to me at the time, so I probably hiked miles out of my way as I circled the store, eventually landing there late one afternoon.

Brener greeted me, and she was amused to hear that I’d traveled cross-country to gape at so many crime novels in one space (a relatively small one, as I remember it). She showed me around most kindly, asking what I liked to read (Ross Macdonald, George C. Chesbro, and Collin Wilcox at the time) and suggesting other authors I might want to try. I think I came away from that drop-by bearing William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, Geoffrey Miller’s The Black Glove, Lawrence Block’s Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, and Russell H. Greenan’s The Bric-a-Brac Man. I also had in hand a couple of the store’s black, gun-shaped bookmarks, which I shifted from one volume to another for many years after that. I’m sure they can still be found somewhere in my bookcases, though precisely where, I couldn’t now tell you.

It was on that same journey to Manhattan that I dropped in on Otto Penzler at The Mysterious Bookshop (then located in Midtown), only to find him perched high on a ladder, as he hauled books off shelves to prevent their being sopped by a pipe leak in his basement establishment. However, Murder Ink stands out more strongly, and more fondly, in my recollections. I’ve stepped into many other crime-fiction bookshops across North America and Great Britain since that time, but never again been so flabbergasted to see the diversity and multitude of works this genre can produce.

I feel for Jay Pearsall, who bought Murder Ink from Brener in 1989 and moved it three years later, also opening a general fiction shop, Ivy’s, right next door. He tells The New York Times that his rent “has been increasing by 5 percent a year and currently runs $18,000 a month,” and that his business has been hurt by the opening nearby of a Barnes & Noble store and by the exponential growth of both Amazon and eBay. With all the wealthy chain-store competition, it’s damnably difficult to operate an independent bookshop these days. Sure, Manhattan readers will still have other crime-fiction showrooms to frequent, even after Murder Ink closes its doors for the last time. (Black Orchid and Partners & Crime are still functioning, as is The Mysterious Bookshop.) However, as my friend Anthony Rainone points out on his own blog, “we all lose” when an indie store goes under. “[A]ll contribute to a continuum of specialty bookstore survival (in this case, mystery). When one takes a hit, it affects the psyche of all,” he writes.

That includes my psyche, too. After December 31, I shall be left with only my fond memories of that earliest excursion to Murder Ink. But at least I still have those.

READ MORE:The Final Whodunit,” by Jay Pearsall (The New York Times); “Dutton’s--and Then There Was One,” by Denise Hamilton (L.A. Observed); “The Black Orchid Bookshop: Play It Again, Bonnie and Joe,” by Anthony Rainone (The Rap Sheet).


Ali Karim said...

So sad when a bookstore closes.

As a matter of note, I'm in Dublin Ireland for Christmas with the family and one of the things I always look forward to is visiting Michael Gallahers MURDER INK in Dawson Street [Dublin] - long live mystery bookstores - see link below about the other Murder Ink

Ali Karim with John Connolly and Paul Johnston Recording ‘Criminal Conversations in Dublin’ :-

Anonymous said...

I was wandering through your blog, looking for lost writers (Martha Lawrence, etc.) and ran into your great post on the demise of Murder Ink. It was also the first independent mystery store that I had ever been in. I was commuting back and forth from Rochester, NY for a project and, after finding the store (just a few blocks from my hotel), planned a visit to the store each trip.

My store, Aliens & Alibis Books has the dubious distinction of being an independent bookstore (mystery, fantasy & science fiction) to close at the same time as Murder Ink. We were definitely not as well known but I think it was just as hard to deal with for a lot of our customers. Hopefully the day will come when readers realize just what an indie can give them.