I’ve done it, and you probably have, too. You walk into a bookstore for a gift and realize that, while you can almost remember the name of the recipient’s favorite author, you have little to go on. “The first name is Italian, I think, and the last name begins with a T or D.”
Or, on a search for the book that someone described so beautifully the previous night over a glass of wine, you stumble through the storyline: “It follows a young woman through a wrenching divorce. No, maybe her young child is missing.”
Joanne Berg, owner of Mystery to Me bookstore on Monroe Street in Madison, is comfortable with this type of challenge. On a busy day during her store’s first holiday season, a woman came in looking for a particular book to purchase as a gift for her husband. “I can’t remember the title,” the customer said.
Joanne asked her usual follow-up questions, “Do you know the author? Can you tell me what the book is about?” and neither produced helpful responses. Then the customer offered, “I can see the cover. I think it’s green.” This provided just enough of a clue, and after some false starts, they solved the mystery. The book, in case you are curious, is Heritage of Darkness by Kathleen Ernst, which is part of the Chloe Ellefson mystery series by the Middleton author. The book makes an excellent gift for anyone interested in mysteries and Norwegian heritage. It also made an excellent gift for the woman’s husband, and the next year, she returned with another similarly incomplete booklist, confident all would turn out well.
Joanne is new to the book business, having spent 26 years in administration in the student affairs office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was thinking of retirement and what might come next when she saw an article about the imminent closing of Booked for Murder, a mystery bookshop at the corner of Farley Avenue and University Avenue in Madison. Joanne clipped the newspaper article and carried it in her pocket all day, wondering if this could be her next endeavor. That evening when she shared the article, her partner encouraged her to pursue the idea. “Your role is always to start something new or to fix something that’s not quite working.”
The MBA Joanne earned several years earlier allowed her to create a business plan and shift careers rapidly. The newspaper article appeared in March 2013, and by June 15, Joanne purchased the inventory of Booked for Murder, augmented it with her selections, leased a storefront in her own neighborhood, and opened Mystery to Me.
Joanne gathered advice from other independent bookstore owners and began to make choices that would shape her bookstore. She extended beyond the mystery niche with children’s books, and earned a James Patterson grant that allowed her to start with a healthy inventory of children’s literature. Then she broadened her offerings to include new fiction and non-fiction releases likely to be interesting to her customer base, titling the section “Something Other than Mystery.” She created a store the Dudgeon Monroe Street neighborhood has adopted, and draws mystery readers from surrounding communities.
One of the bookstore owners who provided advice to Joanne was Sandi Torkildson, who has run A Room of One’s Own, just off State Street in downtown Madison, for 40 years. Probably Sandi’s most important advice to anyone opening a bookstore is to learn about the financial aspects of running a business. She points out that it’s easy to be passionate about books, but the financial side is the hard work that keeps the doors open.
Sandi started her store with four other women, all of whom were taking women’s studies classes through the UW-Extension before the founding of the UW-Madison department. They wanted to create a place for women to be taken seriously and where women’s work would be valued and fairly compensated. This was during the second wave of feminism, and changes in the publishing industry meant that small presses were printing radical feminist essays and literature, which the fledgling store stocked. Although the others left to pursue different professions, Sandi stayed with the store and maintained the vision.
Sandi says, “It is not just that we had the books, but that we had them on display proudly.” The staff labeled sections with explicit titles so that you didn’t have to ask about an uncomfortable topic, and you were more likely to come across the book you needed. In pre-internet days, this access was unavailable anywhere else.
Women used the store as a refuge and a resource, gaining the confidence to take their place in society. Posters offered support groups and assistance for women discovering their sexuality, exploring careers, or dealing with difficult relationships. Even the bookmarks the store distributed listed community resources helpful to women. Years later, an older woman in law school recounted that a poster in the store offering help for battered women had provided the impetus she needed to leave an abusive relationship and build a new life.
Dorothy Allison, who visited the store while in town to do training at CUNA, says that it was while sitting in A Room of One’s Own that she realized she wanted to be a writer. Her acclaimed novels include Bastard out of Carolina and Cavedweller , both of which deal with mother-daughter issues, gender, and class and are set in small towns in the South.
A Room of One’s Own started as a women-centered store and expanded their fiction, history, and children’s sections when Borders closed in Madison. In 2011, Sandi welcomed the opportunity to take over the space first inhabited by Canterbury Booksellers, and folded the used book offerings of Avol’s and Bookworks in with the new books of A Room of One’s Own. She sells the used books on consignment for the other two shops, and she proudly notes that this allows three independent bookstores to thrive. Now her store offers a strong selection of new and used books in all categories and continues to lead the way in GLBTQ literature and women’s studies.
Working at the counter, Sandi notices many people coming in from surrounding communities where they don’t have a bookstore in their town. She notes that, while it is possible to order books online, shopping in a bookstore allows you to explore and discover gems you might not have realized you’d enjoy. In her new store, she deliberately created smaller rooms that lend themselves to browsing, a rotating selection of books chosen to appear face out, and shelves peppered with recommendation slips from staff members. Sandi finds that regulars often find a particular staff member whose taste they share and rely on those recommendations.
Hearing Joanne and Sandi talk about their experiences connecting customers to books and authors leaves little doubt there is a need for community bookstores. “Most authors, even big name authors, are very supportive of independent bookstores,” says Sandi. “We give input on advance reading copies, provide readings and recommendations, and can help a new author get noticed.”
And what would both store owners like you to know? “It’s ok to take the last book; we can always order more.”
Yvette Jones is the owner of designCraft Advertising, a Madison agency focused on local businesses and nonprofit organizations.
A Room of One’s Own
315 W. Gorham Street
Madison, WI 53703
Mystery to Me
1863 Monroe Street
Madison, WI 53711
A Room of One’s Own suggests:
Jane Smiley’s epic trilogy, which starts with Some Luck (now out in paperback), and continues with Early Warning . The trilogy spans a century through the lives of an Iowa family in 1920. The last volume is out in November.
The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books , by Azar Nafisi (author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books ), is a part memoir, part literary essay about the importance of fiction to the American imagination and values. She will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival in October.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness , by Michelle Alexander, is a book that will change the way you see the world as it helps to fuel a nationwide social movement.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest , by J. Ryan Stradal, is a novel about a Midwestern chef savant and the people and food in her life. The backdrop is the foodie revolution, but it deals with class, economics, and family.
Waiting , by Kevin Henkes, is a wonderful new picture book for younger audiences about the pleasure of waiting for both the expected and unexpected to happen.
Mystery to Me suggests:
Death at La Fenice , by Donna Leon, lets you get away to Venice with Guido Brunetti (police commissario). There are more than 20 books in the series to keep you busy, and not to worry, it is not necessary to read her books in chronological order.
Zoo Station (a John Russell WWII spy thriller), by David Downing, is the first in a fast-paced historical mystery series. Each of the books take place in Berlin, Germany, and are named after Berlin train stations.
Euphoria , by Lily King, is one of our “Something Other than Mystery” favorites (and a New York Times Best Seller) that is set between WWI and WWII. The story is inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead during her research in New Guinea.
Make Me , Lee Child’s book 20 in the Jack Reacher series. Reacher is a former major in the U.S. Army military police. He now roams the United States taking on odd jobs and getting into dangerous situations. The first Reacher book is titled Killing Floor .
Old World Murder , by Kathleen Ernst, is the first novel in the award-winning Chloe Ellefson History Sites mystery series, set in 1982 at Old World Wisconsin and the nearby village of Eagle. The sixth book in the series, Death on the Prairie, will be released in October. This story takes place in May 1983 at Laura Ingalls Wilder historic sites in the Midwest.