Note: This is the first of a series of features on mystery bookstores.
Halloween will be all treat and no trick for the owners and customers of the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pennsylvania.
On Sunday, Oct., 31, the bookstore celebrates its 20th anniversary as western Pennsylvania’s center for crime and mystery fiction.
The business plan for Mystery Lovers Bookshop came to owners Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman, who have been married more than 25 years, in a hospital room. Gorman was hospitalized for 10 days with a lung infection. At night, the couple would sit "staring at the helicopters outside" and talk about their future. They knew they wanted to have a business together and since both were -- and are -- avid readers a bookstore was the logical idea. At the time, there was only one chain bookstore in the
Pittsburgh area and Amazon was just a river. The couple did a bit of research to learn that 17% to 22% of books sold were mysteries, which just happened to be their favorite kind of reading.
"Richard calls it the 'blinding glimpse of the obvious' that we settled on a mystery bookstore," said Gorman in a recent telephone interview. "It was like a lightbulb because that is what the two of us read. We've always read a lot of the same authors."
So Gorman made a list of the mystery writers who were published and compared that list to the books available in area bookstores. She found a huge "gap" in what was published and what was available on the book shelves.
"The gap was where we needed to put our efforts," said Gorman. "Bookstores are magnets for us. We always search for them in whatever town we are in."
Mystery Lovers Bookshop opened on Halloween, 1990, becoming Pittsburgh area’s first mystery specialty bookstore. Mystery Lovers Bookshop opened the first area café in a bookstore in 1992.
It was the right move for Gorman, former Executive Director of The Allegheny County Center for Victims of Violent Crime, and Richard Goldman, a Mellon Bank executive.
Mystery Lovers Bookshop has since grown to be the third largest in the country. Its annual Festival of Mystery is the largest one-day festival in the country and will be in its 17th year in 2011. The Bookshop sponsors 8 book clubs and has a huge Internet presence that accounts for about 25 to 30 percent of its sales, attracting thousands of shoppers from Maine to California. The store's Coffee & Crime author breakfasts have brought hundreds of authors to Oakmont during the past 17 years.
And the Mystery Writers of America recognized Mystery Lovers Bookshop with the 2010 Raven Award. Established in 1953, the award is bestowed by MWA's Board of Directors for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative
Despite the store's success, the couple considered closing the Mystery Lovers Bookshop about a decade ago. In one year, "we buried both mothers and married off both sons and at the end of the year we were a wreck. We had no energy," said Gorman.
The couple put the store on the market and then took a month-long cruise to South America. They returned energized and took the store off the market.
"The response of the authors and readers at the Festival of Mystery that year warmed our hearts," said Gorman, the emotion obvious in her voice.
"What we discovered is that we really had created a community, almost a family [of authors and readers]," she said. "Every year the festival moves me and makes me realize that we have a far-flung community of folks who come [from many states]. We have more than 40 writers who say they can't wait. We give no awards; there are no speeches. It's just all fun and ends with pizza and beer."
Winning the Raven Award was one of the couple's proudest moments, said Gorman. "Being in that room [during the Edgars] with all those friends we had made through the years and the friends we had never met was special," she said. "We've broken in alot a
people who were not selling in the beginning so people stick with us," she added, naming a few authors the store has championed since their first novels.
Many of those authors who have visited the store are immortalized on the store's bathroom walls, a tradition the couple started about 6 years ago. The restroom is painted to resemble a prison cell and authors are encouraged to leave their autographs on the walls.
But more important than the Raven is the legacy that the Mystery Lovers Bookshop has brought to readers. Gorman said the store is constantly getting notes from customers from throughout the country thanking them, some of which she posts on the
store's Facebook page.
"I can't tell you how much these notes mean to us," she added. "We have relationships with our customers. We do not say something is out of print. We find it. And our staff handsells online. That is why someone will take the time to sit down and write us. I know it's not because we send peppermints in every order. Though we have gotten notes from people saying we forgot the peppermints."
The past 20 years have gone by quickly for the couple, but some things remain constant.
"People want to read and they want to read mysteries. August is one of our biggest months as people are choosing what to take on vacation. I had a customer who was going through a difficult pregnancy. The doctor prescribed Rex Stout. Mysteries are
magical. We sell to readers, not collectors," she said.
"And we're having fun," she added.
Mystery Lovers Bookshop's 20th anniversary celebration will be from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31. Pittsburgh mystery writers, story telling, treats and surprises will be on featured. Owners Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman "might" wear a costume for the first time. Proceeds from a 10-cent book sale will go to a local library.
Photo: Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman