On April 2nd, 2018, Aunt Agatha’s owners Robin and Jamie Agnew announced they would be closing the doors of their well-loved bookstore on August 26th, after a successful run of 26 years. We had the honor of connecting with Robin to learn a little about her experience opening and owning a bookstore, and what comes next.
Tori Booker: For readers who may dream about opening a bookstore, can you describe the process from conceptualization to opening day? How did you pick the space and name, determine a layout/design for the store (why purple?!) and stock your inventory?
Robin Agnew: We didn’t do a lot of studies, etc. We had lived in Minneapolis where there’s a wonderful store there, Uncle Edgar’s, that sells new & used mysteries. I loved shopping there, and the owner introduced me to some favorite authors. His kid was often in the store in a playpen (and so was ours, later). When we moved here and Jamie had worked at Borders for a while, we knew we wanted to open our own place, and since I loved mysteries so much it seemed like a good fit. In the early 90’s, mystery bookstores were very strong and lots were opening. For the name, we basically feminized Uncle Edgar’s and used the name of my favorite mystery writer. We looked at a couple spaces but the rent on Fourth was low and the space had just been renovated by our landlord, Ed Shaffran. As to the color, the carpet was kind of suggested by the landlord, but I wanted white shelves. A friend of my parents is a decorator and I was telling him about it and he said, “NOT white, they must be aubergine!” Well, purple is a color I like so we went with purple….close to aubergine. He was right, too, because white would have gotten so dirty, and the purple is distinctive.
As to stocking the store…we opened with about 5,000 books, and we are closing with around 30,000. Jamie had learned about ordering new books from working at Borders but the used books were something different to figure out. We put up posters and drove all over town picking up a box of Agatha Christies here, a box of Sue Grafton there…one guy showed up at our house in a Gremlin with a car full of pulpy series novels. Kind of junky at that time but now collectible. Jamie went to sales all the time when we first opened and then people started bringing their books in, or buying them and bringing them back for credit and then buying more. I did donate my own Rex Stout books which I now regret though I expect I’ll be taking some home with me. We have a couple book scouts who go to more sales and they can often find stuff we’re looking for. The mark up is obviously better on used books than new ones. Best used book story: I met a lady in a parking lot over on Maple somewhere and she had a box of hardcovers she wanted to get rid of. I offered to pay her and she didn’t want anything for them. Well, in the box was a first edition C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton – we sold it the next day for a couple hundred bucks. But that’s certainly the exception. Mostly you’re picking up books for 50 cents or a dollar and turning them over for $3,50 (or when we first opened, $2.25). I had one lady tell me I was a capitalist pig because I only offered her 50 cents apiece for her books! I had to laugh because that’s so ridiculous – you don’t go into bookselling to get rich.
Tori: You have hosted so many authors over the past 26 years and several have recognized the impact your support made on their careers. Who stands out for you and why? Which authors may have surprised you because they were not what you expected? All names may be omitted for confidentiality’s sake. 🙂
Robin: I kind of feel like we have been really lucky because when we opened it was kind of a crime fiction renaissance. Bill Clinton had just been elected, and he liked mysteries and even cited the names of mystery authors he liked which was a big boost for the genre. And authors like Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Elizabeth George, Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham all started their careers around then, so what a wonderful moment to be a part of crime fiction. I’m not sure of the impact I’ve had on the careers of anyone but I feel lucky we were in on first books and events with Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Louise Penny…I never will forget Steve walking into the store to introduce himself after his book had just gotten published. He and Kent have been incredibly loyal. And of course we have hosted many Loren Estleman events – he’s our homey! I hope I was helpful to Julia Spencer-Fleming and more recently Carrie Smith but I can’t take credit – these are good writers, I’m just a part of their path.
Most mystery writers are incredibly nice people, generous to each other and wonderful to deal with. Through the years some have even stayed in my home…Denise Hamilton, Nancy Atherton, Libby Hellman, Jeanne Dams, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Judy Clemens…Laura Lippman used my computer and stole some fig newtons from the pantry. Only a very few have been obnoxious – two cozy writers came through who were drunk at their event and had obviously not planned what to say, and they were pretty imperious and demanding in general…and we had another pretty well known Michigan author who tried to get out of a signing three days out. It was when we first opened and I held him to it – when I asked him what mysteries he liked he said: “I don’t read that crap.”
Tori: The field of mystery/crime fiction has grown and evolved a great deal over the past 26 years. Have any genres surprised you by their success? What are your favorite and least favorite genres?
Robin: I was initially surprised by the growing success of international fiction – it may help that we are in a university town. I’m not especially a fan of Steig Larssen or Henning Mankell but I do admire and enjoy writers like Karin Fossom, Jusi Adler-Olsen, Colin Cotterill, Cara Black and Andrea Cammilleri. There were a couple authors who just took off and it was fun to see…two I especially remember, and I think it was the same summer, were Harlan Coben and Lee Child. I would introduce people to those guys and they would hurry back for more. My favorites – I’m a huge fan of traditional British detectives so I have really loved reading books by Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, Ann Cleeves…and I love the golden age writers and re-read them constantly. I have a Patricia Wentworth book on my nightstand right now. At the moment true crime is kind of trending which has surprised me a bit – there are a couple podcasts out there and we can’t keep Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me on the shelf through the weekend. More frustrating are those authors you are passionate about who never quite make it or who are dropped by their publishers – fresh heartbreak every time!
Tori: How can fans of Aunt Agatha’s and of mystery/crime fiction stay informed and connected after August 26th?
Robin: While still in the planning stages we are going to be working on a review blog focusing on women mystery authors (my passion) and true crime (Jamie’s passion). We hope to keep the book club going and I think we’ll be around on social media just like we are now. And we’ll be selling our used inventory on ABE books.
Tori Booker is on the board of directors of the Ann Arbor Book Society and a longtime patron of Aunt Agatha’s
Featured in May 2018 newsletter