Coziness and Comfort at The Mysterious Bookshop: An Essay
James Schapiro, author of Coziness and Comfort at The Mysterious Bookshop, is a freelance writer, and a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. What follows is a slightly edited version of his original essay providing an in-depth overview of the bookshop and its impact on the local community.
Around 6:00 pm on Monday, Beth Dzuricky was walking from her lower Manhattan apartment to The Mysterious Bookshop.
Dzuricky, 59, is an actress; she has short, elegant brown hair and wears glasses. She was on her way to the shop’s American Crime Classics book club, which meets monthly to discuss great American mystery novels from the early parts of the 20th century.
Jay Gertzman, a retired English professor in a black and gray sweatshirt, had already arrived. “Could I grab a folding chair for book club tonight?” he asked Mike Durell, an employee. Gertzman has short gray hair, and a squinty face that comes with a lifetime of reading
“I’m afraid it’s standing room only tonight,” Durell said. “Do you mind standing for a few hours?”
Suddenly, the back door of the shop opened, and another employee came out carrying a stack of folding chairs.
“Ah, here they are now!” Durell said, grinning wickedly through his thin white beard. “Did you note the straight face with which I said that?”
…an escape from the world, an escape into a 19th-century library where floorboards creak ominously and murderers lurk behind closed doors.
Dzuricky was still walking. At the intersection of Chambers and Church Street, two blocks from the store, she saw two cars stopped in the intersection. The drivers were yelling at each other. Tensions were high.
A few minutes later she reached the bookshop. She threw herself down on the leather couch in the center of the store.
“I’m so stressed out, the whole world is…” she trailed off. “There’s cars and people yelling, I’m just like, ‘get me to The Mysterious Bookshop!’”
Dzuricky is an original member of The Mysterious Bookshop’s American Crime Classics book club, so she’s been coming to the store for almost a year now. And now, as COVID-19 restrictions continue, the shop and the book club are more valuable than ever. They’re an escape from the world, an escape into a 19th-century library where floorboards creak ominously and murderers lurk behind closed doors.
“It’s a simple, fun thing,” Dzuricky told me later. “To have a simple, fun thing in the middle of this is very valuable.”
Unlike Dzuricky, not everyone comes into the shop with a well-defined purpose. People come for all sorts of reasons. Some come to find a book; some come for events or meetings; some wander in off the street. Some people who come to the shop are high schoolers hoping to film a school project there, or location scouts for a prospective Dunkin’ Donuts commercial.
But when they arrive, they find the same thing: A cozy, old-fashioned, library-like store with towering bookshelves along the walls and sliding ladders to reach the highest stacks. A leather couch sits in the center of the store beside a green leather chair, and the entire store is warmly carpeted in forest green.
Here, life seems to get simpler. The ambiance is reassuring and comfortable. Like a detective who runs into a corpse, all that matters is the mystery in front of you. It’s a relief to cast aside the picayune issues of everyday life, and think all-consumingly about something as interesting as the gory details of a gruesome fictional murder.
Several minutes after Dzuricky arrived, members of the book club seated themselves on the couch, the leather chair, and a hardbacked folding chair around the round wooden table near the middle of the shop, as if they were about to eat dinner together, or conduct a séance. The small group of people, gathered close together in a large, empty room at night, gave the impression of a secret meeting, even though the event was public and the bookshop had Tweeted about it. Surrounded by shelves full of books, Dzuricky was talking about what she liked about mysteries.
“It’s a very serious subject — death — but handled very lightly,” she said. “There’s something romantic about the character of the detective seeking the truth about this very basic thing, life and death.”
At the core of the detective story’s appeal, she said, was a simple fact: “You just know he’s going to figure it out.”
And just as important as the books, Dzuricky said, are the people. After all, it’s a very specific sort of person that shows up to a meeting like this.
“It’s almost like a secret handshake,” Dzuricky said. “If you show up to the mysterious book club, we already know we’re going to like you.”
Across the table, two men were talking.
“March 2nd, 1917,” said Ray Meola, an advertising producer. Meola looked like an aging matinee idol; he was wearing a slim black button-up shirt, and his gray hair, parted down the middle, gave the impression of a retired surfer.
“Who’s that?” asked Dzuricky.
“David Goodis,” Meola replied. “Author. Jay wrote his biography, but can’t remember his birthday.”
“Can we start talking about the book yet?” Dzuricky asked. They were discussing “The Unsuspected,” a 1945 novel by Charlotte Armstrong.
“Yeah,” said Charles Perry, the moderator. He had long brown hair and wore glasses. “Go ahead.”
“I liked it until Grandy died of natural causes,” Dzuricky said.
“Yeah,” said Michael Nella, a former high school math teacher studying to be an actuary. He was wearing a black vest, and his cheeks were slightly rounder than one might expect. He gave off an air of joviality, as if he couldn’t help but laugh at the quirkiness of the world around him. “That was the weirdest death scene.”
“Didn’t they speculate that he might have taken poison?” Gertzman asked.
“But he’s also going to throw the guy into the incinerator,” Nella said. “And he has the key to the trunk in his pocket.”
I caught scattered bits throughout the conversation. I absorbed the basic plot of the novel through the discussion, but more often, I had no idea what the club was talking about.
“I was happy when he was caught,” Nella said. “You want to play detective? It’s not like the movies, kid.”
“Yeah, he’s kind of a villain,” Charles added. “I mean, the emotional toll that must take on Matilda…”
“But the way he goes in and saves her…” Dzuricky said.
“I figured they had to get married at the end after that,” Meola said.
As the book club talked on, the various proclivities of its members fell into place. Gertzman talked like the professor he had once been. Dzuricky was vociferously annoyed by Grandy’s anticlimactic death. Nella, a film buff, laughed at the absurdities of the plot. Meola played the straight man, and brought measured common sense and morality to the discussion. And Charles just did his job by keeping the conversation going.
“The only thing that bothered me was the way he died,” Dzuricky said late in the meeting. “I wanted him to suffer. He could have thrown himself into a pit of fire! That would have been more exciting.”
“I don’t think this is a noir book, so much as a bunch of upper-class frivolities,” Nella said later.
Around 7:30, Charles ended the discussion. As the members were packing up and leaving, he asked about their plans for the week. Nella said he was going to watch a Hitchcock movie.
“I have a Hitchcock blog,” he said. “Michaels-Hitchcock-blog.blogspot.com. It used to be just Michael’s Hitchcock Blog, but then when you put the ‘Michael’s’ and ‘Hitchcock’ together, a certain bad word comes up, my wife pointed out.”
The group chuckled. Then they dispersed, one at a time, until only Charles and Gertzman were left. Charles apologized for kicking Gertzman out, but it was time to lock up.
On the street, Charles locked the door from the outside. The New York night rumbled with modernity. A few blocks away, One World Trade Center gleamed in the sky. Gertzman and Charles said their parting words. Then they went their separate ways, out of the 19th century and back into the 21st, gone from the Utopian library and back in the real world again.
The story of The Mysterious Bookshop starts with Otto Penzler.
Born in Germany in 1942, Penzler’s family immigrated to The Bronx when he was five. Like many mystery fans, Sherlock Holmes was his introduction to the genre. In college at the University of Michigan, Penzler studied English Literature. But he didn’t enjoy the dense, unreadable texts. So he returned to mystery.
Penzler opened the bookshop in April 1979 (on Friday the 13th, Durell told me gleefully). The way Penzler tells it, opening a bookstore was almost an accident.
In 1975, Penzler had founded The Mysterious Press out of his Bronx apartment. The imprint specialized in reprinting American mystery classics, many of which had gone out of print and become unavailable. He handled everything: printing, distribution, permissions, even hiring illustrators. At first, the business was manageable. But after he put out a few successful books, the paperwork became too much to handle.
At first, Penzler looked for a larger apartment, so that he could set up a more productive home office, and maybe even hire a secretary. But whenever he found an apartment that was big enough, in a good location, the rent was too high.
Then he and a partner had an idea: they could simply buy a space. This was the 1970s, when New York City was almost bankrupt. They found a six-story Greystone building on 56th Street and paid $2000 each for the entire thing. Penzler and his wife Carolyn moved in on the top floor.
“The building, at 129 W. 56th St., had been a find,” the Chicago Tribune reported in a 1986 profile. “The price was right, and it was big enough to hold Penzler, his wife, his collection of 20,000 first editions, his publishing company, his bookstore and the editorial offices of the Armchair Detective, his quarterly journal of news, reviews, essays and interviews. Carolyn and mystery writers Brian Garfield, Donald Westlake and Justin Scott had built the bookshelves.”
Now they had office space — and more. Most of the building was empty. So Penzler decided he would open a bookstore.
“There wasn’t any rational thought, there wasn’t any market research,” he said. “I just thought it would be fun.”
Penzler sold books at the 56th street location until 2005. Then his partner decided he wanted to sell the building. Penzler couldn’t afford to buy out his half, so they sold.
Penzler was looking for a new home for his business, but when he got a call from a real estate agent about a lease on Warren Street, he said no. Moving from the heart of midtown to some street he’d never heard of was unthinkable. But the agent persuaded him to look at the space, and once he’d seen it, he changed his mind. With the money left over from the sale, he spent almost $300,000 to renovate his new store. He didn’t want it to look modern. He wanted a classic, old-fashioned design, inspired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the Trinity Library in Dublin.
He built towering bookshelves along the walls, with sliding ladders to reach the highest stacks. The shelves look wooden; they’re actually metal, and Penzler says they were built in a day and a half. He put the leather couch that had once been in his office in the center of the store; he added another green leather chair. He housed the shop’s Sherlock Holmes collection, one of the largest in the world, on the back wall. Finally, he carpeted the entire store in green.
“It’s meant to make people feel comfortable and cozy, library-like,” he said.
The first time I interviewed Penzler, we sat at the table in the center of the shop. He gave me the basics: the shop’s origins, his biography, moving downtown. Durell walked past.
“Ask Tom to turn the heat on,” Penzler said. “It’s freezing in here.”
“I quite agree!” Durell said.
“Well then say something!” Penzler said. “Don’t rely on me!” He chuckled.
Penzler recently released a memoir, “Mysterious Obsession,” in which he details his favorite collecting stories. His collection was extensive: it once surpassed 50,000 volumes. But last year, he put it on the market.
“I’m 77 and I have no family,” he said. “There’s no one to look after them if I’m gone.”
He bustled to the front of the store, and came back with an auction catalogue. He leafed through it until he found what he was looking for. It was a picture of the library at his house in Connecticut, built to hold his collection. My jaw dropped.
Penzler’s library put the bookshop to shame. It was two stories tall. A wooden table, at least 15 feet long, sat on the ground floor, with polished dark wooden shelves stretching the length of the room on either side. On the second level, which looked down on the first over an ornate bannister, fluted columns rose to the arched white ceiling, around a sixteen-panel stained glass window. Golden lanterns lit the space. The highest bookshelf, against the back wall, was fourteen layers tall.
“It’s empty now,” he said. “The only thing in there is dust.”
We sat silently in the bookstore he had built, absorbing the truth of mortality. Penzler no longer has his private library full of books. Now there is just the bookshop, built to feel library-like. Its highest shelf is fourteen layers tall too.
One night, the bookshop hosted a reading with Adrian McKinty and Meg Gardiner, two thriller authors. Gardner had recently released “The Dark Corners of the Night,” her latest novel. The book was recently bought by Amazon Studios, according to Deadline, and is being developed as a one-hour drama. McKinty was sitting in the leather chair when I arrived, making small talk with attendees.
In hardcore mystery circles, McKinty’s extraordinary story is fairly well-known. In 2017, according to the Associated Press, McKinty and his family were evicted from their house, and McKinty announced that he was retiring from writing because he wasn’t making enough money. McKinty’s friend Don Winslow, another author, convinced that McKinty was too good to give up writing, contacted his agent Shane Salerno.
One night, Salerno called McKinty. At first, McKinty turned him down. But after a few calls, Salerno convinced McKinty to pitch him a novel. McKinty talked about an idea he’d had: an organization that orchestrates a chain of child kidnappings, by one parent after another. Salerno loved it. Two years later, in 2019, Little, Brown, and Associates bought “The Chain” for six figures. Paramount bought the film rights, according to Deadline, in a seven-figure deal.
There were three rows of chairs, and a man named Kurt Adam was sitting up front. He was a big fan of Meg Gardiner, he said. He’d seen her read once, years before, in Pittsburgh, and thought she might remember him.
“You think she’ll remember you?” I asked. “That’s a pretty specific thing to remember.”
“Maybe,” he said. “We went off and went to a museum afterwards.” Sure enough, Gardiner confirmed after the event that she remembered him well.
Valerie Clark and her son Aiden, meanwhile, were in New York visiting Columbia. Valerie was an Adrian McKinty fan. She’d expected something different.
“I thought maybe I’d catch a glimpse of him, and that’s it,” she said. What she hadn’t expected was to be in a shop with perhaps 25 other people, and Adrian McKinty.
After the reading, I saw McKinty talking to David Hawkins, a fan of his who had heard about the event on Twitter.
“I’ll bet those bars are still there in Riverdale,” McKinty said. “I think there’s still an Irish community there. I didn’t have a job there, but I used to drink at a bar called ‘An Beal Bocht’ on 242nd Street.”
‘An Beal Bocht’ was down the street from my high school. It was still there, I told McKinty; I’d never been there, but I knew people who had.
“I could have had a job there,” he said. “All barmen back then were Irish. I once had an interview in Harlem, the last Irish bar on 105th Street, and my interview went something like this: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Belfast.’ ‘Can you start Saturday?’”
David hadn’t known about The Mysterious Bookshop before that day. Now, he was talking to one of his favorite authors about their favorite bars.
Authors are always dropping in, sometimes unannounced. The first time I ever visited the shop, in October 2019, Durell told me, unprompted, that Lee Child had dropped by that morning. He said it as if he was announcing that it was cloudy, or that the phone was ringing.
“The biggest names are very supportive of our store,” Penzler said. It was actually uncommon, he said, for a day to go by without a writer dropping by.
Now that New York has all but shut down due to the Coronavirus, of course, big names can’t drop by. The shop isn’t open, but they’re still fulfilling online orders. Obviously, the book club can’t meet in person, but Dzuricky said they would find a way to keep up.
“We’ll somehow stay on track,” she said a few days before New York’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. “I’m actually going over to the store as soon as we hang up.” Sure enough, on April 14th, the bookshop hosted its first ever virtual book launch for a new anthology, “The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe.”
So the bookshop — the environment it creates and the access it provides — is one thing. The genre itself is another.
There’s something about mystery. Something that brings the book club back together every month. Something that makes readers steam through pages until they figure out just who did it, then pick up the next book and start all over again. And in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, the thing Dzuricky loves about mysteries is more important than ever: things get fixed. The detective solves the problem. In such an uncertain time, a solved mystery can be the reassurance she needs.
“I do like this idea of things getting resolved,” Dzuricky said. “The truth coming out. Something that was hidden gets revealed. As I understand it, they’re not all so tidy. But the ones I like get wrapped up in the end.”
I asked Penzler the same question.
“That’s been asked commonly,” he said. He paused. Then he launched into his answer.
“They’re fairy tales,” he said. “They’re fairy tales for grown-ups. If you like fairy tales, you like the concept of a battle between good and evil, particularly when good triumphs.”
He continued. “People are fundamentally conservative,” he said. “I think we want order in our lives. If we go into a restaurant and order a lobster, we’re surprised and disappointed if it’s a steak. We want our environment to remain somewhat familiar.”
From a bookstore that looked so much like the 19th-century library he’d once filled with books, he went on. “In a mystery novel, you have a normal environment,” he said. “People are comfortable in that environment. Then something happens to tear that environment — a murder. And this is upsetting. So a detective comes and finds the bad guy, and the bad guy is punished, and the social fabric is restored. And I think we like that. I think we like being comfortable and safe.”
Mystery Tribune’s online collection of essays covering a wide range of topics in crime, mystery and thriller space is available here.