One door closes ...

The Mystery Company is closing its doors.  The store that my wife, my staff, and all our customers and friends built here in Carmel, Indiana, and have struggled to sustain for nearly seven years will shut down in the next week or so.

We've just hosted our last two author events; we have discussion groups this week; we'll celebrate our time together here at a party on Saturday, January 30, 1:00 - 3:00 pm; and then we'll be wrapping up operations in the first few days of February.  We'll be at the Carmel Clay Public Library to support the launch of Jeff Stone's DRAGON on February 9 -- that will be our last event.

There will be some kind of clearance sale, or perhaps someone will come along ready and able to buy out our inventory/business in whole or in large part, and be able to carry on in some way -- we're open to all possibilities -- but I'll be moving on to new challenges in a new job out of state.  I start on February 15 at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, where I'll be general manager of the college's bookstore.

It's hard to express how disappointed we are that things didn't work out at The Mystery Company, and how much we'll miss the many friends we've made here in Indiana.  We've given this everything we could and we've had a great run.  In the end, though, it just wasn't enough.

Business here has been rough for a while, especially since gas prices spiked in the summer of 2008. Up 'til then, sales weren't great, but at least they were slowly growing. Almost overnight, though, that incremental growth evaporated and we started seeing our numbers turn negative.   We'd hoped to see a boost from our involvement in Bouchercon 2009; the convention was a great success and we did sell a lot of books at the convention.  But the costs of our participation -- in terms of both time and money -- were overwhelming, and we've seen no residual effects on our sales -- no additional walk-in business, no additional internet/telephone orders, nothing.  (That's been kind of a shock to us.)  Finally, we hoped for a good holiday season, but our sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year were once again disappointing -- our second straight poor holiday season.

I haven't had a paycheck from the store for two years, and we weren't feeling as though that would turn around anytime soon.  The only reason I've been able to stick with this so long is that Jennie has been well-employed, paid reasonably well by a company that offers important stuff like health insurance.  For some time, though, she has felt that she's been on shakier and shakier ground.  Her employer has been engulfed in its own problems and is in the midst of eliminating 5500 positions.  In particular, it has been actively working to outsource the kind of work that she's been doing.  Jennie still has a job today, but it's become increasingly difficult to believe that she'd continue to be employed there for much longer.  And even while she is there, the company's management has worked hard to make life difficult for its employees.  Instead of responding to the many pressures on it with grace and respect for the staff, it's engaging in the kinds of tactics that are designed to get people to quit so that the company doesn't have to offer buyouts.

(As I've been talking about our situation over the past few weeks, I've found that folks completely understand the difficulties that the store is facing and are completely understanding of our decision to close.  On the other hand, everyone is finding it difficult to believe that things at my wife's employer are so bad, and that the company has treated our family so poorly in these last few weeks.  It used to be a wonderful place to work, the kind of firm that truly valued its employees.  It's not like that anymore, and I think that the difficulty folks have believing that stems from real fear about what this company's new and horrible pattern of behavior might mean for this community.)

Since we no longer believed that Jennie was likely to stay in her job long enough to get us through paying for college for our daughters, we began to consider our next steps.

We thought hard about the book business, and what it might take for a small, independent store like ours to stay afloat.  The business is changing dramatically, pulled in many directions all at once.  Shoppers are shopping differently, big retailers are engaging in ruinous price wars and technology is completely rewriting the book on the book itself.

Our goal has always been to create an environment that offers opportunities for connection -- readers with books, readers with each other, readers and writers, readers with literary communities here in Indiana and across the globe.  While we still believe in the goal, we've found it difficult to achieve in this context.  The streetscapes of the Indianapolis metropolitan area aren't friendly to small, locally-owned independents -- far too much of the development around here is designed to exclude rather than include.  This is our second location, and while it's better than our original spot on Rangeline Road, it's still problematic.  The culture of discounting is at odds with a culture of customer service. We can't tell you how frustrated we are with the increasing number of people who are coming to us for advice, but are obviously doing most of their buying from others.  And, finally, the lousy economy is a drag on all of us, making it difficult for even our strongest supporters to spend much of their money here right now.

We can imagine strategies to deal with some of these issues, and the economy is cyclical, so some of the pressures would ease on their own were we able to wait things out without the pressure on our family that Jennie's job situation has created.  At the same time, though, there are larger challenges that won't go away without serious investments of time and money. We believe that even a locally-focused store that's built on the idea of getting to know our customers has to be built on strong technology.  Independent booksellers need to find ways to participate in print on demand, to offer electronic texts and the devices on which they're read, and to be available 24/7 with robust, full-featured virtual stores on the web in addition to keeping our real, brick-and-mortar stores open and lively.  Some of this is possible today, some of this is still beyond the reach of small independents.  But going forward, all of this is necessary and all of this will take resources beyond what we have at our disposal.

Making the decision to close hasn't been easy, but we knew that things had to change for both the business and for our family.  This position at Kenyon offers an opportunity to apply all my experience in a community that truly values books and words, and I'm especially looking forward to working through all of the book business' larger issues among so many smart people.  I love what I do, but I have been doing this for over 22 years now, working as a mystery bookseller in Boston, Kalamazoo and Carmel since 1987.  Kenyon will offer a fresh context and fresh perspectives, and I'm excited to be joining such an amazing community.

I'm not disappearing from the mystery genre.  Though I'm giving up our retail store, I'll still be doing the occasional mystery publishing project through my company The Crum Creek Press.  (We have some cool stuff in the works.)  I'm still expecting to be able to attend at least two mystery conventions this year.  And, of course, we do sell mysteries at The Kenyon Bookstore.

It's been a great ride here at The Mystery Company, and I'm grateful to all of you who've been along for part or all of it, all of you who've made it possible and made it so wonderful.  We've done so much here together!

Please keep an eye on our website and emails for details about our last days, and I hope to see many of you at the party on Saturday, January 30, 1:00 - 3:00 pm.  We are offering $10 off any purchase of $40 or more and $30 off any purchase of $100 or more, in store on on our website.  If you're ordering on the web, just ask for this discount in the special instructions box on the checkout form, and we'll apply the discount when we process your order.

Thank you!