Mainely Murders is an independent specialty mystery bookstore devoted exclusively to suspense, crime, and detective fiction. Located in Kennebunk, Maine, its stock of more than 10,000 used, recent, and hard-to-find hardcover, trade paper, and mass market volumes ranges from classics and cozies to tough guys (and gals) and thrillers.
Ann Whetstone and Paula Keeney opened the store in 2011 in a converted barn/carriage house adjacent to their 1790s federal-style home just steps off the town’s Main Street.
Q: What did you bring to the business of bookselling when you opened nine years ago?
A: Most important was our lifelong passions for mysteries. We both grew up as fans of the golden era of mysteries with its writers like Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers. By the time we were each 10 years old, we were committed mystery readers. That means, at 75 and 70 years of age now, we bring about 125 years of mystery knowledge.
Q: What do you see as the keys for success as a bookseller in today’s market?
A: Specialization. We never considered anything but a specialty mystery bookstore. Indeed, we started talking about it 35 years before we actually started. (Careers like teaching, writing, and editing kept us busy until we were in our 60s.)
We’ve found that our customers come not only for the books but also, maybe more importantly, for our knowledge of mysteries. (That seems unimaginable in a store that carries every kind of book.) We spend a lot of time “talking mysteries” with our customers.
New customers always look around at the books and ask, “Have you read every book in here?” We explain that we haven’t, but between the two of us, we’ve probably read every authors.
In addition, an advantage for us is that, while we both embrace some of the same writers, we also to differ along specific lines. Paula specializes in introducing people to lighter character-driven mysteries like those by Martin Walker, Mark Pryor, Louise Penny, and Ann Cleeves. Ann prefers foreign noir like those by Denise Mina, Benjamin Black, and Ann Holt and some action adventure.
Q: Do you have a local or New England section?
We have a fairly large section devoted to Maine and other New England writers. Living in a tourist area, we have people, particularly in the summer, coming in and asking us to recommend “a good Maine author.” We have a lot of fine authors in Maine.
In general, however, we spend more time “hand selling” these books. Recognizing the regional nature of much of the mystery business, we try to introduce Maine authors to visitors. We also do this with our events, whether author readings/signings, panel discussions, or appearances.
We’ve had tremendous support from Maine authors like Kate Flora, Gerry Boyle, Lea Wait, Barb Ross, and Bruce Coffin. It’s no coincidence that their books are the biggest sellers in that section. See the image of author Bruce Coffin at the Kennebunk Free Library with fans Paula (on the left) and Ann (on the right).
Q. Speaking of best sellers, can you put that in perspective?
A: International-penned books top our sales. We think that’s probably because they’re more difficult to find. We have many authors who have never, or only rarely, been published in this country. Our 2018 list of the 10 best-selling authors included only two Americans—Mainers Paul Doiron and Lea Wait.
The rest of the top sellers were Ann Cleeves, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Donna Leon, M.C. Beaton, Elly Griffiths, John-Luc Bannalec, and the forever popular Agatha Christie. On the heels of those were books set in Britain, Italy, France, and Scandinavia.
Interestingly, “big name” writers, like James Patterson, Michael Connelly, and Clive Cussler while steady sellers, are never among out biggest because they are so widely available. People mostly come looking for their back issues.
Q: Do you sell only used books?
A: Although that was our intention in the beginning, we’ve expanded to include new releases by our most popular writers. We always have pre-orders for new releases by Ann Cleeves, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Tana French, Donna Leon, Elly Griffiths, and John-Luc Bannalec; but their entire back lists are usually available.
We also make it a point to have new releases by our best-selling Maine authors like Paul Doiron, Lea Wait, Barb Ross, Kate Flora (pictured at the bookstore), Gerry Boyle, and Bruce Coffin—again with their back lists in stock (if possible).
Q: Carrying the back lists of so many writers in pretty unusual, isn’t it?
A: Yes, but that’s because we’re specialists, and we can do that. When a customer comes in, having just discovered a writer like Laurie King, for instance, we want to have all of her Mary Russell series in stock, and her Kate Martinelli series which preceded that. The same goes for the wonderful Scottish writer Denise Mina; we carry all the titles in all her series. We can go on and on: Irish writer Tana French, English author Elly Griffiths, Swedish novelist Camilla Lackberg, Scottish writer Val McDermid . . .
Q: Any other strengths that set you apart?
A: All mystery booksellers are unique. But, we’ve tried very hard to emulate two of whom we think were among the best: Carol Brener of Murder Ink in New York City and Kate Mattes of Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge. We always marveled at the way a customer could walk in, have no memory of either title or author, describe something about plot or a character, and Carol and Kate could almost immediately lay their hands on the book. Whenever we can do that—and it happens more often than one might think—we just smile and think of those two incredible women.
Q: Do you sell on line?
A: No. We’ve never wanted to be “internet booksellers.” We’re 100 percent brick-and-mortar; okay, clapboards and nails. We have a growing mail order business, with people contacting us by phone or e-mail.
Q: Given that you sell used books, do you have any problems getting books?
A: We can normally get most of the books we want if we look hard enough, but we’re having to look harder to get books that are the quality we want. And, of course, prices have been going up as the prices of new books go up. Most of our sources also report they are having increasing difficulty finding books.
A bigger problem for us is the lag between recognizing we need certain books and being able to get them to us. We do a lot of guessing about what our summer customers might want because in the summer we can go from what we thought was a reasonable stock, say 10 copies of a book, to none in two weeks. And most of the places where we look for books in a crisis don’t necessarily have many copies of a particular book.
Q: Is summer your busiest time of the year?
A: Absolutely. June through September, we’re flat out. In October and November, things quiet down, before the post-Thanksgiving rush. We’re open until the end of December, then close until May.
Note: Mainely Murders (1 Bourne Street, Kennebunk, Maine) is open May through December, Wednesday-Saturday, and publishes an e-mail newsletter throughout the year. Ann and Paula can be contacted through their website (www.mainelymurders.com), e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), or by phone (207-985-8706)
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After a long international corporate career and a closing chapter on the staff of a large university, Marian McMahon Stanley turned to writing mysteries. She is the author of a number of short stories and two Boston-based mystery novels, The Immaculate and Buried Troubles. Marian lives in a small town west of Boston.