The Bookstore with the Skull on the Shelf
Talia Military fell in love with mysteries as a child, when her mother introduced her to Agatha Christie. As an adult, she loves the genre even more. You have to, if you work at The Mysterious Bookshop.
Five blocks from the World Trade Center, the Mysterious Bookshop looks out of place and time. It is a single room, barely 20 feet by 60. Wooden bookshelves line three of its four walls, 12 shelves high on one side, 14 on the other. To reach the highest shelves, ladders slide along each wall attached to polished golden rods. The green carpet covers groaning floorboards, one of which, on the right side of the store near the front, wobbles back and forth when you step on it, as if there’s a secret compartment underneath. At the center of the shop, a round wooden table sits between a dark leather couch and a green leather chair.
Military is the store’s newest hire: she’s been on the job for 16 months. She’s been reading mysteries for most of her life. Now, when she sees a mystery she wants to read, she can just take it off the shelf. Actually, it’s mandatory. How else will they fill the Staff Picks section?
The Mysterious Bookshop, as Military’s colleague Mike Durell said gleefully, was founded on Friday, April 13th, 1979. For 25 years, the shop was on 56th street. Then its building was sold, and it moved downtown. Otto Penzler, the founder, still runs the store.
Among mystery enthusiasts, Penzler is a household name. He has edited dozens of mystery anthologies, and is the series editor of “Best American Mystery Stories.” It was through his introduction to the 2019 volume that I first learned about the shop.
When I arrived at the store, Durell greeted me from behind the counter. The day had been busy, he said: Lee Child had dropped in to sign copies of his latest book.
“All the big shots in crime fiction come in here at some point,” he said.
Then Military walked in. “This is the buttery-est bagel I’ve ever had,” she said.
“If that’s not a word, then it is now,” Durell said. Military replaced him behind the counter, and I walked with Durell to his desk near the back, in front of the Sherlockiana wall.
The Sherlock Holmes collection is probably the Mysterious Bookshop’s main attraction. “I can’t imagine anyone having more Sherlock stuff,” Durell said. It covers the entire back wall of the store, and includes original stories, pastiches, parodies, analysis, and other loose Holmes materials. It even includes newsletters of the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest Sherlockian society. Penzler is a member.
Indeed, every January, the shop holds “Sherlock Week,” attended by Sherlockians from all over the world.
“How many Sherlockians come?” I asked.
Durell said: “Uh…all of them?”
In the rare books case, Durell showed me a first-edition copy of “The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” copyright 1905, selling for $1500. The Holmes stories were originally published in a periodical called The Strand, and on the left side of the Holmes wall, below a stopped clock, a doll, and a skull, sat bound volumes of The Strand dating back to 1896.
As an amateur Holmes enthusiast myself, I wanted to talk Sherlock with Penzler. He was around the store, apparently otherwise occupied. I hadn’t talked to him, but I’d seen him a few times walking in and out of a back door, a short, white-bearded man whose busy expression and harried gait made it look…well, like he was investigating a murder. But Durell said that Penzler was tied up with something very important. I read the sign on Penzler’s door — “nobody shoplifts from a store that knows 3214 ways to murder someone” — and decided not to press the issue.
All of this, though — that sign, or the one hanging backwards on the front door, reading “closed — guard hound on duty,” bearing a picture of a dog with a pipe and a Sherlock Holmes hat; the skull on the left side of the Holmes section, or the skeleton lying on a bench on the right — is what makes the shop unique. It’s utter immersion in a mystery novel.
It’s certainly why Military likes working there. On the one hand, she said, sometimes the unique parts of her job aren’t great. “Really depressing things sometimes,” she said. Like writing book reviews. “I had to look up how to spell ‘pedophilic’ today.”
But there are the parts of the job that make it all worthwhile. For instance, Military said: “Not a lot of people can say they’ve held a first edition Agatha Christie in their hands before.”