Bookstores connect readers to books, but more importantly, they connect people to other people through books. While a town with a population of 9,000 may not seem like an obvious place to locate a specialty bookstore, the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop has been thriving in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, for almost 30 years. I asked Deb Beamer, the store’s founder and owner, whether she considered or worried about the economics before setting up her shop. Her answer was decisive: “Never. Not even for one minute. As an independent bookstore owner you’re never going to get rich. You’ve got to love what you do.”
Beamer has lived in the Mechanicsburg area all her life, except the 13 years when she moved to Washington, D.C. During that time, she happened to visit the Mystery Bookshop in Bethesda, Maryland, (since closed) and was amazed. She’d never seen anything like it and decided she would open a similar store when she moved back home. In addition to residents of the town, Beamer said, the bookshop draws customers from the surrounding rural area, from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and from Maryland, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive away.
Mystery bookstores—whether they’re located in downtown Manhattan or rural Mechanicsburg—serve a similar purpose. They bring readers and writers together, introduce fans of the genre to new writers and new trends, and create a sense of community around shared interests. Since crime fiction is a broad but delineated field, and fans of the genre tend to be compulsive readers, the bookseller’s expertise and breadth of knowledge is crucial.
I met Beamer in 2016, when my first novel was published, and she invited me to participate in the bookstore’s annual daylong mystery conference. I drove from bustling Queens, New York, to southeastern Pennsylvania. The conference was held in a church, and I arrived to find the parking lot full. There were about 80 people in the audience and half a dozen or so other crime writers. Over the course of a full day (the conference consisted of a morning and afternoon session with lunch on the premises) we spoke on panels and participated in an “author speed dating” session. The speed dating—in which each author has a fixed amount of time to talk about her work at small tables of readers—was an opportunity for me not only to discuss my writing but to learn about Beamer’s customers and their interests, whether it was making scrapbooks or studying U.S. history.
When she first opened her store, Beamer didn’t host events. (The owner of the retail space never shoveled the snow outside, so it was difficult for customers to park in the wintertime.) But 20 years ago, the store moved to a new location. Beamer started a book discussion group and discovered that readers not only wanted to find new books to read but to meet other people with whom they could talk about those books. Now the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop hosts three book clubs per month, 12 author events a year, and a speaker series, PROMM—Peculiar, Random, Odd, Mysteries and More—several times a year. PROMM speakers have included ghost hunters and individuals who study tombstones. There’s also the annual one-day conference, and a weekly “stitch n’ bitch”(an opportunity for sewers/crafters to meet and chat, not necessarily about books).
And a few years ago, when a local yarn store went out of business, a group of knitters who used to meet there weekly asked Beamer if they could meet at her store instead. “Most knitters I know read books,” Beamer observed. She decided to keep the shop open until 8 p.m. on Fridays to accommodate them. More recently, Beamer has started to participate in off-site events in collaboration with other businesses and libraries.
Beamer knows what her customers will read—and what they won’t. Covers can make or break a book, she said. “It doesn’t matter how good the book is, if it’s a cover [my customers] don’t care for they won’t buy it.” She can usually tell by the cover whether a given book will sell well in her store.
When I asked Beamer what had changed most about the industry in the almost three decades that she’s been in business, she answered without hesitation: “Amazon. Amazon. Amazon. You can’t compete with them, so you don’t even try.”
Chain stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble weren’t as hard to compete with, she noted. Customers would come into her bookstore and say that her depth of mysteries was better than the chain stores could provide. But Amazon completely altered the book buying and selling ecosystem, so Beamer strives to provide what the online giant can’t—lots of events, great customer service, personal knowledge of her customers, and signed editions of books.
The Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. While several mystery bookstores have closed their doors, others—like Mysterious Galaxy in California, Murder By the Book in Texas, The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Arizona, and The Mysterious Bookshop in New York—remain in business. Meanwhile, after a sustained decline, there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. since 2009, for a current total of around 2,300 or so. “As more people spend more time online,” Harvard Business School professor Ryan Rafaelli said, in a New York Times article, “they are looking for deeper ways to spend time with the community. Independent bookstores have become anchors of authenticity. This is almost like a social movement.” The Times story points out what Beamer and her fellow mystery booksellers already know: That their success and longevity stem from more than just selling books. The Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop is part of the social fabric of the community.
Mystery correspondent Radha Vatsal is the author of Murder Between the Lines and A Front Page Affair. Sign up for her monthly newsletter here.