Moonlighting Mysteries: owners share passion on second shift


By Marisa Lowenstein

Maggie Topkis scans the shelves of the Partners & Crime bookstore in Greenwich Village and yelps with joy – “‘Bimbos of the Death Sun’ is back in print!”

The satire, about a series of murders that take place at a science fiction convention, is one of her favorites and she smiles broadly as she places the book back on the shelf, nods to a curious customer and returns to her perch behind the register.

It’s a hot Thursday evening in August and Topkis has recently arrived from midtown where she works as a journalist for Money Magazine. She is now an hour into job number two – the evening shift at Partners & Crime, the mystery bookstore she opened with Kisman Reeves and Maggie Griffin in April 1994.

Though the business brings few financial rewards, she and her partners happily maneuver around their day jobs – Reeves works at a major brokerage house and Griffin owns an online company – to maintain their “labor of love.”

Topkis met her co-founders while working at Foul Play, a mystery bookstore in Manhattan, and the three decided to transfer their passion for suspense to a place where mystery aficionados can satisfy a craving and novices can be inducted. It’s a genre Topkis says is wrongly accused of a having a readership of “rabid, pimply 15-year-old boys.”

The partners behind Partners and Crime follow broad guidelines in defining a mystery which, Topkis says, is anything that has an element of the mysterious including suspense and adventure novels and sometimes whodunits.

Recently, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” shared a section of staff recommendations. Also recommended was “Motherless Brooklyn,” a contemporary detective story by Jonathan Lethem featuring a protagonist with Tourette’s Syndrome. Another was “The Dark Fields,” Alan Glynn’s tale of a man’s experimentation with a drug that makes him as smart, creative and successful as possible and the disastrous results that follow.

Hidden around a slight bend on Greenwich Avenue and sunken a few steps below street level, Partners has no café, no magazines, no calendars or greeting cards. The store was designed by serious mystery readers for serious mystery readers and features nothing but books. Lining the periphery of the store and sprouting up from the middle of the green carpet are rows and rows of paperbacks and hardcovers – all of them mysteries. Topkis greets her customers with a cheery “hello” before the front door has even closed behind them and she spends much of her time at Partners recommending titles and discussing the intricacies of an author’s work.

The personalized customer service has paid off.

Elaine Stern has been shopping at Partners and Crime since it opened. A huge fan of Martha Grimes and Iain Pears, Stern travels downtown from 85th St. and Riverside even though another mystery bookstore is blocks from her home. It’s worth the trip, she said.

“They let me sit down and read the first and middle parts of the books and they answer all my questions,” she said.

Stern is not alone in her quest for the ultimate mystery bookseller.

“Stores like this are very important,” said Jerry Thomas as he heaved 11 books onto the counter by the register. Thomas, who favors gay mysteries, lives on 187th St. in Washington heights and discovered Partners while strolling through the neighborhood.

While smaller, general-interest bookstores are being pushed out of the city by behemoth chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, Partners is going strong, protected by the specificity of its genre and the loyalty of its clientele. The partners ensure repeat customers by offering books on every level of the mystery spectrum, hunting down out-of-print titles and organizing many readings and book signings throughout the year. The authors have included P.D. James, Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, and James Elroy. Partners also hosts live performances of classic radio plays each month.

Once a year they throw a “Nevermore Awards” party. The Nevermores are a send-up of the Edgar Awards given each year to the best mystery writers. Past Nevermores commended “the most advantageous use of spurious Native American lore” and “the most gratuitous graphic violence.” Strong punch is served and all are welcome.

Next April, Partners and Crime will celebrate its 10th anniversary and Topkis is already planning the celebration. What started out as an extension of a hobby has grown into a thriving community business and a creative outlet for the partners. While Topkis will continue to spend her days reporting and writing about investing, Partners and Crime will continue to give her a place to escape it.

“Nobody here ever asks me what the P/E ratio is,” she said.