The secret to The Mysterious Bookshop’s 40-plus years of success

The Mysterious Bookshop has been in business for more than four decades. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

The TriBeCa shop, with floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves, is “the oldest and largest mystery bookstore in the world.”

The Mysterious Bookshop has been in business for more than four decades.
The Mysterious Bookshop has been in business for more than four decades. Photo Credit: New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets/New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets

It’s no mystery how The Mysterious Bookshop has stayed in business for more than 40 years: The specialty independent store is beloved by both its owner, Otto Penzler, and loyal customers from all over the world. Penzler proudly announces that his is “the oldest and largest mystery bookstore in the world.”

Mysterious dates back to 1975, when Penzler founded his publishing company, The Mysterious Press, which is now an imprint at Grove Atlantic. He bought a midtown building in 1978 to house the company, and a year later opened a bookstore there on April 13, a Friday, aptly.

Fourteen years later, Penzler sold the building and relocated Mysterious to TriBeCa into a larger space with floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves adorned with corresponding rolling ladders. In the center of the shop, a tufted leather love seat looks plucked right out of a classic mystery novel. The space, in fact, has been used for shoots that range from “Law & Order” to a new Tinder campaign.

The shop features floor-to-ceilling bookshelves.
The shop features floor-to-ceilling bookshelves. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Penzler now spends most of his time as a publisher and specializing in rare books. Manager Tom Wickersham oversees day-to-day operations and client relations for the bookstore.

“We have a unique clientele because of the specialty of what we sell,” Wickersham says. “We have regulars who come in weekly, monthly or multiple times a week, just to stop by what they think of a book they bought from us.”

A good chunk of customers don’t even live in the city or in the United States. Clients from Japan, Australia and Britain order books regularly, and Wickersham may speak with them up to once a week.

“Some of our best customers have never come to the store,” he says.

The typical customer is open to bookseller recommendations and reading more “challenging, off-the-beaten-path or creative writers,” Wickersham says.

A case with rare books.
A case with rare books. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

Book clubs also keep loyal readers inspired, including a Book of the Month subscription that includes a signed first edition of the shop’s choosing and an unclassifiable club that includes books that do not fall into the traditional mystery genre. For example, Rob Hart’s “The Warehouse,” which takes place in a near-future dystopian world where a company has become a totalitarian force, would not traditionally be shelved in a bookstore’s mystery section, but has been extremely popular in The Mysterious Bookshop.

Speaking of corporate monopolies, Penzler isn’t fearful of big box competitors.

“We can compete with Amazon because they don’t offer signed books,” he says. “I shouldn’t say that so loudly because they’ll probably do it, but every mystery writer comes to sign at our store. Half of books sold are signed and we don’t charge more for them!”

The Mysterious Bookshop is located at 58 Warren St. 
The Mysterious Bookshop is located at 58 Warren St.  Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

FAST FACTS

  • Used books range from $2 paperbacks on a cart outside to rare finds valued at thousands of dollars. The shop’s top-selling authors include Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny and James Ellroy.
  • The shop has a “Sherlock Holmes” collection that takes up an entire wall, stocked with nonfiction criticism, scholarship, erotic fan fiction and more. Thousands more “Sherlock Holmes” titles live in the basement. Every January, the bookstore hosts a “Sherlock Holmes” convention.
  • The bookshop publishes its own Bibliomysteries — short stories and novellas set within the book world.
  • The Mysterious Bookshop is located at 58 Warren St. For more info, visit mysteriousbookshop.com.

Melissa Kravitz