Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Celebrating Aunt Agatha's.

RHYS BOWEN: I first visited Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI when I was touring for my second book. Touring was actually a grand word for driving around with my husband, from Motel 6 to Red Roof Inn. The audience at Aunt Agatha's was 2 --Robin and a Welsh woman who had stumbled upon my books. Robin was so warm and welcoming then that I've kept going back.

And when Her Royal Spyness came out Robin emailed me to say there was a "Harry Potter like frenzy" which made me feel terrific. We've had dinners before my events. We borrow space to fit everyone in and I am not the only writer for whom Robin has built up an audience.

Today they celebrate their 20th anniversary with a big booksigning party/orgy featuring Steve Hamilton (who is in the picture with Robin), Loren Estleman, Kent Kruger, Louise Penny, Julia Spencer-Fleming, myself and many more. So I'm delighted to host Robin as our guest on Jungle Red Writers.

RHYS: Welcome Robin and let me ask you some questions about the store and the state of the industry in general:

I suppose the first question that comes to mind is how can a small and specialist store like yours keep going in times that are so unfriendly to bookstores?

ROBIN;  We've found that since the demise of the superstore - Border's mothership was a few blocks away - that we have been busier.  I think having a niche helps, definitely.  We are the only bookstore in our downtown area that sells popular fiction, which helps (the other new bookstores downtown are more new age type stores) and used books are a big part of our business.  The markup is better and the out the door volume is higher.  A $3.50 paperback is still a bargain.  And I think people still want some kind of community gathering place.  Our book club attendance has grown, and our author events can be lively.

RHYS.What made you decide to start a mystery bookstore in the first place?

ROBIN; Two things:  one, my husband worked at Borders and was unhappy with "corporate" life - Borders had been acquired by K-Mart.  Two, I loved mysteries.  It seemed like a good fit, and we had previously lived in Minneapolis where there's a wonderful store called Uncle Edgar's.  That really gave me the idea, down to the fact that he used to have his kid in a playpen in the front (we had a baby swing),

RHYS. Have e-books had a big impact on your sales? Are there any plans to incorporate them into retail stores somehow so that you get a share of this revenue? (I know Google was trying something once but that it didn't work).

ROBIN; E-books have certainly had an impact.  It's part of the market share - everyone wants a slice of the reading pie.  Our slice just won't be electronic.  We see that we have to feature and discount hardcovers we believe in - and it's worth it to us to help support authors we love.  That's what we're good at, anyway.  It may be a skill that's rapidly becoming antique, but we're clinging to it.  One thing we do see is that mass markets - which we LOVE! - are taking a big hit.  Thank heavens for Berkley Prime Crime.

RHYS. What trends do you notice in mystery buying. What's hot and what's not?

ROBIN; My husband and I were just talking about this.  Since we are selling more hardcovers by big names as there's nowhere else to get them downtown, we were trying to figure out the sweet spot.  A hot book will sell fast and furious for two weeks and then fall off the table.  It's figuring out when the edge of the table is coming up that's tricky!   We do well with mass market cozies, selling them 4 or 5 at a time to cozy readers.  We do well with (for us) established authors in hardcover, i.e. authors we've worked with to establish with our customers.  (A short list for us would be Loren Estleman, Steve Hamilton, Kent Krueger, Louise Penny, Rhys Bowen, Julia Spencer-Fleming.  We will sometimes sell a case of those author's book the first week of release.) Maybe the hot book of the summer was GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn, with a general tendency to psychological writing - Tana French, Sophie Hannah, S.J. Bolton - all do well for us.  So does international fiction though that's not as hot as it was even last year.

RHYS. Okay, give us some predictions. Which new or unknown authors should be be watching? 

ROBIN: Hmm.  So far this year I think Julia Keller's first crime novel, A KILLING IN THE HILLS, is a knockout.  My husband is a huge fan of Elizabeth Hand, who had her second crime novel, AVAILABLE DARK, out this past spring.  And we saw a breakout last season with G.M. Malliett's WICKED AUTUMN.  We're looking forward to the second book.  Cornelia Read - though she has several books out she's not as well known as she might be.  I loved VALLEY OF ASHES.  I was also a fan of Eleanor Kuhn's A SIMPLE MURDER, about a Shaker community after the revolutionary war.  And again, though she has several books out, both of us are HUGE fans of S.J, Bolton.  She is now writing a series rather than standalones.

RHYS:. Do you think that real paper books have a future or will we all be electronic in a few years?

ROBIN: I don't think ALL electronic, though I think as readers brought up on e-books age it will trend that way.  I hope at that point to be either dead or retired!  But I have hope when I see my children, who are young adults, and my nieces and nephews (all under 14) reading actual books.   I still think there will be collectors who will want a paper book.  They are beautiful objects that have been with us for hundreds and hundreds of years.  I don't see books going away completely.

RHYS. What book do you wish someone would write?

ROBIN:Now, that is why I am a bookseller and not a writer!  I did read an exquisite book this year, THE THING ABOUT THUGS by Tabish Khair, that was a combination of lots of things I love.  It's set in Victorian England and is really gorgeously written and put together.  But I wouldn't have thought of it myself!

RHYS. and lastly... you were president of the IMBA recently. What happened to the best seller list? Those writers who would never make the NYT got a terrific boost from seeing their names on the list. I know I did when I saw my first Evan book there and I still have the list on my board where I was number 1 over James Lee Burke, Janet Evaonvich and Daniel Silva!

ROBIN: Well, exhaustion!  I was president of IMBA but more onerously I was in charge of the bestseller list, which, because we are all pretty busy, mostly involved hounding people for their lists.  So a combination of laziness and busy-ness, I guess.  If there was a way to cajole everyone into participating we would still be doing it, and I may take another whack at it at some point.

RHYS: Robin, thank you so much for coming to visit. We hope the party today is a rip-roaring success and we hope that you continue to flourish (at least as long as we keep writing books!)
And I'll be posting pix of tonight's event on my Facebook page tomorrow (
And the Jungle Red sisters are heading off to Bouchercon tomorrow morning. I'll try to get some candid pix of us too! More to follow.....


  1. Wish I'd known about Aunt Agatha's last week. I was in Novi for two days, and it is not that far to drive to Ann Arbor from there.

    Happy anniversary, Robin. I wish you many more successful years ahead! Thank you for promoting books of any kind. I admire all the hard work it takes to do so.

  2. It is so nice to read about real bookstores. I wish this one was nearer to me. Dee

  3. Happy Anniversary, Robin and Jamie!

    It's not an exaggeration to say that Aunt Agatha's is one of the cornerstones for my career. With the buzz being "all internet, all the time" these days, novice writers may not realize the effect of having independent bookstores passionately advocate for their work. It can create the first, all-important groundswell of passionate readers.

    Which is one of the reasons I'm heading out the door right now to catch a plane for Ann Arbor! See you all at the party tonight!

  4. Robin, a great big warm welcome to you here on JRW! I am despondent that after publishing ten books, I still haven't been to Michigan to visit you! I hope to see you in the future and thanks a million for your support of our genre and all books!

  5. Congratulations, Robin. Here's to many more successful years.

    I just had a discussion with friends about the old Portland Public Library we grew up visiting. It was a beautiful building with cozy spots for browsing. Now there's a new glass and steel building with lovely bright areas but the ambiance is not there. It's the same with small bookstores. I love the feel of visiting them. And, as you know only too well, there are so few of them left. Thank you for your dedication.

    And thank you for the author recommendations.

    Safe travels to all the JRs heading to Cleveland. Can't wait to read about the fun you're all going to have.

  6. Happy Anniversary! Your bookstore sounds wonderful . . . may you celebrate many, many more anniversaries!

    Perhaps book signings are one of the main reasons we will always have real books and bookstores to house them. Readers may flock to eBooks [and I admit that I, too, have an eReader and a huge collection of eBooks] . . . but they will NEVER elicit the feeling that is unique to holding in your hands a book signed by the author who penned its words.

  7. Such a great story, and it's wonderful to see how things have come full circle in the book store world. And, I managed to get clued into some new reads that I'll check out. Great post!

  8. Hey Robin, welcome! I've loved every one of my visits and will never forget the gorgeous Dead Head cake that you had for me! karen, ann Arbor is so close to Ohio that i've had an afternoon talk in Bowling Green and then driven to Agatha's for an evening chat. just the coolest place...

  9. Unfortunately, I live in Cincinnati, about 280 miles away from Ann Arbor. I was much closer when I was in Novi last weekend!

  10. Hi Robin,
    Congratulations on your 20 year anniversary. I often think of my visits to Ann Arbor and your store with such fond memories.

    I am not writing mysteries now, but a historical that will take some time, but I hope to meet up with you again sometime. Please give my best to Jamie.

  11. Robin, congratulations and Happy Anniversary! Thanks so much for all the support and encouragement you give writers, both established and fledgling. And thanks for sharing your predictions and a few secrets of your success.

    Wishing you all a killer party!

  12. Robin, Happy Anniversary! I LOVE LOVE LOVE Aunt Agatha's, and am so sorry not to be there for the party tonight. Give me best to all the authors, and know that you've done a very special thing. I think great independent bookstores are appreciated by writers and readers now more than ever.

    (And yes, like Rhys, I'd like to see the IMBA list come back, too:-))

  13. Congrautlations, Robin, on your big anniversary. I visited your marvelous store for the first time last fall. Loved everything about it and didn't want to leave.

    Have a blast tonight!

  14. Congratulations on your 20th anniversary, Robin! I've never been to Ann Arbor or Aunt Agatha's, but I hope to remedy that soon. Thank you for all that you do to promote the books we all write and the genre within which we write. May you and all the other wonderful independent bookstores out there flourish and prosper!

    And I'm off to Bouchercon with Ben! If any of you will be there, come up and say hello. You can't miss us--the woman who looks like a meaner version of Wilma Mankiller with the guy who looks like Mick Jagger before all the drugs caught up with him. See you all at the Jungle Reds panel!

  15. Happy Anniversary! And I'm jotting down names/books as you were saying them! Love Cornelia Read; "Valley of Ashes" was a great book! Also love SJ well as the ladies on here so I am making special note of all the ones you like. :)

    A friend works at the Harleysville Bookstore in PA and I can buy ebooks through them (their website) and they get credit somehow? Not sure if that is something you can do, but I thought I'd throw that out there for you.

    Wishing you many, many more years!!