They must feel like an endangered species. The local mystery shop, Book ‘Em Mysteries, is only one of two bookshops dedicated to the mystery and crime genres that still exist in the state of california.
Open for 23 years, and after an inauspicious start (seven months after they opened, an arsonist destroyed their building), Mary Riley and Barry Martin, along with Jean Utley, offer a Most Wanted list of their bestsellers and New Inmates—or staff picks, though Mary admits that Barry and Jean are the voracious readers of the trio.
It began with a crime! BOOK’em’s short history has its own unsolved mystery. We opened in October of 1990 a block and a half from our present location in South Pasadena. In the pre-dawn hours of August 9, 1991, ten months after we opened, an arsonist destroyed the building where our first shop was located. We lost everything and had to start over. Ten days short of three months, we reopened in our current fifteen hundred square foot location. A computerized inventory control system with point-of-sale tracking (we back-up data every night and take the disks off site) enabled us to settle with the insurance company expeditiously. To this day, the arsonist remains at large, though local authorities have strong suspicions who did it.
Mary Riley had been a teacher, Barry Martin a television producer. They decided that they wanted to do something together. Mary says they didn’t like the idea of a restaurant or the idea of “changing rooms and all those hangers” that come with a retail store. But with a bookstore, she says, well, books arrive in a box and then you take them out and display them; nice and clean. Armed with that conviction, Barry attended American Booksellers Association Prospective Booksellers school in New York. Mary says he came away thinking that he liked the people he’d met and actually would enjoy being around these types of people. And so, a store was born.
They also learned that 17% of the reading public were reading mysteries, and even though Mary and Barry weren’t mystery lovers at that time, she said they have been won over. During this interview, Barry tendered his favorites: the Billy Boyle series by James R. Benn, the John Russell series by David Downing, which are named after Berlin’s metro stations during World War II, and A Small Death in the Great Glen by native Scot and now Vietnam resident, A.D. Scott.
Reading mysteries is recreational reading, Barry believes. They’re another form of entertainment. People are drawn to mystery and crime books, he says, because they have a clear beginning, middle, and end; they are not open-ended like contemporary fiction. The subject matter does not provide epiphanies, of that he is sure, though Barry is attracted by the historical aspects and issues that mysteries cover and discuss, and he sides with P.D. James who once stated that “the mystery novel is a modern morality play.”
Book ‘Em author signings, readings, and discussions (Mary says the author gets to decide what they’d like to do or not do) begin this weekend. Earlene Fowler of the Benni Harper series, that has legions of fans across the nation, is here this Sunday, January 13th, to promote her newest novel The Road to Cardinal Valley, which is a sequel to The Saddlemaker’s Wife.
In upcoming months Robert Crais (very handsome, Mary remarks as she’s unwrapping a 4-foot poster of his new novel Suspect) will be appearing, as well as Lisa Seidman who began her career writing for TV shows such as Falcon Crest, Dallas, and Cagney & Lacey, then received an Emmy for her work on Guiding Light.
Seidman was also head writer, mentor, and advisor on the award-winning Russian serial Poor Anastasia and was nominated for an international Emmy Award for her writing on Russia’s One Night to Love (an Ugly Betty-type show). She currently teaches TV writing at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and has been a loyal supporter of Book ‘Em for years.
Also on the event slate is San Gabriel Valley’s own, ever-popular, and Edgar Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara who will be signing her upcoming release Strawberry Yellow, which will be published by another local favorite, Prospect Park Books, owned by Colleen Dunn Bates.
Mary and Barry, though, may be most excited about the author they’ll be hosting on April 19th: Peggy Riley. She is promoting her first book Amity and Sorrow, and just so happens to be their daughter.
Book ‘Em also has a writing group that is open to anyone who is working on a short story or something in “long form.” The group has a moderator and when something has work ready to read, they do so, and then the group offers their critique. Barry says this is a great opportunity to get feedback on a work-in-progress from people with like minds and interests, and the genre does not have to by mystery or crime. Though writers with thin skins need not apply, Barry emphasizes that the group provides a supportive environment, solely aimed at helping writers improve their skills. The writing group meets the first and third Thursday of every month at 7 p.m.
Jean runs the Reading Group, which again, anyone is welcome to join. Barry says the first forty minutes of every meeting is a discussion that is highly opinionated, followed by talk about books in general. The structure is rather loose and gathers on the fourth Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. (Jean was not available for rebuttal or elaboration.)
Anyone interested in either group can make inquiries by calling the store during normal business hours.
Finally, after such an agreeable visit, we eagerly walked out of Book ‘Em with two of Mary’s recommendations: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is one of their bestsellers, and the first two novels by Dr. Kwei Quartey, Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street. All three have already been devoured and reviews shall be forthcoming.
Book ‘Em Mysteries
1118 Mission St., South Pasadena 91030
Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sun., noon-5 p.m.
Upcoming Author Events:
Sunday, Jan. 13th, 2 p.m.: Earlene Fowler, The Road to Cardinal Valley
Saturday, Jan. 19th, 2 p.m.: Pete Goodman, Blood on Stone
Sunday, Feb. 3rd, 11 a.m.: Robert Crais, Suspect
Sunday, Feb. 10th, 2 p.m.: Lisa Seidelman, Killer Ratings
Saturday, March 2nd, 2 p.m.: Bob Levinson
Saturday. March 16th, 2 p.m.: Naomi Hirahara, Strawberry Yellow
Friday, April 19th: Peggy Riley, Amity and Sorrow