At Mysterious Bookshop in TriBeCa, a Hunt for Clues and Diversions

“Nobody shoplifts from a store that knows 3,214 ways to murder someone,” a sign at the Mysterious Bookshop in TriBeCa warns. But if the country’s oldest independent purveyor of mystery literature gets the ax, its owner will know why: money.

“We lost, you wouldn’t be wrong to say, six figures a year, for seven or eight years,” said Otto Penzler, 74, the store’s tireless proprietor. Supporting the store has led Mr. Penzler to a life of crime himself, with stints writing about mysteries, editing an Edgar Award-winning anthology of them and even publishing them (he started Mysterious Press in 1975).

In 2005, when the store moved from its original location on West 56th Street, where it opened in 1979 — on a Friday the 13th, no less — to its current home on Warren Street, near the Sept. 11 museum and memorial, hordes of loyal customers followed. “Detective stories are essentially fairy tales,” Mr. Penzler said of the genre’s staying power. “They’re the battle between good and evil.”

In an era of e-books and online ordering, the store moves ink-on-paper volumes by supplementing its 10,000 or so titles with rare books, like a first-edition of “The Maltese Falcon” ($8,500), first-run British imports and hundreds of signed titles, marked by neon-pink paper strips along the spines.

Mr. Penzler’s Mysterious Press also offers essays, often about the writing process, as well as original short stories by recognizable crime authors called bibliomysteries ($2.95 for essays; $4.95 for paperback bibliomysteries; and $50-plus for signed, limited-edition hardcovers).

If the selection inspires gumshoes to “come in and sleuth around,” as another sign invites them to do, the store’s impassioned community keeps them coming back. The “overqualified and underpaid” staff members, as Mr. Penzler describes them, are like super-sleuths on never-ending cases of what to read next....more