by Kay Kendall
Jack Reacher often stalks the store, keeping an eye on the more than 25,000 books on display. He even looks at home behind the counter, where the cash register sits. In fact, he acts as if he owns the place.
Jack makes this clear as he snuggles into the arms of his mistress, McKenna Jordan. She is the thirty-something owner of Murder by the Book, Houston’s famed purveyor of mysterious literary offerings. Jack is her trusty canine companion, a Papillion named for Lee Child’s legendary fictional hero.
Together Jack, McKenna, and her staff host 175 of the hottest mystery, crime, and fantasy authors each year for book signing events. The authors arrive from all parts of the United States and other countries too—including England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, and more. Even when celebrated authors decide to trim the number of their tour dates, Murder by the Book still remains. The store is deemed essential—and influential.
Established in 1980 by Martha Farrington, Murder by the Book quickly became a mainstay for authors seeking knowledgeable booksellers and devoted fans. At a dinner celebrating the store’s twenty-fifth anniversary, authors brought the audience to tears with their heartfelt thanks to Ms. Farrington for supporting them early in their careers and then helping to make them famous and successful.
McKenna began working at Murder by the Book in 2003 and bought the store upon the founder’s retirement in 2009. She explains that in this age of chains and big-box stores, the personal service and vast knowledge of the broad mystery field exhibited by everyone who works at Murder by the Book has ensured its continued success.
She says, “Customers want the personal touch. Generally we find that people buy a signed hardback book as a souvenir of the experience of meeting the author.”
Readers have learned that Murder by the Book will have autographed copies of their favorite authors’ books. And when customers can’t come into the store, they phone and order signed books. One-third of the store’s business is done by mail order, attesting to the importance of this segment.
John Kwiatkowski, publicity manager for the store, mentions an order he took recently by phone for a book by a man’s favorite author. The customer lives in a small town in the Texas Panhandle, 600 miles from Houston, and knows that every year author Alafair Burke produces a new book and goes on tour, always stopping for an event at Murder by the Book. And every year that dauntless reader calls to order that new book, and the store sends out the autographed copy to him.
John laughs. “This year our customer is in for a real treat. Alafair Burke has named the heroine in her latest book, If You Were Here, for our very own McKenna Jordan. Our customer in the Panhandle knows McKenna, and I sure wish I could see the look on his face when he opens his new book.”
Besides taking care of long-time customers and already-devoted readers, Murder by the Book has a program in place that boosts readership among younger readers too. Teenaged devotees of mysteries can apply to work in the store at the tender age of 14, which Texas law allows if a parent agrees. When the high school students grow up and leave for college, then return to Houston for their summer vacations, whereupon they rush back to Murder by the Book to work among the thousands of mystery titles that fill the welcoming, homey place.
Murder by the Book also partners with local charities to help with fundraisers. The store hosted an event with author Lisa Scottoline to raise money for the Angleton Public Library and another event with author Jodi Picoult to help raise money for the Hastings High School Upstanders Club. This summer the store will work with Houston-based Golden Retriever Rescue Group for an event with author David Rosenfelt. For the last two years the store has partnered with the Dr. Marnie Rose Foundation’s “Run for the Rose,” a fundraiser for brain cancer research.
Not content to rest on its laurels as one of the nation’s oldest and largest mystery specialty bookstores, Murder by the Book has begun to branch out to fantasy and science fiction. Last month the store was the official book vendor at ComicPalooza and will again fill the same function at Space City Con 2013 in August.
The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association estimates that once there were about 200 bookstores specializing in mysteries. Now that number has dropped by half. The association itself has seen its membership shrink from 60 to 40. Murder by the Book is one member that has not only survived but flourished.
Clearly the Houston store is doing many things right. While other independent stores have had to cut back hours and days of operation, Murder by the Book maintains its long hours seven days a week. They still offer a full array of new and used books, hardbacks and paperbacks, first editions, collectibles, gift items, mystery magazines, and more. They’ve also partnered with Kobo to offer the best in E-reading.
In short, Jack Reacher, the dog, needn’t worry. His home away from home—Murder by the Book—is following Darwin’s law of the survival of the fittest—and certainly also of the most beloved. Jack looks like he will be safely kept in kibble for years and years to come.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.