By Robin Agnew
My path to bookselling was a long and circuitous one – graduating from college during the last big recession (1982) my husband and I took whatever jobs we could find. Wanting to be Mary Tyler Moore (or I did at least) we ended up loading up our VW Rabbit with wedding presents and driving to Minneapolis, where we lived for six years. While my husband worked a variety of jobs and attended graduate school at the Univesity of Minnesota, I simply worked a variety of jobs: bridal consultant, salesclerk, hotel reservations and catering assistant. Along that way my reading journey, of course, was never interrupted.
I had always read mysteries and had a mother who raised me on the classics – Agatha, Margery and Dorothy (thanks, Mom). When I married I discovered that my father in law was also an avid mystery reader. He introduced me to some authors who really, in the end, changed my life, but the two that really blew the roof off my head were Lillian O’Donnell and Sara Paretsky.
These two women expanded the parameters of what I thought mystery writing was. O’Donnell, maddeningly difficult to find today (and though we carry loads of used books at our store, in the neighborhood of 20,000 volumes) the copies we have of her books are mostly in the hard cover book club editions. I’m constantly pressing them on people anyway though the sequence of the series is hard to follow.
At the time, my father in law was in fact sharing his own book club hardcovers with me, and I tore through the saga of O’Donnell’s homicide cop Norah Mulcahaney, who along with rising through the ranks of the NYPD suffers the loss of a child and the loss of a husband along the way. Meanwhile O’Donnell also delivers crisp and straight forward police procedurals, a subgenre I’ve always been partial to.
Sara Paretsky is not really big news anymore, but back in 1982 when she was first breaking the boundaries of what women were supposed to be and how they should behave – well, V.I. gave me someone to live up to in every sense of the word. She’s so independent, smart, and brave – well, I think all of us wish we had a little bit of V.I in us.
The other thing that Minneapolis introduced me to was the mystery bookstore – one of the oldest in the country, Uncle Edgar’s, still thrives there. I loved the mix of new and used books, the passionate recommendations and even the kids in the playpen at the store.
We eventually moved to Michigan to be near family, but that Uncle Edgar’s model stuck in my head. Some of my happiest hours in Minneapolis had been spent browsing those shelves. Arriving in Michigan babies started to arrive, and with them the desire for a flexible something to do that would allow us to both be part of the kid’s lives.
Meanwhile, my husband was working at Borders. At some point books, my love of mysteries, and our desire to work for ourselves (which still sometimes feels monumentally foolish) and the idea of sharing my love of mystery writers, women mystery writers especially, took over and Aunt Agatha's was born almost 18 years ago. Along with the store came the baby swing, just like at Uncle Edgar’s.
Sara Paretsky and Lillian O’Donnell are still steady sellers for us, and our passion for books has never waned. Along the way my husband became a mystery fan (he wasn’t when we opened) – his favorite woman writer: Margery Allingham, though he’s also awfully fond of Megan Abbott.
Bookselling, like life, takes lots of strange twists and turns but my love of reading and wonderful writing has never changed. And that is thanks, in big part, to O’Donnell and Parestsky.