Murder, mayhem prevail at this Fells Point store

JACQUES KELLY

August 23, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Armchair sleuths debark from the city's water taxis at the foot of Broadway in search of a bloody bookstore at 1730 Fleet St.

Before long, they are piling up new and used volumes of Rex Stout, Agatha Christie and Martha Grimes at Mystery Loves Company, a bookstore where there's a cold body on every shelf and a secret panel in the wall.

Founded by Enoch Pratt librarian Kathy Harig and Charles Village resident Paige Rose, the 2-year-old shop is wall-to-wall murder and mayhem.

"We find that Fells Point people like horror stories, but the Ruxton ladies want hardback mysteries written by British and American writers. A Mount Airy lady comes in a couple times PPTC year, visits her mother and buys a tall stack of new mystery fiction," Rose said the other day while seated at the front counter.

Their specialized book shop is one of a category that has sprung up in dozens of cities. Here readers look forward to that pulpy police district of fictitious gumshoes Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Perry Mason, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey.

But it also includes modern mystery writers, authors such as Linda Barnes, Nancy Pickard, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron, Annette Meyers and Dorian Yeager. In the newer books, the detective or crime solvers might be a judge, antiques dealer, Boston cab driver or Wall Street headhunter. All good mystery demands geographic detail and atmosphere.

Harig, who is chief of the Pratt's Roland Park branch at Roland Avenue and Longwood Road, said she realized the potential of a mystery-only book shop from her years of working with the reading public.

"If somebody asks me for a good book to read, I automatically hand them a mystery. . . .I think people like mysteries because everything works out at the end," Harig said.

Her place is unpretentious (a tin ceiling and simple wood shelves painted glossy black) with a couple of white wicker rocking chairs that beckon readers to sit and sample. The shop is mixed with a street full of small Fells Point businesses with wares ranging from fishing tackle to French mustard. The location just off Broadway lends itself to walk-in trade. For that reason, she and Rose selected Fleet Street.

"We wanted to hit the tourist trade, but we also wanted a neighborhood that is cozy. Fells Point is just the kind of place where people go browsing. It isn't fast. It's eccentric too," Harig said.

Some customers want the new authors. Other readers select the time-honored classics. Others seek obscure titles or editions. Mystery book collectors equate finding the right volume with solving a difficult crime. Many customers walk in, others write, while some dial an 800 number.

"I read Sherlock Holmes because of the characters and the background and the Victorian London scene. Conan Doyle is a wonderful storyteller . . . The modern ones I don't read at all. I guess I'm not in touch with the modern world," said William Hyder, a Columbia resident who is a member of the Six Napoleons, the city's oldest Sherlock Holmes society.

The shop's inventory is composed of paperbacks and new hardcover books. There are some rare editions of well-known mystery authors. And there are odd copies of books published 40 years ago that still attract the criminal bibliophile.

For example, there is a selection of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery fiction that has been mass marketed to generations of young readers from the 1920s until the present day.

The shop is as popular with city tourists as it is with Baltimoreans. The owners send out a monthly mailing list to 1,700 customers and the United Parcel man calls at the door twice a day to fetch and deliver outgoing and inbound shipments. Those packages may contain only a single volume.

"We go to the ends of the earth to get a customer a book," Harig said.

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