When Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze accept the Raven Award later this month, it will be among the proudest moments they’ve had since owning Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, Minn.
As honored as they are to receive the Raven from the Mystery Writers of America, the couple would have to say that their most memorable experience is their 2007 wedding that took place in Once Upon a Crime. Surrounded by a handful of friends and thousands of books, the couple was married by a chaplain whom Shulze had met while in the hospital.
And after the wedding, it was business as usual.
“Afterwards, we reopened the store for a Greg Hurwitz signing, only to learn that the 35W bridge had collapsed. Greg felt himself to be a bit anti-climatic,” said Shulze, who held a Maltese Falcon statue during the ceremony; Frovarp held a bouquet of flowers
Once Upon a Crime will share the Raven honor with Centuries & Sleuths, in Forest Park, Ill., near Chicago. The Raven was established in 1953 by the Mystery Writers of America to recognize outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. The Raven will be awarded during the 65th Edgar banquet April 28 in New York City.
The Raven will have a place of honor in Once Upon a Crime.
“Definitely thinking of getting a nice little bird cage for it,” said Frovarp. But the bird will have to share the limelight with the dog. The store’s official greeter is Shamus, the couple’s rescue dog who has been mentioned in several articles about Once Upon a Crime. “Shamus is getting much media attention,” added Shulze. Once Upon a Crime celebrates its 25th year of business in 2012. Frovarp and Shulze took over the store on Aug. 1, 2002, a significant day not just from a business standpoint. Five years to the day, that would be their wedding day. Before they were bookstore owners, Frovarp had worked for several local law firms while Shulze was a piano technician for some 30 years following a brief stint as a musician
“Both of us had been wildly out-of-control mystery book collectors for some time, and would bump into each other on scouting trips,” he said. “Pat started working for former owner Steve Stilwell. One thing led to another.” Stilwell was a popular bookstore owner with both customers and authors. Stilwell was the Fan Guest of Honor during Bouchercon XXXI held in Denver in 2000. Stilwell often drops by the store and helps with some of the larger events. “Steve’s a great friend, confidant, mentor, and a treasure trove of information,” said Shulze.
The support from authors has been “simply overwhelming,” said Shulze.
“Most all local authors begin their tours with launch parties at our store. And we seem to have adopted a lot of non-local touring authors as well, who make a point of stopping here for an event -- often for every book,” he added. And that support is personal – going beyond booksignings and events. When Shulze was in the hospital, and recovering from leukemia from 2004 through 2008, many authors volunteered their services to help Frovarp catch a break.
One of Once Upon a Crime’s most popular events is the annual Write of Spring, which began after Minnesota author Mary Logue suggested that the couple do an open house event for local authors.
“We were getting lots of suggestions from all corners on things to do when we first started; this one stuck. We optimistically called it our ‘first annual’ Write of Spring,” said Frovarp. That first year, about 20 authors attended; last year, the number peaked to more than 60 authors. This year, the ninth Write of Spring, brought in about four dozen authors, including four debut authors. The number was a bit down because of “an unusual amount of scheduling conflicts,” said Frovarp. Still, the 2011 Write of Spring, held in early April, sold more than 400 books.
Through the years, more than 96 authors have participated in Write of Spring, several have been to each event. Write of Spring draws in about 200-300 customers during the course of the day. Once Upon a Crime has started to plan for the 10th Write of Spring “to end all Write of Springs," said Frovarp. The 2012 Write of Spring will coincide with the store’s 25th anniversary. Once Upon a Crime is putting together a new anthology of some 40 new stories from past participants, including an unpublished story by Harold Adams, the guest of honor at the first Write of Spring.
Most business owners have stories about odd events that have happened. Shulze said the weirdest event didn’t happen in Once Upon a Crime, but outside the store. While talking to a customer, he saw a naked man, wearing only his shoulder to shoulder eagle tattoo, strutting down the street.
“This was the day of the local "Art Car" parade, which is thrown together each year as an excuse to ‘get weird.’ Hate to say it, but all I could do was gawk along with several other bystanders until he disappeared from view several blocks down the road,” he said.
The couple also has had some fun – and funny moments – during booksignings. “We love all our authors, but can't help making fun of some, and are truly grateful that they take the time to visit our store,” said Shulze. “Sure, some are high maintenance and odd, but you get that in any -- especially creative -- profession. I could tell you some doozies from my days working with concert pianists.”
So they both remember with fondness authors who have broken into song. Or the time the store had in the audience more magicians than mystery fans who had come to see James Swain do card tricks. Or the time Sean Doolittle kept trying to read over the banging noise coming from the upstairs apartment that was right above him. One author gave only one-word answers to everything while another stared at the ceiling the whole time he was talking. Still another nervous author started reading the first chapter of the novel, and kept on through chapter three until “we put him out of his misery with some questions,” she said.
While some bookstores carry a diverse stock, Once Upon a Crime sticks mainly to mysteries. The exceptions are "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein because Frovarp and Shulze became “totally endeared” by the story after a customer insisted they read it. A small section of children and young adult books includes "Walter the Farting Dog" series, which “does very well for us, too. The Walters are great for encouraging reluctant readers,” added Shulze. Continuing its mission of supporting local writers, the store also carries multi-award winner Kate DiCamillo ("Because of Winn Dixie”).
With the economic downturn and the chain bookstores closing, Once Upon a Crime’s formula works, and all signs point to the store celebrating its 25th anniversary on April 1, 2012.
“We don't know any secrets. We just keep doing what we love, focus on local authors and good books, and handsell the crap out of them. We're an intimate, friendly place, get new customers every day who, more often than not, keep coming back,” said Shulze.
Photo: Pat Frovarp, Gary Shulze and Shamus in Once Upon a Crime