There’s a party going on this week and everyone who loves mystery fiction is invited.
The occasion is the 20th anniversary of Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Book Shop in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. The festivities will be 4 to 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at the bookstore, spilling over to the art gallery space next door so there will be room for the many authors and readers expected to come.
About 15 authors, many of them from Michigan, will be on hand to sign books and talk with customers. Each hour of the open house will feature a different set of authors. And yes, there will be cake and refreshments.
Robin and Jamie Agnew, the store’s husband-and-wife owners, are thrilled to reach that 20-year milestone.
“We can’t believe it’s been 20 years, the time has gone so fast,” said Robin Agnew, during a telephone conversation last week. “I also can’t believe that we outlasted Borders. When we opened, Borders was the local bookstore.”
Jamie Agnew had been working at Borders and Robin Agnew had been making the rounds at art fairs as a water-color painter when the couple decided to open their own store. The couple had recently had a baby and both felt it was time for a change.
Opening the store was a challenge as the couple had only a little experience in working retail. Plus Jamie wasn’t really a fan of mystery fiction. They were, however, quite familiar with the bookstore Uncle Edgar's in Minneapolis where they had lived for several years and knew that the genre had a loyal following.
Through the years, the couple learned on the job and Jamie became quite a fan of mystery fiction.
Aunt Agatha’s, like other mystery bookstores around the country, thrives because it offers the kind of customer service that large chain stores cannot.
“Some of our customers we have known for 20 years, so we know them really well,” said Robin. “For new customers, I can ask a few questions and know what they might like to read. It’s great fun to introduce our customers to new authors. We introduced customers who are fans of Steve Hamilton to Bryan Gruley [author of Starvation Lake.]
And those customers become like family. “A bookstore can do what no other store can—offer a community,” said Robin Agnew. “We are a gathering place for people who like the same thing. There are not a lot of places left like that.”
That sense of community and being part of a family resulted in a remarkable event when a long-time customer left money in his will to the Agnews.
“He was always coming in and spending time here; he’d tell us he was going to put us in his will, but we thought he was kidding. He had no family and a few weeks after he died we got a call from his lawyer.
“We are sending our daughter to college with the money,” she added.
Aunt Agatha’s doesn’t sell coffee or games – just books, new and used. It has one book club with about 12 to 15 regular attendees who come for the “lively discussion,” said Robin Agnew. “Often the book club members are divided down the middle about what they think about whatever we are reading. It’s always a lot of fun.”
And some of those book club members who have been coming since the doors opened have passed on their love of mysteries to the next generation. “One woman’s daughter now comes by herself because she’s a grownup,” said Robin Agnew. “Another member recently brought her daughter who was so excited to meet Jennifer Allison.”
A university town, Ann Arbor is a town of readers. Aunt Agatha’s customers include a number of professors and graduate students from the University of Michigan as well as visitors on their way to Michigan’s tourist destinations.
Many customers come from Michigan but also from Canada. One woman regularly drives for two hours from Grand Rapids to attend the book clubs.
“They come from all over,” said Robin Agnew.
International mysteries and classic crime fiction sell well at Aunt Agatha’s, as do the used books.
Many authors, such as William Kent Krueger and Steve Hamilton, at left in the store, had their first signings at Aunt Agatha’s where the many book events continue to draw in customers.
"Robin and Jamie and Aunt Agatha's are so dear to my heart and the heart of many, many authors," said Krueger in an email to Mystery Scene. "The one bookstore outside my beloved Minnesota that I work like crazy to get on every tour itinerary—and have from the beginning of my career—is Aunt Agatha’s.
"What makes a bookstore great has nothing to do with square footage or the size of the inventory. It’s the people inside, behind the counter. It’s that heartfelt welcome you get when you walk in. It’s the good advice and the informed opinion. I don’t know anyone who fills that bill better than Robin and Jamie. They know the genre. They know the tastes of their customers. They have prominence in the mystery community. And, God bless ’em, they treat the authors who visit like family," added Krueger.
“Robin and Jamie Agnew supported me from my debut mystery in 2002; ten years later I still go back every time I release a new novel--unless there's a blizzard,” said Libby Fischer Hellman, whose latest novel is A Bitter Veil.
“Aunt Agatha's is a place where their broad knowledge of the genre and their personal warmth have created a welcoming, nurturing place for mystery authors. Here's to 20 more years!” added Hellman in an email.
In addition to scheduled signings, it’s not uncommon to find authors at the store, buying books, or signing stock and talking with customers.
Loren Estleman lives nearby and is “such a book hound,” said Robin Agnew affectionately. “He’s been in shopping and talking to customers. They end up finding out who he is and buying all his books.”
A similar thing happened when S.J. Rozan left the store after signing stock. “A customer asked if she was an author and what were her books like,” said Robin Agnew. “She bought every book in her series.”
Robin Agnew said that it is rewarding to see an author go from their first book to a successful career. “Jim Huang [a former independent bookstore owner and a Mystery Scene contributing editor] was in our store once when Steve Hamilton came in for the first time. Jim greeted him and congratulated him on winning the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Award for A Cold Day in Paradise.
“It was a nice moment,” said Robin.
And 20 years of selling books have brought the Agnews a lot of nice moments. As for the next 20 years, well, the couple is just trying to get through the next week.
“We are just enjoying Aunt Agatha’s so much. And we are going to really enjoy the party,” said Robin Agnew.
Aunt Agatha’s is located at 213 South Fourth Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. Call 734-769-1114 or visit http://auntagathas.com/
Authors expected to attend the 20th anniversary party include
Loren D. Estelman
William Kent Krueger
Libby Fischer Hellman
Photos: Top, Aunt Agatha's store front; center, William Kent Krueger, left, and Steve Hamilton. Photos courtesty Aunt Agatha's.