Jamie Agnew had a collection of skulls before he and his wife Robin opened Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor 17 years ago. But stacked on top of a bookshelf near the entrance, surrounded by old movie posters and mystery authors’ signatures, the collections looks like it was assembled specifically to add to the store’s eclectic ambiance.
A sign near the door on the store’s Fourth Street location says “the game is afoot,” and upon entering one gets the sense that it really is. Classic jazz cassettes play jauntily in the background as customers stand enveloped by wall-to-wall books. Mysteries of all kinds are piled chockablock on the shelves.
Partially inspired by Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore in Minneapolis, Jamie and Robin Agnew drew on their mutual love of books and mysteries to open up a kind of sister store in Ann Arbor. As a great book town, Ann Arbor seemed a good fit for Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookstore. Playing off of Agatha Christie’s unofficial title as The Queen of Crime, the bookstore has an “Agatha” movie poster over the front desk and an avatar of a woman with a handbag and a dagger in the window. The sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and hits from the ’20s and ’30s emanate from a cassette player to evoke the golden age of detective fiction.
As a niche bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s has books belonging to almost every mystery subgenre. From noir to true crime, thrillers to all-American cozy mysteries, the bookshop has everything a whodunit enthusiast might want.
“We try and keep the definition as broad as possible as to what a mystery is,” Agnew said. “I mean, we have spy books, we have suspense books, we have murder books. We’re not in the business of excluding people — we’re in the business of including people.”
As one of the only mystery bookstores in Michigan, Aunt Agatha’s is sometimes burdened with piles of donated mysteries. The books seem to be overflowing off the purple bookshelves. Serving as a station for people to leave their most beloved mysteries, Aunt Agatha’s is full of amateur gumshoes’ old treasures. If you’re lucky, you might even find a thriller peppered with the notes of a reader from long ago.
Specializing in a genre like this helps ensure that, despite all the competition from online retailers, other local stores and the library (the main competition in today’s lean times), Aunt Agatha’s still has unusual items that Borders can’t offer. Agatha’s also sells mystery novelties of other forms like puzzles, games and themed greeting cards. The bookstore has even been focusing on events, like book signings, to keep up with the rest of the book world.
“Book business is becoming more and more event-driven, and so we’ve gotten on that bandwagon,” Agnew said. “We start out with authors when they’re relatively unknown and then hopefully they continue coming here when they become better known. We have a good reputation in the mystery community of having a good book signing and good customers so a lot of people who are starting off come here.”
Author autographs adorn the walls of the bookshop. Local writers like Loren D. Estleman and Steve Hamilton come in for signings often along with other mystery novelists. The shop has two to three events a month, with signings by Estleman and Hamilton coming up in the next few months. This Sunday, authors Sharon Fiffer and Libby Fischer Hellmann will be coming to the store to sign their new books as well.
But this quirky Ann Arbor staple seems to be unknown to many people, especially locals who don’t realize what’s right around the corner.
“We’re unique,” Agnew said. “We’re the only mystery store in Michigan and people from out of town always come in here and their eyes bug out. If their kid is going to the ‘U,’ every time they come to visit they come here and they love it. But people from town kind of take us for granted.”
As much as it’s fun to imagine, there’s no typical mystery bookstore patron. But undergraduate students rarely take the time to stop in the store, according to Agnew.
“To me, you have to have a certain maturity to enjoy mysteries,” Agnew said. “They’re about life and moral decisions and real people in the real world. We get grad students, we get professors. A lot of women read mysteries, but it’s definitely an older crowd.”
But perhaps the most charming thing about Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookstore is the enthusiasm of the people who work there and their extensive knowledge of the genre. The evidence is covering the walls.
“You can go into Borders and it’s like any other Borders in the world, but you go in here and it’s like nothing else,” Agnew said. “Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know.”
Bad it certainly is not.