Sunday, May 16, 2004

Killer business: Murder on the Beach bookstore

By Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post Books Editor
Sunday, May 16, 2004

There are those who think that running a bookstore must be romantic and relaxing: wearing your smoking jacket, sitting in an armchair with pipe clenched firmly in teeth, indulging in civilized badinage with like-minded customers as you peruse leather-bound copies of Proust.

Once you've actually done it, you find out it's a lot closer to laboring on septic tanks, but by the time you learn the truth, the illusions of youth can never be recaptured.

Joanne Sinchuk's Murder on the Beach has been in Delray Beach's Pineapple Grove section for a year and a half now, after seven years in Aventura, and there are times when she pines for her old job as a certified public accountant.

Well, not really. But being a CPA was certainly less work.

"Before I opened," she says with a sigh, "I did the right thing and wrote out a business plan. And when I look at it now, I laugh at how much I didn't know."

There are 60 mystery bookstores scattered throughout the country, but Sinchuk's is the only one in Florida. Her store carries somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 titles, in hardcover and paperback.

Because Murder on the Beach is a specialized store, it has a specialized clientele. "I have customers from Miami Beach who drive up here," she says. "I have customers from all over the world on the Internet."

Sinchuk is an independent, and can't offer the deep discounts of the chain stores, so she has to be nimble and concentrate on obscurities and figure out who the Next Big Thing will be before anybody else does.

The customers at a mystery bookstore also have different levels of sophistication. For instance, Sinchuk has yet to sell her first copy of John Grisham's latest thriller, although it has been out for several months.

"My clientele is more intellectual, and more serious about the form. I sell very few books to people who don't like to read, which I think describes a lot of the mysteries that make the bestseller list."

Sinchuk owes it all to Agatha Christie, with whom she fell in love while growing up in Bridgeport, Conn. "I made up a list of all of her novels, and I would check them off as I read them."

When she was working as a CPA in New York City, she would regularly shop at Otto Penzler's Mystery Bookstore, and would indulge herself by thinking how much fun it would be to run a similar place.

Finally taking the plunge, she opened her store in Aventura, and did well, but the increase in the Hispanic population made the survival of a English-language bookstore problematic. It was time to head north.

"I didn't see anything I liked in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, but a customer told me about Delray Beach, and I loved it immediately."

Fully 30 percent of Sinchuk's business derives from mail order and Internet, largely autographed copies of books set in Florida, which seems to have joined Los Angeles as a primary setting for the genre. (Sinchuk sold more copies of Fort Lauderdale author Jonathon King's The Blue Edge of Midnight online than she did in her store.)

Because of her sales of autographed books by mail and online, author appearances are particularly important. Sinchuk regularly nabs such stars as Michael Connelly, who appears at the store tonight, and John Sandford. Her main target for a future signing is Alexander McCall Smith, the author of the popular series about a detective agency set in Botswana.

The market for mysteries has metastasized in the past 15 years. There are knitting mysteries, animal mysteries, cooking mysteries and hairdresser mysteries to go up against the usual private detectives, cops and bounty hunters. There's even a mystery series set in Cleveland, which would seem to limit your audience.

"I'm not even sure Cleveland was the worst choice," says Sinchuk. "Elaine Viets had a series set in St. Louis, but nobody outside of St. Louis wants to read about St. Louis. So she started setting stuff in Fort Lauderdale, and her career took off."

While independent bookstores all over America have gone belly up in the past 10 years, niche stores like Murder on the Beach have managed to survive even though, to an outsider, it would seem hard to fail in a business where you can return all your unsold inventory for full credit.

But as Sinchuk points out: "If I sell a book for $20, I paid $14 for it. And how many other businesses are there where the retailer has no control over price?"

For the future, Sinchuk sees no particular signs of weakening in the genre. Her business is headed up, even though about 50 percent comes from snowbirds, and she has the usual summer downdraft.

She sees the best new writers as being Jonathon King, the Irish writer John Connolly and the mother-daughter team that goes by the name P.J. Tracy.

Divorced with no children, Sinchuk remains an avid consumer of mysteries, although it's not what she reads for relaxation anymore.

"I read chick-lit," she says, "especially English chick-lit. Meg Cabot is my current favorite. You can polish a book off in one night, and it's fun."

Killer business: Murder on the Beach bookstore

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