Noe Valley Voice November 2004

S.F. Mystery Bookstore Turns 30

By Erin O'Briant

For whodunit lovers throughout Northern California, the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore is the best sort of institution. The modest-looking shop at 4175 24th Street near Diamond Street is the nexus of a community of mystery writers and readers in Noe Valley and far beyond. These folks, along with store owner Diane Kudisch, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the bookstore on Saturday, Nov. 6. The open house begins at noon that day and will continue throughout the afternoon.

"We are a destination store," notes Kudisch, who has been the owner for 31/2 years, "but we're also very much a neighborhood store. The neighbors are great and very loyal. We wouldn't be in business without the support of people here in Noe Valley." That's why she's inviting everyone in the neighborhood to come by for cake and conversation.

Neighborhood mystery writers Cara Black and Michael Castleman will both be there, along with a host of Bay Area authors, including Rhys Bowen, Martha Conway, Lauren Haney, Dick Lupoff, Lynne Murray, and Dominic Stansberry.

Authors and fans will get a chance to meet one another, and Kudisch says she's looking forward to the opportunity to thank customers, merchants, and residents for supporting the store over the years. The only person missing from the celebration will be the store's original owner, Bruce Taylor, who now lives in Neskowin, a small town on the Oregon coast. Taylor also has another good reason for being absent from the party: his daughter is expecting twins in early November.

But to commemorate the anniversary, he has sent his Noe Valley friends and family a few words about the early days at the bookstore (see below). In a second short essay, Kudisch shares her thoughts too.

The Voice extends congratulations to both owners and to all the bookstore's employees--they dunit well!

The Passion of the Bookstore

I was having a hard time deciding what to write to commemorate the Mystery Bookstore's 30th birthday until I received an e-mail from a woman who asked for my advice about buying a bookstore. Something clicked and this was my response:

If you don't have a passion for the adventure upon which you are embarking, forget it, because you will most likely fail. When you own a business--any business--you will eat, drink, and sleep that business. Even if I'm lying on a beach in Maui, riding the underground in London, or munching popcorn at the theater, I'm thinking to myself, "Did I forget an upcoming signing?" "What bills did I not pay this week?"or "Did we do well today?"

The list goes on and on. If you don't have a passion for opening a bookstore, or a restaurant, or any other type of small business, you will get burned out, frustrated, and discouraged. Don't get me wrong, I would never trade what I do for anything else. I love it, but I know that were I not passionate about this store and my love of books and reading, I would probably not be here anymore.

A year or so after I bought the store, I wrote about what I had learned in the past 12 months (see July-August 2002 Voice). More than three years later, I have learned so much more. But the most important thing I learned was to cherish what I do and relax.

That's it for advice, which maybe you didn't even need. What I really want to say is: thank you to all of our customers, current and future, as well as to all of the authors who make this adventure of mine so sweet. Who would have thought that April Fool's Day--the day I bought the store in 2001--would turn out to be such a fantastic thing!

I want to thank the residents and merchants of Noe Valley as well. This is a terrific neighborhood in which to do business, and the fellow merchants and residents can't be beat. Most of all, I want to thank store manager Gary McDonald, who has been here through thick and thin, who knows more about mysteries than anyone else could possibly know (save Mr. Holmes), and who has also introduced me to the delight of Funions, beef jerky, and Baconettes.

Any business owner makes some mistakes, and I have made my share. But we survived the dot-com bust and the recession that followed. The store has survived six mayors, six presidents (I'm hoping for seven), and an earthquake. Still, it keeps going and going. Owning this bookstore was a dream come true for me, and I love it as much today as I did on April 1, 2001.

--Diane Kudisch, current owner, San Francisco Mystery Bookstore

Thirty Years? Really?

Sometime back during the Ford (remember him?) administration, the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore opened its doors. Murder Ink was up and running in New York City, and Scene of the Crime, which is now defunct, was in the Los Angeles area. But that was about it for mystery bookstores.

My then-wife Carol and I each had "real jobs," and the bookstore was sort of a lark. The original location was a tiny storefront on the corner of Diamond and 24th streets, and we were open every Friday and Saturday from noon until 6 p.m. During the first three years, our sales never varied: On Friday we made $50, and on Saturday we made $100. If Friday was $60, then Saturday was $90. Really.

After a while, the local newspapers began to do features on the store. We got mentioned [by late San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Herb Caen, and sales started to build. The marriage broke up, but the store survived and grew. About 10 years ago, I lost my day job and moved the store to its current location. Business got even better.

The emphasis changed gradually from secondhand books to new books, and I started to burn out. It happens. The business had been very good to me, but it was time (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy) to pass the torch to a new generation. Diane Kudisch expressed interest in purchasing the business, and we managed to arrange all that without a lawyer anywhere in the room. She has changed the profile of the business to suit herself and the new realities of retail bookselling in the 21st century. I'm delighted that her checks haven't bounced and her business continues to do well.

A very special thanks to store employees Gary McDonald, Toni Symons, Lynn Pond, and Larry Lynch. They worked long and hard, and I couldn't have made it without them. If I tried to list all the customers I miss, I would leave someone out and we both would feel bad. I simply say thank you to all the local customers--then and now. And as the Irish say, "May you be in heaven 10 days before the devil knows you're dead."

--Bruce Taylor, founder and former owner,
San Francisco Mystery Bookstore