If you’re a fan of thrillers, mysteries, and crime novels and aren’t sure where you can find a group of friendly people with whom to share your love, look no farther than this paragraph, because I’m about to reveal a plot point that is going to chane the story of your life forever. On the second Wednesday of each month (September-May), a crowd of fiction sleuths gathers together at Once Upon a Crime, one of the two independent bookstores in Minneapolis dedicated to crime and mystery fiction (the other being Uncle Edgar’s), to discuss plot-twist novels, exploring the books’ dark pathways and red herrings and deciding which member of the group was the first to figure out whodunit.
The book club, founded about eight years ago by a band of authors who call themselves “The Minnesota Crime Wave,” has since been inherited by a rotating group of three new moderators: Michael Allan Mallory, Marilyn Victor, and Lois Greiman—all local authors. These meeting managers select the book with the help of the regular club members, and lead discussion about the book, bringing their own writing expertise to the conversation.
I saw the listing for the “Crime Fiction Book Club” on the Rain Taxi Calendar of Literary Events, and though the event is not “punch eligible,” I decided to go and see what I might be missing by only attending the popular book clubs like Books & Bars. Having never stepped foot in Once Upon a Crime before, I was surprised at how small it is, but how densely packed it was able to be without feeling cluttered. Books line the walls like 6-inch-thick wallpaper. Racks and racks of books are angled throughout the store, creating a labyrinth akin to a chest-height hedge-maze to navigate. Walking into Once Upon a Crime is like walking into a favorite corner of the library—quiet, smelling of books, and solitary in the least depressing sense.
Some major differences between this book club and Books & Bars struck me immediately, while others took a while but resonated more deeply, making me feel young and naive about what it means to love books. Upon entering the space, I noticed two things. One, there was no alcohol available; and two, being in my 20s I was the youngest person there (by quite a bit). Neither of these facts was upsetting to me. Rather, I was a little relieved, first that I didn’t have to spend any money, and second, because I didn’t feel like I needed to impress anyone—although I did make a note to myself about whether or not I would even be able to passionately argue the merit of a book with someone my grandmother’s age, as I might likely (even if it were unwarranted) defer to their wisdom and understanding of the world, and therefore all of the books in it.
As the meeting commenced and the conversation got rolling, I noticed that two of the women seated kitty-corner from me were whispering back and forth, sometimes with silly comments, other times with annoyed ones. Why don’t they join the conversation, I wondered? But then I noticed something else—not a single person had their phone out. There was no twisting of thumbs into uncomfortable QWERTY patterns on brightly-lit touch screens. My phone wasn’t blinking with a snide message from someone across the room. These women were not being rude, they were just interacting with one another in ye olden way. Whispering is the original table text.
The book that had been chosen for the November 16 meeting was one by Charlaine Harris, author of the Dead Until Dark series, which became the True Blood television series. The conversation moved pretty quickly from the book to the show, as apparently Grave Sights isn’t really something to write home about. Since I was attending the book club without reading the book, and haven’t watched an episode of True Blood, eventually my attention began to drift to the titles of the books around me. Some of my favorites include A Cold Day for Murder, Passport to Peril: On the Run Behind the Iron Curtain, The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, and Frill Kill: A Scrapbooking Mystery. Looking at these book titles I felt awash in a world that I know nothing about yet is so close to mine; it’s almost like a separate dimension. Books like these are everywhere, from the shelves at CVS to airports to the waiting room table at my doctor’s office.
There was something else that struck me while I was at the event—when the moderator wondered aloud how old Charlaine Harris is, Gary (one of the owners) pulled out a reference book, flipped a few pages and then declared the answer and put the book away (she’s turning 60 on November 25). Why didn’t he just Google that, I wondered? Then it hit me: there’s no computer at Once Upon a Crime. When I emailed Gary later (I guess they have a computer somewhere) and asked why there’s no computer at the store he said, “So many reasons. One is space. Another is we really don’t care for them. Not having one seems to keep us in the spirit of being traditional booksellers. Mainly, not having one handy helps keep our brains from getting lazy. We remember our inventory; we retain information about authors, characters, titles, etc. As an example of how computers let you forget stuff, how many phone numbers do you know from memory now that “speed dial” was invented? The ability to be fluent with information to answer—sometimes the vaguest of customers’ questions—is essential in this business and to customer service.”
Gary Schulze and Patricia Frovarp are the third owners of the store in its 25-year existence. They met at the store—Pat was working there and Gary was customer, and eventually they were married at the store on their fifth anniversary of purchasing the store together—and are about to enter their ninth year of ownership. If you haven’t been to Once Upon a Crime, I definitely understand and don’t mean to set about shaming you for your busy schedule or vague distaste of the genre, because trust me, I get it. However, I will urge you to go, if for no other reason than to meet some of the nicest business owners in Uptown, and maybe to pick up a book you may not have otherwise.
Photo courtesy Once Upon a Crime