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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Booked for Murder's future a mystery as owner prepares to depart Madison
The lady vanishes
Bookselling isn't for the faint of heart.
Credit:Carolyn Fath

One of Madison's most eccentric bookstores is for sale, and one of its most memorable bookstore owners is leaving town.

Booked for Murder opened in 1988 and specializes in mysteries of an incredibly specific variety, from the classics of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie to novelties like The Long Quiche Goodbye: A Cheese Shop Mystery. Proprietor Sara Barnes has decided to return to her hometown of Aurora, Minnesota, at the end of March to care for her ailing mother.

"Even if it ceases to be [Booked for Murder] and it stays a bookstore, that would be much less heartbreaking for me," she says.

So far, Barnes has heard just "echoes of niblets" from potentially interested buyers. The store's greatest hope may be in "a consortium of friends who love books," she says.

But bookselling isn't for the faint of heart. A potential buyer would need to hold a magnifying glass to the bottom line.

"Certainly, they wouldn't get rich doing this," Barnes says.

Barnes moved to Madison in 1990. Her life here has had many ups and downs, including a frustrated attempt at earning a graduate degree in history from UW-Madison and some time spent managing a west-side hotel, the Ivy Inn. She began working at Booked for Murder in 2007, after the Ivy Inn closed. But just a few months later, she had to move back to Minnesota for 10 months, after her parents suffered severe injuries in a car accident.

During that time, Barnes brainstormed and daydreamed. She began writing "cheat sheets" on highly specific mystery subgenres, to help readers looking for, say, mysteries in foreign settings or certain historical periods. These guides have become a fixture at the store.

Barnes took over Booked for Murder in April 2008, just a few months before the country plunged into a recession. But the shop managed to survive the financial challenges the past five years have presented. Improbably, so have other mystery-centric shops around the country, including the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Murder by the Book in Houston.

Even if you're not enamored of mystery's subgenres, it's clear that Barnes' spirit pervades the place. She cheerfully refers to the store's website as "sad and demented" and jokes about customers who come in trying to track down a faintly remembered book that was "set in the '50s, or '60s, or '70s." When I first visited the store last year, Barnes was able to recommend murder-mystery novels involving golf.

In a town that lacks good author events for much of the year, Barnes has taken it upon herself to bring in obscure mystery writers as well as better-known ones like Florida's Tim Dorsey. But she's held off on events lately, as the store's future has become uncertain.

The climate isn't entirely dreary for Madison's independent bookshops, especially now that A Room of One's Own has joined forces with Avol's Books. Still, it's hard to imagine anything replacing Booked for Murder's good-natured obsessiveness.

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