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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fair
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Mystery to Me opens on Monroe Street
Can the upscale business district support an eccentric new bookstore?

Madison's buy-local ethos will face a curious test when Mystery to Me opens at 1863 Monroe St. on June 15.

Joanne Berg retired from a long career in higher education to open the bookshop, something she's wanted to do for a long time. She bought the inventory and shelving from Booked for Murder, a long-running store specializing in mystery novels. But she would have gone with plan B -- "retire and maybe do some consulting" -- had she not noticed a For Lease sign on Monroe Street while walking to Trader Joe's from her nearby home.

Berg "kind of stalked Booked for Murder" after owner Sara Barnes put it up for sale. But she wanted to move the store away from its location in a University Avenue strip mall. Getting a new space seemed like less trouble than renovating the old store to her liking. Berg didn't have much history with the old store, so she has no qualms about renaming it and changing its approach.

Monroe Street boasts one of Madison's strongest groups of locally owned retail businesses. Yet the near-west-side thoroughfare never attracted the eccentricity of other shopping districts. (Well, it doesn't have the equivalent of those "Keep Willy Weird" stickers that have been popping up along Williamson Street.) Longtime shops like Orange Tree Imports and newer restaurants like Brasserie V give Monroe Street an upscale feel that matches the fairly pricey homes in the area.

So how does a somewhat eccentric bookstore fit into this picture?

Orange Tree Imports co-owner Carol Schroeder says the neighborhood is a good spot for a store like Mystery to Me.

"We feel that Joanne's business will fit in really well," she says, pointing out that Monroe Street has long sustained specialty stores like the Wine and Hop Shop, Capital City Comics, and Paragon Video and Stereo.

I also asked Strictly Discs manager Evan Woodward, the least Monroe Street-ish person I could think of on Monroe Street, what he thought of having a bookstore as a neighbor. Woodward, who also spins obscure records at Natt Spil and books noise and electronic shows around town, was open to the idea.

Monroe Street merchants seem optimistic about the new shop, to a surprising degree. Perhaps they're just confident in their resilient business district, and perhaps Berg's approach inspires trust.

Doing her research

The first thing you'll notice about Mystery to Me's space is the fresh layer of bright-green paint. It makes the store feel more sleek and less kooky than the cheerfully messy Booked for Murder. Whereas Booked featured a faux-antique radio set playing big-band music, Mystery to Me has a flat-screen TV mounted on a wall. Berg plans to use it to connect with authors over Skype. This way, the authors can host virtual book discussions with the store's patrons.

It's clear that she's done her research, which has included consulting other booksellers who've experimented with technology.

"I just talked with a bookstore owner in Breckenridge, Colo., who's interested in Skype-in book clubs," Berg says.

She also plans to schedule many face-to-face events with local and regional authors and continue Booked for Murder's annual Legends of the Fall event, which brought in national and local mystery writers.

Opportunities to collaborate with the library branch down the street seem to be on the horizon as well, especially since the Madison Public Library will lead the Wisconsin Book Festival this October. The Monroe Street branch isn't very big, and manager Margie Navarre-Saaf says she sees potential for library events to take place at Mystery to Me.

Plus, Berg will inherit Booked's customer base. The old shop's book clubs will continue to meet at Mystery to Me, but the atmosphere will be different. Berg intends to seize a lot of opportunities she thinks Booked missed. She'll add sections for young and young-adult readers. The latter, she says, are a big market for mystery books.

Barnes was as welcoming and knowledgeable a bookseller as you could ask for, but her store was confusing because it had too many sections, each of which was dedicated to a different mystery subgenre. It could sometimes feel too insular for its own good.

Berg tackled this problem right away. To simplify things, she has arranged the entire inventory alphabetically, creating separate sections for only the new arrivals and the signed copies. But she'll keep using the detailed, subgenre-specific pamphlets Barnes used to make.

Berg hopes to transcend her niche, it seems, just as A Room of One's Own transcends its focus on feminist books. Though mystery readers are loyal to long series of novels, she wants to acknowledge that they also like non-mystery books, and that her clientele must extend beyond mystery aficionados.

To Berg, there are as many types of readers as there are mystery subgenres.

"There's everything from cozies -- people move into a small town and start to solve murders -- to the international spy thrillers," she says.

But she wants Mystery to Me to be a place to discover other types of books, too. She stresses that she's happy to order any book, mystery or not, at a customer's request.

For a time, each purchase at the store will come with a free "mystery book" wrapped up in white paper. It's a witty way for Berg to jettison some inventory and create a sense of community.

Reaching beyond Monroe Street

Bruce Ayres, who opened Capital City Comics on Monroe Street in 1975, says the neighborhood has always needed a few basic anchors: a grocery store and several restaurants. He's seen both types of businesses come and go over the years.

By Ayres' measure, conditions are promising for Berg. Trader Joe's, located across the street from Mystery to Me, opened in 2006. The grocery store is so good at drawing in people with disposable income that it's almost comical. And the nearby Brasserie V doubled its capacity last fall. Pizza Brutta has been well received since it opened down the street in 2007, and the Irish pub Brocach launched a Monroe Street location in 2011.

Schroeder thinks Monroe Street is getting better at attracting customers from beyond the west side, and even beyond Madison. Some of them are visitors who stay at HotelRed or the Arbor House Bed & Breakfast.

"We need to reach beyond Monroe Street in order to have a wider customer base," Ayres explains.

Though Mystery to Me's storefront has been home to at least one failed bookshop -- a location of Frugal Muse -- Ayres thinks Berg's venture will do well.

"I think they'll complement us, to a certain extent, and we'll complement them," he says. "Both of us will bring book lovers to the neighborhood."

Strangely enough, I can't find anyone who wants to talk about the challenges Berg's store might face. Maybe it's hard for some Monroe Street retailers not to be confident. After all, the neighborhood attracts shoppers who are fond of locally owned businesses and have the spending power to support them. And unlike most people opening a new retail business, Berg already has a customer base. Ayres says a business owner in that situation simply needs "hard work and a little cash to weather the storm."

Mystery to Me won't be quite as odd and esoteric as Booked, but by sleuthing some of the challenges the old shop faced, Berg may have uncovered the key to independent bookselling in Madison.

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