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Goodbye, Partners and Crime

September 21, 2012

Last night, I went to a wake for my favorite bookstore in New York.

Partners and Crime has closed their doors. They knew September 20th would be their last day. And they marked it with a proper wake. There was wine, sandwiches, a small crowd of loyal friends browsing shelves one last time.

The owners and supporters wandered among us like a bereaved family, looking gutted and shell-shocked but trying to play good hosts. “Have a sandwich. Take some home with you?” Maggie Topkis offered.

Hands running along shelves, caressing spines of familiar books. Looking for just one or two more treasures to take home, to read and  remember. I have been wandering in all month, myself, feeling like having a hoard of mysteries will somehow ease the pang of not being able to go there and browse and consult the exceedingly knowledgeable staff about what to read next. Picking over the shelves also made me feel kind of like a vulture, preying on the bargains of the bookstore’s demise. Last night, I tried one last time, because going and buying books was familiar, as if it would preserve and prolong their lives.

No matter what mood I was in, the staff of Partners and Crime could find me a good mystery to read. I’m exceedingly picky about what I like, and they nailed it nearly every time, leading me to new authors and new subgenres. As I read more of their recommendations, I learned more about what I liked.  And the shelves guided me as well. One of their smartest shelves was a “first in a great series,” shelf, because so many mysteries are series-based, and it’s otherwise hard to know when to begin. I always walked down the stairs and headed straight for the historical mysteries before browsing for new discoveries in the staff picks.

No matter who was presiding over the desk, they were great at finding me something historical in a big city, or cozy but not too cozy, with strong characters and plausible or subtle romance, suspense but no really squishy violence, forensic anthropology sometimes, and great dialog always. Dad worked his way through their Scottish noir and interesting private eyes. Sometimes, Dad and I found the same books, or read and swapped. We always, together or alone, left with more books than we intended to, as staff or the shelves guided us to new possibilities.

Some of the best books I found there weren’t even mysteries. Partners and Crime also had a fantastic shelf of really smart, YA genre fiction, fantasy and fables and science fiction as well as mystery. I think it was where I first spotted the Percy Jackson series.

Last night, I asked some of the owners if they would start a blog. I know it wasn’t the right time to ask. They’re just busy getting through the immediate concerns, processing their own mourning. But, I think the biggest loss about the store isn’t just browsing the well curated shelves, it’s losing access to the scope of their knowledge, and the possibility of discovering what to read next. Hopefully, after they’ve had time to mourn, someone on staff will. One bright spot is that their small press, Felony and Mayhem, will continue publishing hard-to-find and out-of-print vintage mysteries. So.. that’s something?

Last night, I started asking people who their favorite mystery author was. Some people looked perplexed by the question, because I’d asked them to pick just one, from a genre they loved with breadth and depth. I amended “or who are a few you really like right now?”

One man told me that he loved to read hard boiled mystery writers like Lawrence Block.  He discovered Partners & Crime when he first moved to New York  and began reading Block on staff recommendation. As he read, the city Block described began to be part of his introduction to his new hometown.

Ben Aaronovitch, said a woman with glasses, and told me about mysteries with magic and wizardry that I will definitely add to my own reading list. (They had already been scooped off the shelves, alas.) She also recommended Thomas Perry, Ruth Rendell’s Wexford mysteries

I had a lovely conversation with another woman, who kept thinking of other writers we liked, from the classic writers like Agatha Christie (but no Tommy and Tuppence, thank you) and Dorothy Sayers,  P.D. James, Ellis Peters, to newer writers like Lee Childs. She hadn’t read Harlan Coben yet. She suggested “that writer who writes about Navajo detectives, Lieutenant Leaphorn” but couldn’t think of Tony Hillerman’s name til later. Talking to her, and looking over the shelves, reminded me, as always, that I think of myself as an avid mystery reader, but I’ve read such a tiny percentage of what’s out there, and that includes the classics.

I got cornered into hearing a long and meandering story about a Dutch writer who had gone to a Buddhist monastery, and whose mysteries reflected Buddhist and Zen philosophy… I think. He may have also inspired Tony Hillerman, or just be thematically similar. I’m a little murky, yet on the specifics. There was meandering, possibly wine consumption, involved on the part of the teller.  (Filling the role of That Uncle Who Gets Into The Wine, if we’re casting the evening as a family funeral.)

I asked two guys my questions about mysteries, and they looked a little surprised. “We’re NYU law students! We don’t read!” one joked. They’d wandered in, because they saw a bookstore with a party going on, browsed the shelves, and wandered off, leaving the faithful to our mourning. At 10, the owners shooed us out. There were still books on the shelves… I’m not sure what the fate of those will be.

I’ve had time to get used to the idea, all month, since I heard the news. But it’s not like sadness over the loss of a person, all my funerary metaphors aside. There’s no sense of pain ending and bringing peace, no timeliness to the end. Even with preparation, it’s abrupt, and it’s a loss. Of books and opportunities. Of a comprehensive knowledge base.

The West Village is less mysterious today.

I’m afraid to walk down Greenwich Avenue this weekend, and see what’s become of a window full of book covers that used to lure me in.

I know this is the price of living in New York. Stores will come, and, when the prices squeeze too tightly, they have to go. I wish there was a way to keep Partners & Crime going. A sudden benefactor. A landlord’s change of heart. A Kickstarter campaign. To regroup, revive, and bring it back. (Is this denial or bargaining? How do the stages of grief apply when you’re mourning the loss of a bookstore?)

Walking down that stretch of Greenwich Avenue is going to hurt, for a while.

Because I couldn’t hug the bookstore itself, I had to make do.

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