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Gently Mad

Otto Penzler’s Literary Lair

Later, Penzler was a sports writer for the Daily News, then worked for a while as director of publicity for ABC Sports, where he handled Monday Night Football. “I did some freelancing, and gravitated toward publishing my own books out of an apartment in the Bronx. I had several years there where my tax returns read zero. I did everything—acquisitions, editing, proofreading. I hired artists for the jackets, worked with the printers, typed letters, wrote the flap copy, wrapped the books and brought them to the post office. At a certain point Mysterious Press started to get some success. I ran out of space and began looking for something in Manhattan.”

A signed association copy of Hammett’s Blood Money (Bestseller Mystery B40). Nicholas A. Basbanes
A first edition of John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners, inscribed to Penzler. Nicholas A. Basbanes

With a partner he later bought out, Penzler purchased a building on 56th Street behind Carnegie Hall, cashing in some Series E Savings Bonds for the $2,000 down payment. “Once I had the building I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to have a book shop—I always wanted to have a book shop. I didn’t know anything about starting one. I didn’t know anything about starting a publishing house, either. But that’s how Mysterious Bookshop came to be—because I had the space.”

As a collector, having a shop with regular business hours proved invaluable, especially, for the signings he has hosted for authors over the years. “It was like Rick’s Café Américain,” he said. The Mysterious Bookshop is now located on Warren Street in TriBeCa, not the original midtown location, which he sold a few years ago. Penzler has an apartment in the city, but spends extended weekends at his 5,000-square-foot house in the country, where he works on his anthologies and tends to the collection.

“This floor, the main floor, has what I call the really interesting books,” he said as we began our promenade, showing me a succession of treasures, many of them iconic—The Postman Always Rings Twice, Rebecca, The Maltese Falcon—all in pristine condition, a good many of them signed and inscribed, including numerous variants and uncorrected proofs.

“All the great writers are here—Hammett, Chandler, the great golden age of English mystery writers, Christie, Sayers, they’re all here—and from the nineteenth century, superb Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle copies. Upstairs, major figures of more recent years—folks mostly from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—though not as interesting bibliographically. Downstairs in the basement, are the more common books, the ones printed in greater quantities.”

Penzler is especially proud of the fifty or so titles he was able to cajole the late John D. MacDonald to inscribe for him, a few of which we looked at. “He was famous for not wanting to sign books. He didn’t tour, he didn’t do events at bookstores. I had him as a guest of honor at a convention that I put on, and I showed up with four shopping bags, because he wrote a lot of books. I said, ‘John, I know what you need—which is a drink—I will buy drinks for you as long as you want, but you will have to sign my books.’ I did the same with John le Carré when he came to my store.”

The mention of John le Carré brought up a bittersweet footnote to Penzler’s collecting activity, the sale in 2010 at Swann Galleries of the 2,500-volume Otto Penzler Collection of British Espionage and Thriller Fiction, an offshoot of his principal interest. “I hated to part with those books, but I needed the money. My one demand was that Swann give me a beautiful catalogue, which they did.”

Penzler doesn’t dispute that having a bookstore gives him first whack at choice material. “The big advantage is that I am able to upgrade my books over and over. As a result, you see before you the condition of these things.” He then removed from a protective case an advance proof copy of a first novel issued by Alfred A. Knopf in 1939. On the cover it reads: “In 1929 we gave you Hammett. In 1934 we gave you Cain. In 1939 we give you Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep.”

Penzler said his goal once upon a time was to acquire “a first edition of every book” in the genre that mattered. For guidance, he followed the lists established by Allen J. Hubin, the complier in four volumes of Crime Fiction, now numbering more than 100,000 volumes, and regarded as definitive. “After fifty years of collecting, I’m just under 60,000 volumes—so I’m not even close. But that said—and in all humility—this is still the greatest collection of mystery fiction you’ll find anywhere in the world.”

Nicholas A. Basbanes, author of On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand Year History, was recently awarded a NEH Public Scholar fellowship for a dual biography of Henry and Fanny Longfellow, to be titled Cross of Snow. His other books include About the Author, Editions & Impressions, A World of Letters, A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.
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