Indie Bookstore Spotlight: Murder By The Book, Houston, TX

(photos by John Schiffmayer)

ADDRESS: 2342 Bissonnet Street, Houston, TX 77005

HOURS: Monday - Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

ON THE WEB: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Murder By The Blog, Newsletter

HISTORY: Murder By The Book was established in 1980 by Martha Farrington and purchased in 2009 by its current owner, McKenna Jordan, and her late husband David Thompson, who was publicity manager at the store for 21 years. The store stocks over 25,000 books, including new, used, signed collectibles, first editions, gift items and more. Murder By The Book often stays open late to host wildly popular author events in its cozy, dim-lit corridors. For instance, Anne Rice visited the store on March 21 to speak and sign copies of her latest book, The Wolf Gift (reviewed here). The store offers a regular Mystery Author Luncheon series at the Houston Briar's Club. Rita Mae Brown (the Sneaky Pie Brown books) and Anne Perry (Victorian detectives series Pitt and Monk) will be the honored guests for April's luncheons; past luncheon guests have included Janet Evanovich and James Patterson. The store has also hosted such authors as Dick Francis, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell and Daniel Silva. 

THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Houston's Museum District is a lovely, green area of town boasting intimate stores, comfy old bars and some of the nation's finest art collections. Murder By The Book is located on Bissonnet between the intersections of Kirby and Greenbriar, one of Houston's prettiest streets, lined with tall, shady oaks and independent businesses, as well as the renowned Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Murder By The Book is also five minutes from the beautiful, historic Rice University. You could walk around this neighborhood for hours, dropping into stores, restaurants, museums and pubs and never growing bored of the scenery or the establishments.

WHY IT'S AWESOME: So many reasons. From the inside, Murder By The Book feels like a majestic old house, the setting of any one of the thrillers perched comfily on its shelves. The store is home to towering corridors ideally illuminated: just enough light to read without eye strain, yet allowing for that cozy sense of reading in a room darkened by a thunderstorm. The shelves are crowded but never cluttered. They are aesthetically arresting, dotted with the most beautiful covers turned outward, tidily hand-written notes on colorful pieces of paper by store staff recommending their favorite novels. The tops of the shelves are lined with mystery memorabilia: a Hannibal Lecter teddy bear in straight-jacket and muzzle; dusty bottles labeled "arsenic"; menacing stuffed birds; old framed photos. Large, comfy chairs with ottomans loom invitingly in the corners; the store begs the reader to browse, to skim, to make oneself comfortable. 

The staff is crucial at Murder By The Book. The store has its own staff page, giving the bios of each employee. There are no transient retailers here, cruising a cushy job to make some extra cash. The staff members at Murder By The Book are worshipful readers who are incredibly knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand and always cheerfully amenable to customer requests. As regular customers walk in, they are greeted pleasantly by the low-key employees sitting at the cash register, often reading the store's latest acquisitions. 

In a world of eReaders and Amazon, Murder By The Book is thriving due to flexibility on the part of its owner, McKenna Jordan. The store sells signed books online and has begun embracing the eBook phenomenon as well. Jordan says, "We're really excited about finally being able to sell eBooks through our website. With the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and Google, we can now offer eBooks to our customers, often for the same price as our competitors. People with eReaders that still want to support an indie bookstore now have an easy way to do so!"

As Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have pushed YA fiction into a larger conversation about literature instead of being relegated to the sidelines, Murder By The Book has adapted to meet those customer needs, as well. "We recently expanded our fantasy and young adult section in the store, and as a result we've started to expand our customer base as well." The store's compliancy when it comes to its customers' preferences is just one of the reasons it's been a successful endeavor for 30+ years. "It's great because after a while, the store becomes theirs just as much as it is ours, and we're fortunate to have so many avid readers always willing to discuss their latest read with us," Jordan says. 

And of course the warm, mutual relationship Murder By The Book shares with authors is a large part of its appeal. Alan Bradley thanks Jordan and her mother in the acknowledgements of his book A Red Herring Without Mustard (the second entry in his marvelous Flavia de Luce series) "for gentle kindnesses too numerous to count," and he fondly remembers Jordan's late husband Thompson: "Known for his encyclopedic knowledge of mystery fiction, David was universally loved by authors and readers alike."

The fantastic events hosted at the store, fostering that genial relationship with authors, bring in a larger clientele weekly. Jordan knows that, "Customers come into the store looking for an experience, and it's crucial that we provide them with a wonderful one. Hosting events, personalized recommendations, and building relationships with the people that come into the store are the things that you can't find when browsing for books online." 

And it's true--I entered Murder By The Book to refresh myself on the atmosphere, join my photographer as he took some photos and introduce myself to the staff. I left with three books in hand, all of which were warmly recommended by the staff and which I couldn't imagine leaving behind. This store knows how to sell a book: with love.

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Pau Ojeda's picture
Pau Ojeda from Monterrey, México is reading Anna Karenina March 27, 2012 - 10:42am

I wish there were more bookstores like these in my hometown... all we get are the huge commercial buildings trying to sell the latest YA novel. Oh well. 

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies March 28, 2012 - 5:46am

I've always wanted to go. They have pretty much constant book readings going on there.

ansmith's picture
ansmith March 28, 2012 - 2:58pm

I've driven by this bookstore many times but had no idea it was such a gem. Looking forward to stopping by! Love the review!