A whodunit: What killed Michigan's only mystery bookstore?

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Betsy Jackson of Ann Arbor talks with co-owner Jamie Agnew while making a final shopping trip on behalf of her sister, Lynn Hammond, who lives in San Diego but visited the store every time she visited Michigan.

Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookshop will die tonight, and you don't have to be Miss Marple to know whodunit.

Amazon held the revolver. Construction in downtown Ann Arbor waved the knife; the store went most of the last two years without on-street parking. A newer, glitzier bookstore down the street swung a candlestick. And in fairness, there were natural causes: the books weren't getting any lighter, and the owners weren't getting any younger.

After 26 years, the regulars hate to see the final chapter. But if it helps any, there's an uplifting epilogue from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday — everything left on the shelves is free.

Free, as in no charge. Free, as in come 'n' get it. Free, new and used, as owners Robin and Jamie Agnew planned to announce on their website Friday morning.

After 26 years in downtown Ann Arbor, Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop will close Friday. Owners Robin and Jamie Agnew say they’ve been done in by factors that include Amazon, nearby construction and simple age: the books seem to be getting heavier every year.

Free, so there's less for them to haul away as they turn the page.

"If we'd waited a few more years," says Jamie, 60, "we couldn't handle it physically." Operating the shop, that is.

Closing the shop is more of a psychic burden. Customers have cried. Chris Karpo of Saline hugged him the other day: "Life goes on," she said bravely, but then she admitted, "It's breaking all of our hearts."

She's been buying her mysteries at 213 S. 4th Avenue for ages. "Whatever Jamie recommended," she said.

That was the beauty of a hands-on, mom-and-pop store. Literally mom-and-pop; they raised their two children among the overburdened but carefully alphabetized shelves.

If you liked Michael Connelly, who created the Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch, the Agnews recognized that you'd probably like Dennis Lehane, and they could tell you which of his books to read first.

People sometimes look down on mysteries, Jamie says, and maybe that's been a problem for them in highbrow Ann Arbor. But Lehane, writing about Boston? Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles in the '40s? That's literature.

Customer Tom Plasman of East Lansing collects autographed mysteries.

"To me, mysteries are the best kind of writing being done today," Jamie says. "Where is character exhibited? Life and death situations — and that's what mysteries are about."

He'll have more time to read them now.

The Agnews aren't retiring. Robin, 59, is already working part-time at a Presbyterian church. Jamie will oversee auntagathas.com, selling backlists, expertise and the collectibles they hauled away before the Friday giveaway.

She'll keep writing her column for Mystery Scene magazine, they'll continue their book club, and they'll partner with the downtown library to put on the sorts of author events that have made Ann Arbor a sign-and-sell destination for the biggest names in the genre: Steve Hamilton, Louise Penny, Elmore Leonard, William Kent Krueger, Loren Estleman, Kathy Reichs, and a rogues' gallery of others.

But the burden will be lifted.

Two stained-glass windows depicting various forms of mayhem are on loan, and will be returned to their owner.

The last five years or so, Jamie says, they'd find themselves asking, "How are we going to pay this publisher's bill?"

Robin would ask him, "Why don't we close?"

"Oh, come on," he'd say.

Then she asked again this spring and he said, "OK."

The announcement came in April, so it's been a lingering demise — a slow-acting poison rather than a shotgun blast, with a succession of bedside visitors.

Betsy Jackson of Ann Arbor came in at midweek waving a list, announcing that she was on a pilgrimage for her out-of-town sister. "People don't know how to browse anymore," she observed, and Jamie agreed; browsing is another casualty of the Amazon age.

Tom Plasman of East Lansing added two more volumes to his collection of autographed books, then told a few jokes the way he always does.

A woman came in asking if Jamie had children's books, and he smiled politely.

The Agnews have focused on personal service. Hand-written signs posted on shelves connect the dots from one author to others a shopper might enjoy.

"We have a few children's mysteries," he said, but c'mon. The store logo in the window is a silhouette of a woman in a flowered hat carrying a dripping knife. Does that remind anyone of the Berenstain Bears?

For one more day, anyway, Aunt Agatha's is Michigan's only mystery bookstore, owned by two dedicated readers whose love story began in a college Shakespeare class.

He was working at Borders when they gulped hard and opened a business. She was painting watercolors.

Soon, they had books lined up two-deep, with a basement full of hardcovers waiting for their turn. Now the purple shelves are showing.

"It's pretty strange to dismantle your life," Robin says, and you can tell from the catch in her voice that it's more than that.

In fact, you could almost say it's murder.

Chris Karpo of Saline, a regular customer, hugs owner Jamie Agnew. Karpo said life goes on – but the closing is “breaking all of our hearts.”


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn