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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Robin and Jamie Agnew

When: March 2, 2023

Robin and Jamie Agnew with their child, Margaret AgnewIn this episode, AADL Talks To Robin and Jamie Agnew, owners of Aunt Agatha’s, their specialty mystery bookstore. The business began in Ann Arbor in 1992, and operated as a brick and mortar for 26 years before moving online in August 2018. Robin and Jamie talk about their experiences working in the store, their favorite memories here in town, and discuss some of the changes in the mystery book genre and bookselling business over the years.

Find more about Aunt Agatha's in our archival collections.

Transcript

  • [00:00:09] EMILY MURPHY: Hi. This is Emily.
  • [00:00:10] ELIZABETH SMITH: This is Elizabeth.
  • [00:00:12] ELIZABETH SMITH: In this episode of AADL Talks To, we interview Robin and Jamie Agnew, owners of Aunt Agatha's, their specialty mystery bookstore. The business began in Ann Arbor in 1992, and opened as a brick and mortar for 26 years before moving online in August 2018. Thank you for joining us today. Let's start by introducing Robin and Jamie so we can match your voices to your names.
  • [00:00:40] JAMIE AGNEW: I'm Jamie Agnew.
  • [00:00:42] ROBIN AGNEW: I'm Robin Agnew.
  • [00:00:44] EMILY MURPHY: Hey, Jamie and Robin. Thank you so much for coming. Can you talk about what brought you to Ann Arbor?
  • [00:00:50] ROBIN AGNEW: We were living in Minnesota, and my family is in Michigan, but they live in Lansing, or they did, and we didn't want to live in Lansing. We thought, Ann Arbor sounds neat, so we moved here.
  • [00:01:03] JAMIE AGNEW: Well, you're far enough away that if they call you and say, oh, we're coming over, you can clean up the house before.
  • [00:01:09] ROBIN AGNEW: Exactly.
  • [00:01:10] JAMIE AGNEW: We're at that stage of our life. Plus, university towns are great. I love living in university town, and we've lived in several of them.
  • [00:01:19] ELIZABETH SMITH: Did you have any experience running a business before coming here? What instigated the opening of this bookshop?
  • [00:01:25] JAMIE AGNEW: Well, we used to go to a mystery bookshop. Robin was the instigator.
  • [00:01:30] ROBIN AGNEW: Well, Jamie worked at Borders Book Shop. But when we lived in Minneapolis, there's this wonderful store called Uncle Edgar's, which had new and used mystery novels, and I love shopping there, and he recommends so many books that authors I still love to read, and so that was my inspiration. He had this store. He had a playpen with the kid in it. I thought, that seems like a great model for living. When we wanted to open our own business, that was the slot we thought of because there were a lot of mystery bookstores at the time, so it was a good niche to go into. I don't know, that would be today, but it was back in the '90s.
  • [00:02:07] EMILY MURPHY: How did you go about doing that? You have this idea, then what?
  • [00:02:12] JAMIE AGNEW: I'd been working at Borders, so I knew extremely well-run bookstore. I knew their inventory system, their shelving. I saw what books came across the register every day. A lot of it was the seat of our pants.
  • [00:02:30] ROBIN AGNEW: Definitely.
  • [00:02:31] ROBIN AGNEW: We knew a lot about mysteries, so we knew what mysteries we wanted to get and to have. I think getting authors and that sort of thing was harder.
  • [00:02:43] ROBIN AGNEW: When we first opened, we drove all over town picking up granny's collection of Agatha Christie books. Our store was not that full when we first opened, but when we closed, we had about 30,000 books, and they were jammed in there. We had a great collection, I think.
  • [00:03:00] JAMIE AGNEW: There are a lot of books in the world. That's one lesson you can take from owning a bookstore.
  • [00:03:07] ELIZABETH SMITH: You mentioned Agatha Christie and Uncle Edgar's as the name of the bookshop that inspired you. You named your store, Aunt Agatha's, what went into that decision?
  • [00:03:16] ROBIN AGNEW: Well, you pretty much encapsulated it. We loved Uncle Edgar's, and I love Agatha Christie, so I just feminized it because I love female mystery writers. That's what I mostly read.
  • [00:03:28] JAMIE AGNEW: We thought it was the one mystery author that everyone knows. When you say Agatha, people know to whom you're referring.
  • [00:03:38] ROBIN AGNEW: I think I met two people in 26 years that didn't know who she was, and one time this girl said, "Well, who's Agatha Christie? " There was like, the silence in the store. Everyone was looking at her like, what is wrong with you?
  • [00:03:51] JAMIE AGNEW: Get the bouncer over here.
  • [00:03:53] ROBIN AGNEW: Agatha Christie bouncer.
  • [00:03:56] EMILY MURPHY: Can you physically describe the store? Where was it located? How do you picture it in your mind now?
  • [00:04:01] JAMIE AGNEW: 214 South 4th Avenue. It was a nice store. What I see in my mind is purple. Robin had a decorator friend, and his concept was to do the walls purple and the shelves, a different shade.
  • [00:04:20] ROBIN AGNEW: Aubergine, that's what he said. Because I was going to go with white, and he said, "It'll get so filthy." He was right, of course. It was just a long, narrow room just lined with bookshelves.
  • [00:04:31] JAMIE AGNEW: Books just create this vibe, which is so pleasant, and these purple walls really radiated. I did feel like there were people in the high pressure world of downtown who came in just to chill out and look at books and be in a different world for a little while. University students too.
  • [00:04:50] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was downtown like at that point? Looking back versus now, what stands out in your mind?
  • [00:04:56] JAMIE AGNEW: Well, I'm afraid of being like these old hippies. It was good when we were there. Of course, when we started, everyone was going, oh, it was good 10 years ago. But 4th Avenue in particular, was rough. It was the bad street in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:05:12] ROBIN AGNEW: There was blood plasma donation place across the street.
  • [00:05:16] JAMIE AGNEW: Capitol Market was infamous in its own way, so it was the bad part of town, and our landlord, Ed Shaffran began fixing up the buildings and renting them to more responsible individuals. When we were first opening, people would steal the workmen's tools and he had to keep the doors locked and watch the bathroom. But gradually I had the vision of this street of funky stores going all the way down to Kerrytown, and for a while, we had some funky stores down there.
  • [00:05:49] ROBIN AGNEW: It was close. I think downtown had more oddball stores when we opened for sure. This part of downtown and the part over on South U was just a little more original, and not so many chains and things like that.
  • [00:06:05] EMILY MURPHY: How did you get the word out when you were first opening? How did you build your base?
  • [00:06:11] ROBIN AGNEW: Took a while. It was different.
  • [00:06:14] JAMIE AGNEW: We did advertising, and fortunately, at the very beginning, the media was titillated by the concept of a mystery bookstore, so we got some good local press. That helped us out in the beginning, and then word of mouth because we were so excellent.
  • [00:06:33] ROBIN AGNEW: Well, back in the '90s, there was newspapers, which has just gone now. It's so weird.
  • [00:06:40] ELIZABETH SMITH: I was also wondering, were there any places downtown that you like to go during that time period to get a coffee or get lunch?
  • [00:06:47] ROBIN AGNEW: Absolutely. When we first opened, there was a hot dog place across the street. I was so sad when they moved like that.
  • [00:06:53] JAMIE AGNEW: Robin's a hot dog fiend.
  • [00:06:55] ROBIN AGNEW: But then, this great Korean bakery moved in. Eastern Accents--that was there for almost the whole time. We were open or most of it. I was mad when they closed too.
  • [00:07:06] JAMIE AGNEW: And Sottini's has always been down the block.
  • [00:07:09] ROBIN AGNEW: There's a sub place.
  • [00:07:11] JAMIE AGNEW: The Cloverleaf on the corner, that's also a legendary place.
  • [00:07:15] ROBIN AGNEW: Which is now gone.
  • [00:07:16] JAMIE AGNEW: It's not like you'd say, oh, I'm going to lunch. Watch a register for me because I was the only one in there, so I brought my lunch most days.
  • [00:07:23] EMILY MURPHY: Can you talk about a typical day?
  • [00:07:26] ROBIN AGNEW: It really varied, I would say.
  • [00:07:30] JAMIE AGNEW: It mattered what was going on if you had an event or whatever. But usually go in early, go to the bank to get change, the post office to mail a book and open up. When I had worked at Borders, we're used to maybe even a line or people waiting for you open up and cheering when you woke up. That didn't happen, or if they were there, they wanted to sell books. The Maxwell's demon who supposedly takes the negative particles and puts them in one place, and you fight chaos all day long.
  • [00:08:07] ROBIN AGNEW: Basically.
  • [00:08:09] JAMIE AGNEW: It's gratifying in its own way.
  • [00:08:11] ROBIN AGNEW: Then if we had a book club or an event, it would be different vibe. But usually, there'd be a trickle of customers, so we got to know a lot of our customers really well. A lot of them obviously like the same books we like, and we get to talking with them.
  • [00:08:27] JAMIE AGNEW: One guy left Robin a lot of money.
  • [00:08:31] ROBIN AGNEW: Because he came in and talk to me every single week for two hours and never bought a book. He told me all these really crazy stories, and he said, "I'm going to leave you $50,000 when I die." I was like, sure you are." Because everything you've told me is a lie, and he did. It helped our daughter go to college.
  • [00:08:50] EMILY MURPHY: That's remarkable.
  • [00:08:53] EMILY MURPHY: Speaking of talking books, what are some of your favorite mystery or otherwise, authors, folks you turn back to and eagerly await new copies?
  • [00:09:04] ROBIN AGNEW: Well, I love Agatha Christie, obviously. I love Ngaio Marsh, who's also a Golden Age writer. I love Louise Penny, who's a present-day Golden Age writer, I would say. The nice part about this store was that we got to know a lot of these people like Louise Penny. William Kent Krueger is another favorite author of ours, and he's a friend. That was certainly, I think, my favorite part of owning the store. I was getting to know authors.
  • [00:09:27] JAMIE AGNEW: Meeting these authors. If you read, it's like in Catcher in the Rye where he says, oh, you read this book, and you want to call the guy up and talk to him. It's like, can you get that chance?
  • [00:09:38] ROBIN AGNEW: A privilege.
  • [00:09:39] JAMIE AGNEW: I want to mention Megan Abbott, who's a Michigan writer and a fantastic person, a really good writer. I think I didn't have as much experience with mysteries when we started out. And the first guy who really blew my mind was James Lee Burke because he writes so beautifully, and he's a very thoughtful thinker. He's the first that really blew my mind after Chandler and Hammond and all that. But I also want to mention Ross MacDonald, who's a Michigan man. University of Michigan has finally admitted that he's one of them. They ignored him for many years, but he's a beautiful writer. He took Chandler and made it more literary, and it seems very timely because it's about reaching California. Oh, is that all there is?
  • [00:10:28] ELIZABETH SMITH: It seems like you've had a lot of chances to write about and interview mystery authors. Has this always been part of your work at the store from the beginning or was it something that developed over time?
  • [00:10:38] ROBIN AGNEW: That developed over time as it went on, we made more connections. Obviously, we got more of a reputation in the mystery community which is a lovely community, and in some ways, I felt like we were better known nationally, than we were in Ann Arbor. We were more respected nationally because Ann Arbor's such a university town, mysteries are a little bit looked down on. Often, if you just reach out to an author and say, can I interview, you, they're like "Sure! I'll talk about my books. Great." That's not hard to ask.
  • [00:11:12] JAMIE AGNEW: I wrote reviews for the agenda, or quite often, it was tied to an event we were doing. I mean, that's the way to do it to get the word out and it's also a fun way to react to what you read. It was before people put it online. You put it in various publications.
  • [00:11:28] EMILY MURPHY: What are some author interactions or interviews that you'll always remember?
  • [00:11:32] JAMIE AGNEW: Our uber event was Louise Penny at WCC, and the library also was heavily involved in that. Robin interviewed her onstage, and it was like two friends talking.
  • [00:11:48] ROBIN AGNEW: I think one of my other favorites was Michael Connelly, was in town. He was signing at Borders, but so he came by to do what's called a drive-by. He came to sign stock in the store, and there's no one in there. We had this lovely chat. Then as he was leaving, one of my customers came in. I said, this is Michael Connelly. She said, do I read him? I said you love him. He writes the Harry Bosch books. She said, Oh, Harry Bosch. She backed him into the corner and said, you have to cheer that guy up. He's so sad. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:12:21] JAMIE AGNEW: I have to say my favorite author stories, Elmore Leonard as a person, obviously, if you're in this area, he's the get, and I wanted him and I tried many ways. I even had a new graduate student who was driving him to a lecture here. I was like, Well, can you bend him my way, [LAUGHTER] and come in the store? Use the bathroom or whatever. He tried, but we didn't get him that way. But he has a son, Peter Leonard who wrote, and he had just had one come out, and I said, I saw him somewhere. I said, Hey, Peter, you want to do an event with us. He said, fine, can I bring Elmore along? [LAUGHTER] Ah, no, we don't. Yeah, that really gobsmacked me, and that was here at the library, and to finally get him and hear him to talk with his son, it was a moment.
  • [00:13:10] ROBIN AGNEW: I think the local author we had most contact with was Loren D. Estleman who's written I don't know, like 80 books at this point, but I know we had him several times here. You guys were great partners to us. We love doing events at the library. We didn't have to set up the chairs. [LAUGHTER] That's great. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:13:27] JAMIE AGNEW: With a small store, you have to clear a lot of all to do an event, and then you have to put it back. May I say that's also, I think one of the reasons we stopped or we're glad we stopped in any event, that the physical labor, if you can't get other people to do it for you.
  • [00:13:44] ROBIN AGNEW: Books are heavy.
  • [00:13:45] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:13:48] ROBIN AGNEW: One of my last events was here. It was two authors Rhys Bowen and Susan Elia MacNeal, and Rhys has quite an extensive backlist, and I was getting them out of the car and they dumped all over the parking lot and I was like, I am so done with this.
  • [00:14:03] ELIZABETH SMITH: In 2014, you actually won the Raven Award. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?
  • [00:14:08] ROBIN AGNEW: The Raven is given to someone for service outside of writing to service to the mystery genre. A lot of bookstores have won that, and it was a lot. It was a life highlight. I'll say that. We got to go to the Edgar Awards in New York, and it was wonderful.
  • [00:14:25] JAMIE AGNEW: It was amazing. They put us up. Yeah, it's the highest award and people have won it. Bill Clinton won it.
  • [00:14:31] ROBIN AGNEW: Alfred Hitchcock.
  • [00:14:33] JAMIE AGNEW: All kinds of people.
  • [00:14:34] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah, it's kind of neat.
  • [00:14:35] EMILY MURPHY: How did you find out that you won?
  • [00:14:37] ROBIN AGNEW: I got a call and I thought he was making it up. I was like, really? We weren't allowed to talk about it for two months or something. That was hard.
  • [00:14:49] EMILY MURPHY: Can you talk about being an independent bookseller and, gosh, how much did that change in the 90s to the 2000s to the 2010s?
  • [00:14:57] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah, I think bookselling is getting tougher.
  • [00:15:01] JAMIE AGNEW: Retail in general.
  • [00:15:02] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah, I think when we opened, it was maybe easier. I'm not sure. But although borders was always hanging over our heads.
  • [00:15:08] JAMIE AGNEW: Yes. It was for the independent first, I mean, we all love Borders, but they were our major competitor, and they kept growing and growing and they had already been bought by Kmart when I left and henceforth [LAUGHTER] . But then it became Amazon and the online stuff. That was our big competitor, I think, for independents.
  • [00:15:35] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah, we had apartments over top of us, so they'd get Amazon packages [LAUGHTER] . No one else to sign for them [LAUGHTER] .
  • [00:15:44] JAMIE AGNEW: Don't you get it?
  • [00:15:46] ROBIN AGNEW: But the nice thing is you own an independent store because you're quirky and you don't want to work for someone else. That's pretty perfect.
  • [00:15:55] JAMIE AGNEW: That also, I think, pertains to the Independent Booksellers Alliance. That really wasn't very effective because they're independent they're really independent people. They're going to have a hard time working together, or having somebody be in charge of them. That's just the way it works. I have to say the Kerrytown BookFest. That was an example of all the independents pulling together and putting something really good on in a real united spirit. But part of the united spirit was dislike or feeling slighted by perhaps another book festival in town. That really was a very strong motivation, but it produced a beautiful, wonderful event. So goes to show.
  • [00:16:44] ROBIN AGNEW: I will say, like other stores when we first opened were so kind. Common Language was across the street from us and was owned by these two wonderful women, Kate and Kelly and they were so kind to us, and it was almost like having a superstore there because we didn't carry the same merchandise.
  • [00:17:01] JAMIE AGNEW: Exactly.
  • [00:17:02] EMILY MURPHY: It was nice to refer people back and forth and they were just really nice women. But they sold in that moved down to Kerrytown so you missed them.
  • [00:17:11] ELIZABETH SMITH: What were some of the other bookstores in the area at the time? Did you work closely with any of them in any way, other than the Common Language?
  • [00:17:18] ROBIN AGNEW: Jay Platt has always has been a friend, although he's so shy, we didn't really get to know him for a while, but he's a wonderful person.
  • [00:17:26] JAMIE AGNEW: After Words, is another one that I'll mention. That was such a fantastic store, and Steve and Shelly were great people. I mean, we would help each other with change or something, but we're not--
  • [00:17:39] ROBIN AGNEW: The day we opened, I'd forgotten to order bags. Kate brought some over, lent us some bags.
  • [00:17:46] EMILY MURPHY: How does it work or did it work for you being both business partners and life partners, not having that separation necessarily between home and work?
  • [00:17:57] JAMIE AGNEW: I'll say we were lucky because we were seldom in the store at the same time. I think if we had been together 24 hours a day, God only knows.
  • [00:18:07] ROBIN AGNEW: It was a good arrangement.
  • [00:18:09] JAMIE AGNEW: Yes.
  • [00:18:10] ROBIN AGNEW: We were starting our family. We had a baby, and then I had another one, and it was just a nice way to share parenting and owning the store and-
  • [00:18:19] JAMIE AGNEW: It was flexible. It made things a lot more flexible than working 8 hours and being your kid or being available.
  • [00:18:26] ROBIN AGNEW: They got dragged to a lot of events.
  • [00:18:29] JAMIE AGNEW: We had real delineated responsibilities, and so, yeah, it was easy to work together.
  • [00:18:36] ROBIN AGNEW: It turned out. I liked doing events in the newsletter. He liked buying books. It turned out to work great.
  • [00:18:43] JAMIE AGNEW: Not like when we're driving because.
  • [00:18:46] ROBIN AGNEW: Totally different.
  • [00:18:49] ELIZABETH SMITH: Actually, that's a good point to ask, how did you divide labor, and did you each have your own specialties and things that you were more interested in doing in the store?
  • [00:18:56] ROBIN AGNEW: Oh, absolutely. I love doing events. I love the book club. Those are things he's not so fond of. I love doing the newsletter.
  • [00:19:05] JAMIE AGNEW: I did mostly inventory, getting the new and used books, and I love books. I've always loved acquiring books. It was a rush for me and I don't think I ever quite became sick of them, but close. It was close. You just get buried.
  • [00:19:24] ROBIN AGNEW: You guys are young, you'll see.
  • [00:19:27] EMILY MURPHY: How has being a bookseller impacted you as a reader?
  • [00:19:31] JAMIE AGNEW: It's a store. You have to read books that people ask about. It's like, yeah, that's a good book. No, that isn't a good book. Rather than reading all the books by an author you like, you try and read as many authors as possible. Keep abreast of the latest trend or whatever. That affects your reading?
  • [00:19:56] ROBIN AGNEW: For sure. I'm a reviewer, too. It's like your reading is prescribed. I'm still a reviewer. I have, like, a reading queue. I'm not choosing all the time. What I want to read?
  • [00:20:08] JAMIE AGNEW: I have liberated myself.
  • [00:20:10] EMILY MURPHY: Yeah.
  • [00:20:10] JAMIE AGNEW: I can do whatever I want now. If I lived another 64 years, I could maybe read all the books [LAUGHTER] I have.
  • [00:20:21] ELIZABETH SMITH: Robin, how do you choose which books to review?
  • [00:20:24] ROBIN AGNEW: I have ended up reviewing mostly books by women, but I also reviewed for years for Mystery Scene magazine, and those were assigned. That really expanded who I read, which was great. My editor figured out who I like to read and gave me certain types of books, but I still would read stuff for them that I wouldn't have read otherwise, which is very nice. They are now only online. They've cut back a bit.
  • [00:20:49] ELIZABETH SMITH: So you also moved your store online from a brick and mortar in 2018? What led to that decision? Where are all the books now?
  • [00:20:57] ROBIN AGNEW: Well, it was just getting tougher. There's more competition directly across the street, for example. Downtown is getting harder to navigate. Right now, I'm so happy we're not open because Main Street is closed right now. I would have been apoplectic if that was the case.
  • [00:21:15] JAMIE AGNEW: I think it's like those trees downtown. They have, what, a 25, 26 certain lifespan. A lot of these independent bookstores, how long did you last, oh 23 or 27? It's usually a very cyclical thing.
  • [00:21:31] ROBIN AGNEW: I agree. At one point, I looked around and I thought, how are we going to get rid of all this stuff? It took us a year of planning, really, to get rid of our fixtures, our books, everything.
  • [00:21:43] JAMIE AGNEW: The lease is up. You have to make a decision. The books, half price, quarter price, bag sale, give them away. I'm going to tell an awful secret that books get thrown away. I love books as much as anybody, but books get thrown away. The crème de la crème or at least things I thought where the crème de la crème are now in a storage unit. I sell them online. We sell some new books, too. But right now, Aunt Agatha's, I think, is more a review.
  • [00:22:16] ROBIN AGNEW: A review block basically.
  • [00:22:17] JAMIE AGNEW: A review block and we have our books on abebooks.com. I still have, I think there's like 1,500, but I also must have at least 500 books in the basement that I haven't put on there. We sold a $400 Louise Penny book yesterday that was on our shelf.
  • [00:22:37] ROBIN AGNEW: For a couple of years.
  • [00:22:38] JAMIE AGNEW: For years, it's been on the line for years, but some guy decided he wanted it. We saw all kinds of things. I think being online now, it's the very weird paperback from 1960.
  • [00:22:51] ROBIN AGNEW: Very odd ball, we'll sell stuff, and we'll be like, you want that book really?
  • [00:22:55] JAMIE AGNEW: I've looked at this cover for decades. But when we were first opening, we had put an ad in the paper. There's another quaint idea, in the one ads that we were buying books. This guy drove up in a Gremlin, an AMC Gremlin, another quaint idea. It was a hatchback. He's driving and this entire car is full of books, and they're very skinny little books. I don't know if you know the Destroyers series.
  • [00:23:24] ROBIN AGNEW: Executioner.
  • [00:23:25] JAMIE AGNEW: Executioner. They were all these series in the '60s and '70s about this super spy, and they were all very small. The guy comes out and he's got. He literally has anchors tattooed on his arms. He said, "I was in the merchant Marines and I read all these books from this service." At that time, I would take anything to fill the shelves. I didn't give him a lot of money for them, and he just unpacked the entire car Gremlin and drove away. They sat there for a long time. But now I'm selling them, in Idaho or whatever you want to complete their collection and live the Destroyer Executioner lifestyle.
  • [00:24:06] ROBIN AGNEW: I think our dads read those books.
  • [00:24:08] JAMIE AGNEW: My dad, definitely.
  • [00:24:09] ROBIN AGNEW: My dad did.
  • [00:24:11] ELIZABETH SMITH: Were you selling used and new books at the store?
  • [00:24:13] ROBIN AGNEW: Yes. The used books, really.
  • [00:24:16] JAMIE AGNEW: They paid for. We sold twice as many used books as new books, but new books cost twice as much. But the used books are a lot cheaper to get. I think when I made the decision to only give credit for used books that really started turning profitability around. It also created confusion because not a lot of places sell new and used books. Some people didn't realize that. I remember once, this couple is in there, this is toward the end. Delightful old lady I'm talking to her and she has a bag, and I said, what from another bookstore in proximity. I say, what did you get? And she pulls out the new Louise Penny. I'm like, we invented Louise Penny. We're personal friends of Louise Penny, and she was like, I didn't know you sold new books, and we've been there 20 years at that point.
  • [00:25:13] ROBIN AGNEW: We've been there 25 years.
  • [00:25:16] JAMIE AGNEW: That was a harsh--
  • [00:25:18] ROBIN AGNEW: How did you get the message out?
  • [00:25:20] ROBIN AGNEW: In fact, it was very difficult.
  • [00:25:21] JAMIE AGNEW: Yes. I guess it's never really got out.
  • [00:25:25] ROBIN AGNEW: But then, on the other hand, these authors would come to the store and say, "I've always wanted to come here. Look at this guy that wrote for the Chicago Tribune or the Wall Street Journal or something." He was like, your store. I was like, "What are you talking about? A hole in the wall. I mean, we had a great collection. I'll say that, but I was always amazed when authors were excited to be there. I'm glad, but looking back, is there anything that you would tell yourselves or give advice to yourselves on starting with now the decades of knowledge?
  • [00:25:58] JAMIE AGNEW: Well, you're tempted to be that Delmore Schwartz story where he's watching his parents meet on a movie screen, and he wants to jump up and say, "No, don't do that." But no, I wouldn't tell myself anything because it would just burden us. We didn't know anything. We just jumped off the cliff and we missed a lot.
  • [00:26:17] ROBIN AGNEW: It was a great journey.
  • [00:26:19] JAMIE AGNEW: It was.
  • [00:26:19] ROBIN AGNEW: I loved it
  • [00:26:19] JAMIE AGNEW: It was life journey.
  • [00:26:21] ROBIN AGNEW: I loved it. I love mysteries, I love being part of the community.
  • [00:26:26] JAMIE AGNEW: As librarians you know this. Being around books all day long is a spiritual experience. It really is. You're doing something good. When I was in Minneapolis, I worked a lot of temporary jobs and you'd work in the metal, scrap metal, and it would be awful, and everyone would be in a bad mood. Then once for Christmas, I worked at the shopper factory and they made, what were those called?
  • [00:26:48] ROBIN AGNEW: Cooties.
  • [00:26:49] JAMIE AGNEW: Cooties.
  • [00:26:50] ROBIN AGNEW: The toys.
  • [00:26:50] JAMIE AGNEW: It's a toy from our child. Everyone there was so happy because they were making toys. The conditions weren't really that much better, but they were just happy because we were making cooties for kids.
  • [00:27:02] ROBIN AGNEW: Remember one afternoon in the store, we played a lot of old jazz music, and I had Artie Shaw and this old couple came in and they were browsing. Then the lady said, "I am waiting for someone to ask me to foxtrot." It was just really lovely.
  • [00:27:21] ELIZABETH SMITH: Is there a day that stands out as a day that you'll always remember at the store?
  • [00:27:26] ROBIN AGNEW: I don't know if there's one day that stands out.
  • [00:27:28] JAMIE AGNEW: I think Louise Penny, Elmore Leonard.
  • [00:27:31] ROBIN AGNEW: I think that we had a 15th anniversary party with Kent Krueger and Steve Hamilton and Julia Spencer-Fleming, who are great friends, and it was a really fun event. Then Steve and Kent helped us pack up the chairs at the end. It was just really nice. Then we all went out to dinner and gossiped. It was great.
  • [00:27:51] EMILY MURPHY: I'm curious. Who are you excited about reading right now? I'll date this because it's early 2023 right now. If something really hot happens before this releases, you're off the hook.
  • [00:28:04] JAMIE AGNEW: Well, the people that I still read, and I don't read as many mysteries now, but I'm really looking forward to Megan Abbott's new book, she has a new book, and William Kent Krueger.
  • [00:28:13] ROBIN AGNEW: Has a new standalone.
  • [00:28:14] JAMIE AGNEW: He has a new standalone coming up. He's at the tip top of any writer, both of those people are to me.
  • [00:28:22] ROBIN AGNEW: It's always a discovery. I'll try and pick out. I'm reading this weirdo book right now about this nun who was a drug addict, and she's got tattoos, but she lives in. It's really interesting book, and I wish I could remember that title of it, and I had scorched something or other. It's sort of a noir detective novel with a weirdo main character. I like the way detective fiction is evolving, because you have to bring in new audiences to it. I personally love traditional stuff, but I know that it has to change a bit to get younger readers.
  • [00:28:56] JAMIE AGNEW: Plus, I think you need new perspectives. That's what I always say. That's something actually we saw in our time period at the store.
  • [00:29:04] ROBIN AGNEW: Absolutely.
  • [00:29:05] JAMIE AGNEW: Originally, it was the male PI was the perspective. Then Grafton came along. You got the female PI. Then Walter Mosley and Black people. Stephen Mack Jones writes a really good series set in Detroit. It's just another perspective. It really enriches it because, there's only really so many plots out there, I guess.
  • [00:29:31] ROBIN AGNEW: There's one plot, everyone. There's writers that say there's just one plot. It's how you embellish it. I read a wonderful book this year by a Muslim woman who wrote about a Muslim detective in Colorado, and it was extraordinary. It's called Blackwater Falls by Ausma Khan.
  • [00:29:46] JAMIE AGNEW: l think it's evolved to be more about the effect of crime on the community and less about solving the locked room mystery and that kind of thing.
  • [00:29:56] ROBIN AGNEW: No one's writing that really anymore.
  • [00:29:59] JAMIE AGNEW: It's been done.
  • [00:29:59] ROBIN AGNEW: Very few anyway.
  • [00:30:01] ELIZABETH SMITH: This is off topic, but something that I was curious about was Robin's interest in watercolor and your career as an artist. Can you talk a little bit about that?
  • [00:30:09] ROBIN AGNEW: It was a short career. I did art fairs for a couple of years, which was fun, but it's a real, it's a ton of work. When we opened the store, I stop doing that because, you got to drive around with a big metal thing in your trunk that you have to set up, and then you got to produce more work to hang. It was fun. I saw a lot of the state. That part was nice.
  • [00:30:33] JAMIE AGNEW: Well, we went to this our final one. Her tent blew over and was mangled, and we drove around, stuffed it in a dumpster.
  • [00:30:43] ROBIN AGNEW: That was the end.
  • [00:30:44] JAMIE AGNEW: That was the end.
  • [00:30:44] ELIZABETH SMITH: A natural conclusion.
  • [00:30:49] ROBIN AGNEW: Exactly.
  • [00:30:51] EMILY MURPHY: Are there things that we have not asked about that you say, gee, I really want to tell this part of either Aunt Agatha's or your personal stories?
  • [00:30:58] ROBIN AGNEW: I will say, it was very satisfying to me to be involved with the Kerrytown BookFest, which I'm sad is.
  • [00:31:04] JAMIE AGNEW: You do a podcast about that.
  • [00:31:05] ROBIN AGNEW: It's still here, but it's changed a lot but it was such a wonderful group of people. The Hollanders that own Hollander's bookstore and Gina Alloway from Martin Bailey, John Hilton from The Observer. We all had different experiences and expertise and I learned so much about other kinds writing, when I was helping with that because I ended up doing all the panels. What I learned from that was mystery writers are super easy to deal with. They're so professional [LAUGHTER] and poets are not, [LAUGHTER] But I loved it. Every year, it would be this great community conversation about reading, and I really hope Ann Arbor gets back to some kind of book festival.
  • [00:31:45] JAMIE AGNEW: They should have one.
  • [00:31:45] ROBIN AGNEW: It needs to.
  • [00:31:46] EMILY MURPHY: I have some good news about this. It's just about to be announced, although it'll be old news by the time it releases [LAUGHTER] . It's being renamed the A2 Community book fest and the library is partnering to. It will, at least this upcoming year, be right here at the AADL, it will be at the library. [OVERLAPPING]
  • [00:32:04] ROBIN AGNEW: Wonderful. Well, that's great.
  • [00:32:05] EMILY MURPHY: It'll be back downtown, which we're excited about.
  • [00:32:08] JAMIE AGNEW: That's good.
  • [00:32:09] ROBIN AGNEW: Our venue was a great part of it, that made it successful. But I'd always be like, I don't know, I'd be waiting to sell books after a panel is over, and I'd get into conversations with readers. I had this one woman, we were standing there, and she said, "I hate that Madam Bovary." [LAUGHTER] We talked about Madame Bovary for 10 minutes. It was hilarious. [LAUGHTER] I hope that it goes well. That's great that it's going to be at the library. That's perfect.
  • [00:32:35] ELIZABETH SMITH: How did you get involved in the festival and how many years were you involved?
  • [00:32:39] ROBIN AGNEW: The whole time, except for the first year when we were only exhibitors, and that was super relaxing. Then after that, I was on the board every year till we closed. Then I thought, well, why be apart then?.
  • [00:32:53] JAMIE AGNEW: We knew that people were involved, and they asked us to and got sucked into it.
  • [00:32:57] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah, because Jamie said, "I don't want to do it." [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:33:00] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah. Actually, Gine Alloway came up to me and said, "Do you want to be on the board of the Kerrytown BookFest?" I was like, "No. [LAUGHTER] Robin might want to be", and the rest is history.
  • [00:33:12] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah. It was a lot of work. We were a working board.
  • [00:33:16] JAMIE AGNEW: But we had a great party every year with all the authors and people that helped us at our house. I remember Jeffery Deaver came one year, and he's famous, he just drives himself. He's not a prima donna [OVERLAPPING]
  • [00:33:32] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah, he is not.
  • [00:33:34] JAMIE AGNEW: I'm standing in my living room looking down the street and here comes Jeffery Deaver walking down the street to our house and I was like "whoa. " It's like the time we saw Mr. Rogers.
  • [00:33:46] ROBIN AGNEW: The other year was, we had a food theme, and I didn't know anything about food, but I'd heard the Roadfood Show on NPR. I e-mailed Michael Stern, and he called me out of the blue. "We'd like to come to your festival." I was like, "You're kidding me." That was arranged and Ali from Zingerman's interviewed them. John Hilton, who was on our board, said, "Well, I'll make them dinner." He came to our house and made homemade pizza. The week before, I said, "John", the whole time, I'm like, "Aren't you nervous cooking for the Sterns?" He's like, "No, I'm from the UP. I don't get nervous." [LAUGHTER] The week before, he said, "I'm really nervous about my sauce." But he and Michael Stern stood in the kitchen and talked about his sauce for like half an hour or so. Worked out. It was a good pizza.
  • [00:34:35] ELIZABETH SMITH: What, if anything, stands out as one of your biggest accomplishments?
  • [00:34:39] JAMIE AGNEW: I was our collection. This is something I've thought about. I always thought, wow, if you have a restaurant, you got to throw everything out, hopefully, after a very short time period. But you can really build up a collection. I knew what to buy, I knew where to find it, and it was just gratifying because mysteries are series oriented. If you want to read the series, you want to read them in order. Sometimes they've gone out of print, or they're hard to find. That was a way, and also the old book covers too are so great. Those green Penguin covers or those lurid 40s paperbacks. Well, I'll tell you one peak story. You get into the hunt, at that time, it was quite a community of guys out there looking for books. The library used to have a sale here in the basement, Saturday and Sunday, and that was like church for me. I went every single time. But then, some of these guys are crazy. They drive to other states to book sales. I think that whole culture has start to die out, because you've got things like the permanent bookstore here where it's a different thing. I think it was the South Lyon Boy Scouts, maybe. You get into this network of these shady characters you're always telling you about book sales and stuff. I looked on the shelf, and there is a hard back of John Grisham's A Time to Kill. Now, John Grisham's A Time to Kill was his first book. It was not widely distributed, mostly in the South, mostly from the back of his car to libraries. It didn't have a wide distribution, and there was a book club book, which is the bane of your book scout, because they look like a real book but they're not. I almost didn't even take it off the shelf because that was like, that's a book club book. But you take it off the shelf and you look, it has a price, which is the number of your immediate tip that it's not a book club. Your hands are trembling and run to the boy scout and give them the book and take off. Yeah, it was the first edition of to time to kill. That was probably my best. We sold that to some guy from Detroit.
  • [00:37:14] ROBIN AGNEW: No, we sold it at the Antiquarian Book Festival at the student union.
  • [00:37:20] JAMIE AGNEW: We were more for readers or antiquarians.
  • [00:37:22] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah, those little finds were.
  • [00:37:24] JAMIE AGNEW: Yeah, if I came across something though, I knew enough to grab it.
  • [00:37:28] ELIZABETH SMITH: How much did you buy it for versus sell it for?
  • [00:37:30] JAMIE AGNEW: I think that was $1 and what did we get, $600?
  • [00:37:33] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah. That's a good part about used books, sometimes.
  • [00:37:37] JAMIE AGNEW: The profit margin is usually very good.
  • [00:37:39] ROBIN AGNEW: Yeah. I will say for me, it was a community of readers and we had a book club, which is still going on. It's our 30th year and we're still meeting. We meet twice a month, and when it's warm, we meet in my yard and on Zoom. Right now, we're just on Zoom, because it's cold. That's been ongoing.
  • [00:37:58] JAMIE AGNEW: Well, I think you also, your accomplishment meeting these writers that you.
  • [00:38:03] ROBIN AGNEW: That was just a bonus.
  • [00:38:05] JAMIE AGNEW: Like meeting Sara Paretsky?
  • [00:38:08] ROBIN AGNEW: That was cool.
  • [00:38:09] JAMIE AGNEW: Yeah, she's an incredible person. Some of many have died now, Elmore Leonard or Sue Grafton.
  • [00:38:16] ROBIN AGNEW: True.
  • [00:38:17] JAMIE AGNEW: Yeah, there are people who won't be coming back.
  • [00:38:19] ROBIN AGNEW: Well, all our friends that we knew are now getting lifetime achievement awards. [LAUGHTER] It's really time to be out of it, yeah.
  • [00:38:28] JAMIE AGNEW: To rise up at the same time as these people, like Louise Penny and William Kent Krueger
  • [00:38:34] ROBIN AGNEW: It was fun.
  • [00:38:35] JAMIE AGNEW: Be there on the ground floor. It was fun.
  • [00:38:45] ELIZABETH SMITH: AADL Talks is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.