A History of Mystery: Aunt Agatha's says goodbye after 26 years


October 5, 1992: Jamie, right, and Robin Agnew (shown with their daughter, Margaret) soon after they opened Aunt Agatha's bookstore.

Whodunit? They Did It: Jamie, right, and Robin Agnew (shown with their daughter, Margaret) soon after they opened Aunt Agatha's bookstore. Photo by Benjamin Rusnak for a story in the October 5, 1992, edition of The Ann Arbor News.

The world wide web can do many things: find the recipe for that cookie you had at camp that one summer, identify the weird rash you have on your arm, and tell you the name of the band that sang "Life in a Northern Town."

But there are many things that an algorithm simply cannot provide and many of those things can be found in bookstores like Ann Arbor's Aunt Agatha’s, home of new and used mysteries, detection, and true-crime tomes: the smells of old books that have been opened, read, and reread by many loving hands; stacks of dog-eared novels waiting to find their reader; sounds of pages turning, people murmuring over what they are reading. 

I love this author! I’ve read all of her books -- isn’t she great? She is so underrated.

Since 1992, Robin and Jamie Agnew's Aunt Agatha’s is the place that finds the authors you haven’t heard of before and makes you a lifelong fan, a store where writers who are at the beginning of their career blossom into major forces.

And it all ends this August.

I’m looking for this book that I read back in college, I think it was about …

Yes, we have that book! Let me show you!

Before the bookstore, Jamie spent his days as an employee at Borders and Robin worked the art-fair circuit selling watercolors. “I always loved mysteries though,” she says. One of Robin’s favorite bookstores in her native Minneapolis was called Uncle Edgar’s. 

The Agnews moved from Minnesota to Michigan in 1988 and opened the store four years later. Prior to the opening of Aunt Agatha’s, a feminized name of Robin’s favorite Minneapolis bookstore, Fourth Avenue looked very different. Jamie remembers, “The original Common Language (bookstore, now in Braun Court) was across the street before it moved next door. The Capitol Market was next to us, we had a needlepoint store on the other side, the Rage of the Age, Miami Moon … and a great hot dog place on the other side of Fourth.” 

“The Velvet Touch was in our location,” Robin says. “Then it sat vacant for a few years … and then we came along.”

Our book club has met for over 25 years. That’s longer than some marriages!

Mystery lovers found their paradise. Local readers flocked to the store as did many out of towners. “We have a woman from Germany who still comes in every summer to shop," Robin says.

Writers also discovered a friendly place to read their work and sell their wares. Robin and Jamie both recall the many events with enthusiasm. “Loren Estleman was one of the first authors to come in and meet us and he’s been back many times,” Robin says. “One of our most memorable events was having Louise Penny. … She came here with the release of her first book and kept coming back. … The events got bigger and bigger and the last event had 500 people at Washtenaw Community College. We also had Gerald Elias in once and he has his 17th-century violin with him. He said something like, ‘I got my fiddle with me, is it OK to play?’ and then played this beautiful music for us.”

Jamie adds, “Another all-time favorite was our Elmore Leonard event. … He’d been one of the top Detroit authors and we tried a number of different ways to get him to our store. His son Peter started writing and we did some events with him. I happened to see Peter one day and asked him if he would come to our store. He said, ‘Is it okay to bring Elmore with me?’ Yes, yes it was!” The event took place at Ann Arbor District Library and featured Peter and Elmore Leonard, who were interviewed by Loren Estleman. 

I live in Fowlerville but I had to drive down here before you close.

When asked what surprised them most about owning a store, the Agnews smile at each other. “The amount of physical labor!” Robin laughs. “It’s hard to get away,” Jamie adds. “We’ve had maybe four vacation days in a row since 1992.”

But many things outweighed the lack of vacation days.

“We’ll definitely miss meeting authors and seeing our customers,” Robin says. “It’s been really fun to meet writers at the beginning of their careers and then watch them blossom. … We’ve been their fans and they’ve become our friends.”

I’m a fan of cozy mysteries. Who can you recommend?

While the physical store will close at the end of August, the Agnews will not be out of the business quite yet. Robin will write a column for Mystery Scene magazine this fall, focusing on women writers, and Aunt Agatha's website will be revamped to sell books online.

“We will possibly do some author events at the library,” Robin says. “[AADL has] been outstanding partners for us … accommodating, helpful, enthusiastic. We can’t thank them enough for their support over the years.” An event at the library in November has already been scheduled. 

Events will continue through the summer. “Steve Hamilton and William Kent Krueger came with their first books and they will be two of our last guests,” Jamie says. Hamilton will debut his new Alex McKnight mystery on August 21. Rhys Bowen appears at AADL's downtown branch on August 10, and Larry Sweazy joins the book club on August 17. The final farewell takes place on August 26 at 2 pm with authors Krueger, Lori Rader-Day, and Sarah Zettel. 

I’m not sure where I’ll go once you close.

There is a lot that the internet can do, but so much that it can’t. It can’t walk you to the section of the store with just the right book, it can’t launch an author’s career at a book signing, it can’t place the hand-signed first-edition novel in your hands. It can’t give interviews to local writers who want to promote local authors. It doesn’t let you browse every single Nancy Drew yellow spine book even though you can’t afford to buy many of them. It won’t let you in on a rainy afternoon when everything in your life is wrong and you hope to find some words that might make it better.

And it will never, ever create an experience like the ones found in bookstores like Aunt Agatha’s. 

Patti Smith is a special education teacher, writer, and lover of mystery books. She would like to thank Aunt Agatha’s for recommending a book by Loren Estleman who has since become her favorite author. She will never forget that rainy afternoon when she wandered in and found a bright spot in an otherwise depressing time in her life. 

➥ "Whodunit? Mystery buffs find shelves of evidence at Aunt Agatha's bookstore" ["The Ann Arbor News," Oct. 5, 1992]
➥ "Page-turner: Out of the steamy jungles of the Ann Arbor book market comes an action thriller you can't put down! It's the battle of big vs. small!! And the final chapter hasn't been written yet!!!" ["The Ann Arbor News," April 24, 1995]