The motto of the mystery bookstore Sleuth of Baker Street is “Selling Crime Since 1979”. It doesn’t take a detective with Sherlock Holmes’ acumen to know that’s an incredible achievement for an independent bookseller of any stripe in this age of corporate bookstores and electronic readers.
Sleuth’s proprietors, Marian Misters and J. D. Singh, were both chartered accountants in 1982 when they answered an ad in The Globe and Mail which stated simply, ”Bookstore for sale,” and they never looked back.
That first store was on the site of what is now De La Mer fish market on Bayview Ave. Then they moved to the space that today is home to Second Cup, and finally bought the building at 1600 Bayview where they remained for many years before moving in 2011 to a store in the small strip mall at 907 Millwood Rd. where the Motor Vehicle Licensing office used to be.
At one point, Marian and J. D. looked around at other locations in the city, but decided to stay in Leaside because they loved the neighbourhood, and had lots of support from their loyal customers here. In fact, their customers are so supportive that they responded enthusiastically to a sign in the window saying “Help Us Move” each time the store changed locations. “One customer even rented a truck and hired a policeman for the move to Millwood,” Marian said.
The move to the smaller store on Millwood was precipitated by a desire to spend more time with family and friends after Marian experienced the loss of two family members and a friend in the space of six weeks. Both she and J. D. started to rethink their lifestyle to focus on what is truly important. The decision to reduce their hours to four days a week seems counterintuitive in retail, but the arrangement is working well for them. Their regular customers are happy with the free parking and, as Marian explained, “they would rather have the store open part-time than not at all.”
One drawback of the move is that the smaller space means they cannot keep all of the books by an author on the shelves, just the most recent ones, but they can easily order the earlier books for those who want them. And while it is true that there is less “walk-by traffic,” the shop is popular with the locals.
As independent booksellers, J. D. and Marian face the many challenges of “big-box” stores like Indigo, online services such as Amazon, e-books and the unfavourable American exchange rate. In addition, because major suppliers now warehouse books in the U.S., it takes a bit longer to receive orders for their customers.
But Marian and J. D. have been able to maintain their business in the face of these challenges because they know the tastes of their customers and personalize their recommendations to suit each individual. Indeed, their knowledge of their stock is encyclopedic, with each of them reading three to five books a week, and retaining the important details of the plots in order to help their customers make informed choices.
Sleuth also attracts clients with their newsletter, “The Merchant of Menace,” which appears once a month online and every second month in print. The newsletter highlights their favourites of the month and descriptions of all the new releases. Another part of the business is a popular mail-order service, and they employ a part-time worker to handle orders from their website, the phone or even regular mail. From time to time, too, there are visits and signings by popular writers, even such well-known Canadians as Peter Robinson, Louise Penny and Maureen Jennings.
There’s no mystery to why Sleuth of Baker Street has become such a valued retail icon of the Leaside landscape. Both Marian and J. D. live in the neighourhood, shop locally, and donate books to local events. Marian enjoys living and working in the same place as well as being her own boss. As she said, “We wouldn’t be here without our customers. Interactions with them and our community are what make life worth living.”
On the Friday morning before the Thanksgiving weekend, a steady stream of customers entered the store, all greeted by name and all receiving personalized suggestions for books. And, as one woman stated, all were tempted to buy more than they came for when they spied something new on a shelf or table. With this kind of business, Sleuth of Baker Street, like its namesake, the Sleuth himself, is sure to thrive for many more years, whatever street it’s on.