Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: The Mysterious Bookshop’s Otto Penzler On Bearing Up In Face Of NYC Shutdown

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Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email

Otto Penzler has devoted himself to books, mysteries a specialty. His store, The Mysterious Bookshop, has been in business since the 1970s. Beyond being a fixture among independent New York City booksellers, Penzler founded several publishing companies including the Mysterious Press, Penzler Publishers, Scarlet, and; he’s won two Edgar Awards, an Ellery Queen and a Raven and has edited over 60 books. After surviving the rise of digital competitors, Penzler writes here about enduring the strain of being unable to open amidst a lock down of New York City. It’s the one mystery he can’t like: no one has a clue how long this crisis will last, before browsers and book buyers can return to the beloved store.

This morning, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to close and imprisoned most of New York City’s population with the equivalent of house arrest in their homes. Like so many life-long politicians without experience in the day-to-day real world, he and Bill DeBlasio never had to worry about where their next check would come from and how they were going to be able to pay the salaries of those who depend on them.


As the owner of a small independent bookshop in Manhattan, I admit to bias in firmly believing that books are essential, though hardly a matter of life and death in a physical sense. Still, the survival of businesses is vital to those engaged in it. It is a source of numerous psychological elements: a sense of self-worth, fulfillment, companionship, even identity in some cases.

Mysterious Bookshop

By some standards, The Mysterious Bookshop is a successful small business, having survived for 41 years. In the 1980s, there were six mystery specialty stores in Manhattan but we’re the last one standing. It’s a tough business in a tough city. It has grown from a single employee when we opened on the superstition-free Friday the 13th, 1979, to five full-time and two part-time people now, plus me.

The shop has withstood myriad crises, naively (i.e., stupidly) beginning without capital, followed by the sudden ubiquity of Barnes & Noble stores, then Borders, skimming the easy sales by offering discounts on stacks of bestsellers. Those challenges were almost trivialized by the emergence of Amazon, which spread and conquered the retail world almost as fast as the German Panzer divisions devoured Europe—and with a similar lack of conscience.
Technology was another challenge for bookstores. For more than 20 years, more bookshops closed than opened, a trend that has slowly turned around in the past few years. The rise of e-books was a major blow to bricks-and-mortar stores, and so was the staggering popularity of video games, which replaced readership in countless homes. On subways and buses, it is rare to see a book in the hands of a rider. Instead, all heads are down as e-mails and texts appear to be the preferred reading matter for everyone (it seems) under the age of 30—and plenty of older folks, too.

We mostly survived those assaults by working harder, with longer hours and extra days, to keep going. We innovated, created, sped up, streamlined, and found solutions to problems.

Until now. Barred from working, prevented from doing what we know how to do, we are helpless against the government’s dictum. What do we do now? Without customers, how do I pay my staff? How do they pay their rent and buy their food?

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov autographing books at the Mysterious Bookstore in 1984 Mario Suriani/AP/Shutterstock

Our customers stepped up in an astoundingly gratifying way this week. Not by coming to the store, but by ordering online, via e-mail, or telephone. Their generosity of spirit, often matched with their pecuniary largesse, warmed our hearts and enabled me to pay full salary to everyone, even though we only had one or two people working each day while I told the rest to stay home.

The duration of this city-wide lockdown is now mere speculation. The mayor and the governor will miss no paychecks and will continue to give press conferences as they decide the fate of the people in New York. On what whim will they decide it’s okay to live again, no matter how abnormally? How many businesses will their decision have destroyed, and how many people will have had to endure a life if impoverishment—while prevented from helping themselves due to these draconian measures?

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