America the Messy Yard Police State

Poisoned Pen was shut down by the messy yard cops

The Poisoned Pen was shut down by the messy yard cops.


Poisoned Pen's continued success no mystery
Bookstore's stock now encompasses history, travel, kids' books

Oriana Parker

Special for the ABG

Oct. 29, 2007 02:28 PM

The who in this whodunit is easy to sleuth out.

The Poisoned Pen bookstore's downtown shop was killed during a fight between Phoenix code inspectors and the Bentley Projects, an art gallery where the mystery-book specialist opened a branch in 2005.

The story here, though, is how owner Barbara Peters ran an inquisition into what happened and used the information to keep expanding her Scottsdale-based business after the branch closed earlier this year.

"In business, it's grow or die. However, you have to limit the risk so that it doesn't bankrupt you," she said.

Peters says she started the new venture with high hopes.

"The arts have always been important in my life, and bookstore patrons tend to be people who appreciate creativity in all forms," said the 66-year-old doyenne of independent Valley bookstores.

She expected the arrangement at Bentley Projects, a fine-art gallery south of downtown Phoenix to be a "win-win" for everyone involved, with each business - including a gallery, restaurant, framing shop and bookstore - at the 215 E. Grant St. location drawing more customers together than each would alone.

Unfortunately, issues arose that kept this from being the case.

"A huge problem was the lack of signage, which we learned after 18 months was the result of a permit issue," Peters said. "It's hard to be successful while invisible. We lost a lot of business because people simply couldn't find us."

Another problem was the snarled traffic that worsened with the advent of light-rail construction.

And probably worst of all, the lunch crowd tended to buy only paperbacks.

"Given retail's cruel economics, it's difficult to make enough revenue on these sales," Peters said.

All these problems came to a head in July 2006, when city inspectors closed the Grant Street building, constructed in 1918, for two weeks due to code violations. The power was shut off and an "unsafe to occupy" sign was posted out front.

That was the moment Peters said she decided to leave.

"I regard the whole experience as a very expensive PR campaign," she said recently. "We've created new customers, hosted some events we might not otherwise have done (such as a book signing for Sen. John McCain), developed a continued-education program with the Arizona Bar for lawyers interested in the legal aspects of publishing, and received a lot of ink."

The store also broke new ground with subject matter. While mystery and crime books still account for 55 percent of the business, the store's stock now encompasses history, travel and children's books, as well.

Peters' upbeat attitude continued when regrouping at the Scottsdale store. Signing a new 10-year lease, the space has been expanded to accommodate inventory and fixtures from Phoenix. The bookstore can now handle up to 200 guests for the popular author book-signing events. Plus, the backroom mailroom staff, who account for half of the retail sales, enjoy much better working conditions.

"One employee was stuck in a reconverted handicapped bathroom with no window," Peters said. "We've changed all that."

Peters has since had the opportunity to open shops in north Scottsdale, Ahwatukee, Mesa and on the west side, but she prefers to adhere to a "bookstore without walls" policy. Books and authors are taken all over the Valley to all kinds of venues: libraries, schools, clubs as well as charity events and conferences. (Along the way, Peters has garnered some very impressive recognition; including the Mystery Writers of American Raven Award for contributions to the field outside of creative writing.)

Even though her sojourn at Bentley Projects didn't work out quite as planned, she still thinks of the experience fondly.

"We all shared an exciting vision," Peters said. "In time, when the light rail is installed, the university blooms, and other projects are completed, and if intelligent fostering of renovation as well as new construction succeeds, maybe this vision will come true."


America the Messy Yard Police State