Ed Kaufman, owner of the "M" is for Mystery bookstore, has turned his small downtown San Mateo business into the largest mystery specialty store on the West Coast.
Ed Kaufman, owner of the "M" is for Mystery bookstore, has turned his small downtown San Mateo business into the largest mystery specialty store on the West Coast. (Ron Lewis - MediaNews)
SAN MATEO - It was a strategic move by Ed Kaufman that turned a small independent bookstore into the largest mystery specialty store on the West Coast.

Not that he ever figured to reach that lofty status, but Kaufman deliberately chose the mystery niche when he opened "M" is for Mystery 10 years ago in downtown San Mateo.

It was a genre he loved and knew a lot about, and in an industry dominated by chains and online giants, it was a survival move. The decision to focus on the mystery genre by Kaufman and his wife, Jeannie, proved to be the key to their success.

The bookstore now carries more mysteries than any of the chain stores, and the Kaufmans and their staff know their stuff and have built a loyal fan base.

But there's more to it than that. Ed Kaufman books about 200 author appearances and book signing events a year, creating a strong destination for mystery book lovers and collectors.

"We figured we'd have a little show business to attract people into the store," said Kaufman, a veteran attorney and collector of first edition mystery books. Now, authors such as Elmore Leonard, Joseph Wambach, Walter Mosley and James Patterson read and sign their books at

BOOKSIBusiness 2"M" is for Mystery. Sometimes it's their only Bay Area stop on a book tour.

Independent bookstores face fierce competition from big players such as Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.


Advertisement

Locally, independent icon Kepler's Books of Menlo Park survived a scare last year when the store closed abruptly and reopened weeks later only when community leaders stepped forward with financial support. Legendary Cody's Books in Berkeley closed its long-celebrated Telegraph Avenue store in July and then sold its two remaining stores in Berkeley and San Francisco to a Japanese book distributor. Independents still struggle to survive, but some meet the challenge.

Up on the Internet

Another key edge that spelled success for Kaufman, 76, was an early link to the Internet.

The store is celebrating its 10th anniversary and began just at the embryonic stages of the Internet.

Establishing a Web site, http://www.MforMystery.com, has been instrumental in boosting sales. Half of the store's revenue comes from online sales, which reached nearly 40 states and more than a dozen countries such as England, Australia, Japan and Germany.

Jeannie Kaufman writes a weekly online newsletter, focusing on new books and the first editions and signed copies the store specializes in as well as author events. The newsletter reaches 4,000 customers.

A corporate lawyer for 41 years, Ed Kaufman worked on mergers and acquisition deals in Silicon Valley and across the country. He always wanted to open a bookstore and did so just before he retired, using his business acumen to create what has become a community treasure.

"The Kaufmans chose a specialty, and it was a good strategy," said Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. "They had a business plan to compete with the chains."

Landon stressed that the Kaufmans "really know what their customers want."

Their knowledge of the genre and huge selection gives them a big edge on national bookstore chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. Amazon.com has a large database of mystery books, but there's no one there to suggest titles and authors to customers.

"It's like manna from heaven for me," said Richard Romanski, a San Mateo attorney who collects mystery books.

Another customer, Sandy Towle of Burlingame, was stunned by all the mystery books in the store. "My wife and I found every author we wanted to read, and now we've met Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley and other authors," he said.

Such loyal customers are the bread and butter for surviving independent bookstores.

John Evans, co-owner of independent Diesel, A Bookstore in the Rockridge district of Oakland, went through some lean times competing against the chains and Amazon. But he has created a solid independent store and has opened another one in Malibu.

Evans said the key is having customers who make a point of buying from independents. To get those customers, he has been honest with them and has gained their trust.

"If they ask about a book that's been selling well but my customers aren't liking it, I tell them," Evans said. The store carefully selects its books for "great writing," thereby creating "a treasure chest of books," said Evans' partner Alison Reid.

"And we can get any book they want in two days," she said.

Focusing on specialties

After 10 years establishing the store, Kaufman doesn't feel the hot breath of Amazon or the chains on his neck anymore. For one thing, he's focused on collectibles and first edition books. In addition, he's meticulous about the condition of books and returns 10 percent of them to the publisher if they're damaged from shipping.

He also has developed a fine children's books section.

To be sure, the author book signings have put the store on the map.

"It's really the best venue in the Bay Area for authors and selling the mystery books," said Petaluma author Bill Pronzini, a prolific mystery writer whose latest book is "The Crimes of Jordan Wise." "I do a reading there at least once a year, and they sell at least 75 to 100 of my books when they come out."

"M" is for Mystery celebrates its 10th anniversary Saturday from 2 to 7 p.m. at the store at 86 E. Third Ave. The party includes music, food and 20 or more authors from the Mystery Writers of America's local chapter.