There was yellow police tape on Monroe Street last weekend, and nearby, on the sidewalk, a chalk outline of a body.
Joanne Berg couldn’t have been happier.
“It was phenomenal,” she said.
Appearances to the contrary, there was no foul play. The chalk signified not a death, but rather the birth of a new bookstore, Mystery to Me, at 1863 Monroe St.
Berg, 57, a longtime UW-Madison administrator who is retiring this summer, recently purchased the books and bookcases of Madison’s venerable mystery bookstore, Booked for Murder, which had operated for 25 years in a strip mall on University Avenue.
Saturday was opening day, and the store was buzzing. Copies of Carl Hiaasen’s new “Bad Monkey” were jumping off the shelves. A small bookstore is a perfect fit for Monroe Street, a neighborhood where people like to walk and like to read. The neighborhood does not suffer from an inferiority complex. The thing is, it’s almost as nice as even the haughtiest residents think it is, and Mystery to Me only makes it better.
For her part, Berg was happy to be upright on Saturday. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind.
“Surreal,” she said, what with closing the deal and getting the new space ready, an exercise that included painting and laying carpet and a hundred other details you don’t think of when you’re daydreaming about how fun it would be to own a bookstore.
For Berg, that particular dream dates to childhood. She grew up in Appleton, attended UW-La Crosse and went to graduate school at Washington State University in Pullman. She arrived at UW-Madison as an assistant dean in the graduate school in 1987. By coincidence, a woman named Mary Helen Becker, along with a few friends, opened Booked for Murder the next year.
Berg’s own bookstore fantasy sat on a back burner for many years, until a few months ago, when she read in the newspaper that Sara Barnes, the latest owner of Booked for Murder, had family obligations that required her to leave Madison and was trying to sell the bookstore.
“It gave me a little kernel of an idea,” Berg said, though she wasn’t wild about the University Avenue location.
One day Berg dropped into Booked for Murder, and while Barnes wasn’t there, Berg started to chat with another browsing customer — try doing that on Amazon — who turned out to be Mary Helen Becker, who started Booked for Murder a quarter century ago.
It seemed like fate. Becker, who eventually became sole proprietor of the store, could talk until the cows come home about the many joys and occasional sorrows of running an independent bookstore.
I remember chatting with her in 2000, when it looked like Booked for Murder was going to close its doors after a dozen years. Business was good, but Becker and her husband wanted to spend time with their six grandchildren. Regular customers were heartbroken.
“They come in weeping and carrying on,” Becker said. “But what are you going to do?”
Becker had initiated author events that became extraordinarily popular. She brought Mary Higgins Clark, Elmore Leonard and James Crumley to Booked for Murder. Perhaps the most memorable was a 1999 appearance by British author John Mortimer, then 77, creator of the crusty barrister Horace Rumpole.
Anticipating a large turnout, Becker booked a church for the event. Becker walked Mortimer, who had warmed up with expensive champagne, up the aisle. She later said it was like taking her grandfather to a wedding. Mortimer whispered, “This is a church. Can I tell my stories?” Becker assured him he could, and at the podium Mortimer was brilliant, charming the audience from the outset. His publicist told Becker it was the best stop on their tour.
A year later, Becker avoided having to close Booked for Murder when a buyer stepped forward. The store has survived, if not always prospered, since.
Not long after her chance meeting with Becker in the University Avenue store, Joanne Berg was walking in her Monroe Street neighborhood and saw a sign announcing a vacancy in a building across from Trader Joe’s. Fate again?
She made inquiries, and the building owner said a bookstore sounded like a fine idea. Berg bought Barnes’ Booked for Murder inventory and the University Avenue location closed. For the past few weeks, Berg and many friends — especially Robin Douthitt, the former longtime dean of the UW’s School of Human Ecology — whipped the new space into shape. It was Douthitt who insisted Berg paint Mystery to Me a striking green color — it works — and they also installed a large screen TV on which they can hold author events via Skype. Berg plans to sell some books beyond the mystery genre and she can order books of any kind.
Mary Helen Becker is already a fan. “I think she’s going to do great,” the founder said of Berg. “She knows what she’s doing.”
Of course, there is a lot to learn. Berg had never heard of the late James Crumley, my all-time favorite hard-boiled mystery writer. Crumley’s “The Last Good Kiss” is the best mystery of the last 50 years. True fans can quote the first line from memory. Some years before his death in 2008, Crumley was a little late to a writers’ conference in Los Angeles. He explained he had lost his watch.
“Do you know where you lost it?”
Crumley grunted. “I threw it out a car window in El Paso in 1978.”