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Minneapolis mystery bookseller set to receive national award

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Helping customers
Once Upon A Crime owners Patricia Frovarp and Gary Shulze work with customers at the front counter of their Minneapolis, Minn. bookstore Wednesday, March 30, 2011. The couple has owned the Uptown store for the last 10 years of its 24-year existence.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Nationally known mystery writers wouldn't be caught dead showing up for a Twin Cities book-signing event at a chain like Barnes & Noble before first visiting Once Upon A Crime.

The tiny, Uptown Minneapolis bookstore crammed with 20,000 mystery titles has developed a strong and loyal following by hosting regular events that give local writers a platform to promote their work among avid mystery readers.

View a sampling of new books at Once Upon A Crime.

Co-owners Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze will be honored for their service to the mystery literature community later this month when Mystery Writers of America presents the couple with a Raven Award. 

The Minneapolis bookseller is the first recipient from Minnesota since the award was established more than 50 years ago. Past award recipients include the Library of Congress Center for the Book and the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.

KNOWN AND LOVED IN MYSTERY NICHE

Larry Light, vice president of Mystery Writers of America, said the bookstore's events have made Minneapolis a destination for mystery writers.

"They helped turn mysteries into a genre that supports and thrives in Minneapolis," he said of Frovarp and Shulze.

Several Twin Cities independent bookstores have recently closed as e-books and Internet sales become more dominant. But Frovarp and Shulze have kept Once Upon A Crime popular despite Internet competition. Regular events and signings, including the annual Write of Spring, draw local authors and readers to the store.

"They helped turn mysteries into a genre that supports and thrives in Minneapolis."

Light said the bookstore's niche market allows it to thrive. He also said Once Upon A Crime is known within the mystery community for its independent spirit and passion for hand-selling books.

"[Pat and Gary] have a type of genre knowledge that is able to steer a reader to buy what he or she will most enjoy. They can say, 'Oh, you like this author? You should also check out this.' That's very valuable. That's what keeps a lot of the independents afloat," he said.

The bookstore had its most profitable year in 2009, when the recession hit other independents and chain stores hard. Minneapolis houses two mystery booksellers, Once Upon A Crime and Uncle Edgar's, which is unique for a city of its size.

"We're a tight-knit group who are tied to the genre in some way. You won't find many cities besides New York or Los Angeles with more than one store that specializes in mysteries," Frovarp said.

Once Upon A Crime opened in 1987 under original owner Steve Stilwell, who its current owners said has a knack for mystery, exposing hundreds of readers to the genre during his 15 years.

Shulze and Frovarp met at a different bookstore when he recommended she read "God Is a Bullet," a thriller about a corrupt sheriff who hires someone to kill his wife's lover. The two began dating in 1999 and later married.

Stilwell sold the Lyndale neighborhood shop in 2002 to Frovarp and Shulze, who have since expanded its out-of-print and backlist inventories. The store is stocked with hundreds of rare hardcovers and paperbacks, some with price tags of more than $1,500.

"We've got it all — from the cheap to the ridiculous," said Shulze, who has been a book collector for more than 20 years.

Many of the expensive titles can be found in an intimate backroom called "The Annex," where Frovarp and Shulze house about 10,000 rare titles in shelves that surround two reading chairs and a convertible mini bar that doubles as a globe Shulze recently picked up at a local fair.

"It's crowded and chaotic, but that's the way we like it," Frovarp said.

BOOKSTORE FOSTERED FRIENDSHIPS

Kirsten Schwappach of Plymouth, who has frequented the bookstore for about 10 years, said Frovarp and Shulze have become friends with the authors and customers who pass through the shop.

"They know their stuff. They're good people. This is the kind of place you feel good about going to," she said.

Schwappach, who attended a recent signing event featuring local mystery writer Brian Freeman, said Once Upon A Crime has a unique ability to draw in such big names as Vince Flynn, John Sanford and William Kent Krueger while still keeping to its independent roots.

"Gary and Pat have become friends. Word spreads, and before you know it you have co-workers getting just as excited about a story as you are. That's the power of a good mystery," she said.

While flattered by the compliments, Frovarp says she and her husband are just doing what they love.

"Our customers have profound loyalties to mystery books," she said. "We're just as excited about the books as they are. I think that's what allows us to keep doing what we're doing."

When Shulze was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, many local authors volunteered their time by cleaning, restocking and overseeing the shop while Frovarp visited her husband in the hospital.  He entered remission for about 18 months, but by winter 2006 he was back in treatment. Shulze found a transplant match — his brother — in April 2007.

"Authors from around the community helped us so much during those years," Frovarp said, "This isn't our award, it's theirs."

The couple was married in the store in August of 2007, just months after Shulze's recovery.

"It was just us," he said of their wedding. "We wore our Once Upon A Crime T-shirts in a small ceremony. She carried a bouquet, and I carried the Maltese Falcon [a black bird figure that was the subject of a Dashiell Hammett mystery novel later adapted to film]."

"Those years I was sick were tough. But this is my dream job. I can't tell you how fortunate I am — doing this every day," Shulze said.