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A solemn ending for mystery bookshop

Newbury Street is about to become a little less literary. Spenser's Mystery Bookshop, Boston's only mystery specialist, is closing its doors after 20 years.

"I absolutely love what I'm doing and would do it forever, but I can't afford it," says Andy Thurnauer, owner and founder of the little shop between Exeter and Fairfield streets, where the "going out of business" sale is underway. "It's an endemic situation; my costs have been rising and sales dropping since 2000." Thurnauer says no closing date has been set, because he is hoping for an early termination of his lease, which runs through August. He expects to close before then.

It's the second bookstore closing on the street in the past year. The used-book store Avenue Victor Hugo closed in late 2002, but owner Vincent McCaffrey managed to reopen in a smaller nearby location in February. Other than that store and Trident Bookseller and Cafe, near Massachusetts Avenue, only three highly specialized booksellers will remain on the street. Thurnauer says he does not intend to reopen elsewhere.

Thurnauer, whose store carries primarily used books, attributes his loss of business to Internet bookselling. Online, small home-based operators can buy and sell books with little retail overhead, and customers can browse for books without leaving home. "When I got into the business in 1973 as a buyer for the Harvard Coop," he says, "the important elements were location, location, location. It worked well at first, here on the most expensive and accessible street in America. With the Internet, I am competing with Amazon but also with someone on a mountaintop in Tennessee."

Spenser's has a small Internet component at, and Thurnauer says his business partner, Kathy Phillips, will continue to sell through the Internet under the name Spenser's after the store closes.

Thurnauer started in 1983 in a basement on Hereford Street, near the corner of Newbury, and in 1996 moved to his present location, which has about 10,000 titles. As the street has become more of a center for fashionable boutiques, rents have skyrocketed and offbeat retailers have found it harder to cover costs. Spenser's original rent was $9 per square foot; now it is more than $50.

"In retrospect," Thurnauer muses, "the way to go would have been to have bought a building." He is certain the drop in business is not due to a lack of interest in mystery fiction or in reading in general. "Interest in mystery fiction has gone way up," he says, "and mystery collecting has gone crazy." The area's other well-known mystery specialist is Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge.

However efficient as a way to sell and buy books, the Internet is impersonal.

"We've had people who have seen the sale sign come in with tears in their eyes," Thurnauer says. "There's a huge social component to a small shop. There are people who stop by, whether or not they buy a book. I have had long-term relationships with people, and while they don't necessarily extend beyond the store, they have been important in my life."

David Mehegan can be reached at

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