An interview with Joanne Berg of Mystery To Me

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

The front door where customers come in and see all of the wonderful books we have! I love it when they say that they love the smell, or how warm and friendly our store is.

If you had a staff pick for a recent new release, what would it be? Backlist pick?

Soooo many great new releases… but here are my two relatively recentstaff picks:

Do you have a strange customer story?

Not strange, but wonderfully fun:

  • A little girl (maybe 4 years old) came into the store and started riding on a little toy rocking horse that we had in the store. She was very talkative, so I went over to her and told her that I was kind of sad because the horse didn’t have a name. She very quickly hopped off the horse, put her hands on her hips, and said “of course he has a name (sigh), it’s RADISH.” Wow, I said, I didn’t know. How did you know that was his name? With an exasperated sigh, she said: “HORSE RADISH!” (duh)
  • Bookstore magic: A frequent customer came into the store and up to the front counter. She said she wanted to purchase a book for her daughter in law but she didn’t know the title or the author. We asked her what it was about, and she said she didn’t know…and then she said, what are some of your favorite books? One of my booksellers said People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. “That’s IT!” she said.
  • A family was visiting the store around Halloween. The two little girls were all dressed as fairy princesses. They were bouncing around the store making all sorts of pleasant fairy princess ruckus, when one of them slipped behind the counter where I was working at my desk. She asked me what I was doing and when I said I was paying bills, she asked me if I liked paying bills… “Not really,” I said… and she then wanted to know why I do it (smile). I told her that if I didn’t pay my bills, we wouldn’t be able to have all of these books in the store. Her eyes got very wide and she said: “You mean you OWN all of these books?” (to be honest, I try not to think that way)… and I said “Yes!” She shook her head and pronounced to her family that if she (me) had all of these books at her house, she’d have a big library!

What author have you been starstruck to meet, or have you gotten to host a fun virtual event?

  • Claire Fuller: I met her in New York at the Mysterious Bookstore
  • Donna Leon: Our last in-person event before the pandemic
  • Elizabeth Berg: I met her at a book signing before I had my own store. Would love to host her here.
  • James Patterson: He and his wife popped into my store the year I opened (2013). I was so naive. Luckily, I knew enough to grab his books for him to sign!

We have hosted a lot of authors and it’s almost always a pleasure to meet them. It’s easier to try to name (although I wouldn’t) the authors I didn’t enjoy than the ones that I did!

What are some misconceptions people have about working in a bookstore?

People still think that working in a bookstore means you get to read all day. I can’t remember the last time I was able to “pleasure” read at the store.

What is your least favorite bookstore task?

I have a love/hate relationship with all of the advance reader copies we receive. I’ve never been a good speed reader, or someone who can quickly skim a book and decide that it’s good or not. On the other hand, I delight in bringing the pile of new ARCs home and deciding which one to
take on first!

Favorite part about working in a bookstore?

Talking with customers about what they like to read and matching them up with a new book or two. I delight in having them return to tell me that they liked the book and want another recommendation.

Can you recommend an underrated readalike book for one of the store’s top titles?

People who like Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs series), we often recommend Iona Whishaw (Lane Winslow series)

Joanne Berg is the owner of Mystery To Me in Madison, WI.