Killer Business

By the look of her, you'd think Helen Simpson was a harmless little old lady, but beware: She spends her days surrounded by murderers, spies and con artists. Not to mention those even more dangerous characters: Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Simpson and her partner, Ed King, own Big Sleep Books, an all-mysteries bookstore in the hip Central West End of St. Louis, Missouri. It's just a little hole in the wall, but they've managed to survive since 1988 - two deadly decades that have wiped out hundreds of other indie bookstores and brought the chains to their knees. From the Internet, to the hegemony of bestsellers, to the rise of graphic novels ("They kill the imagination"), this lifelong St. Louisan has a bead on the forces out to get her. Even the nearby library offers new competition - not just for readers, but for money: The library constantly sells off its old books on the cheap, putting pressure on her own market for used paperbacks.

But Simpson doesn't seem particularly worried, nor does the eager Dachshund, Otto, who scurries around the store all day introducing himself to customers.

"This is just my fun," she says. "It's not a living, but I'm retired, and my partner has a good job." And a black belt.

What keeps them going isn't the money - "Not approaching half a million a year" - but the books. "The well-written mysteries are as good as anything in mainstream literature," she says. "And all of a sudden, we're getting translations and foreign settings like we never have before." To emphasize that bursting geographical diversity, she's organized her little store by locations: Germany and Russia on this table; Paris, Spain and Florence on another. Scandinavian books are by the door. "The Scandinavian translations are as smooth as silk," she says. Her favorite at the moment is a Norwegian novel called "The Redbreast" by Jo Nesbo (Harper). And anything by the Swedish writer Asa Larsson. "British women are hot, too. They're very good writers."

Mystery bookstores like Big Sleep used to be far less rare than they are today. Simpson has watched as her colleagues have closed up shop around the country. "I see it at the conventions. Fewer and fewer of them are there." These little stores used to specialize in first editions and rare books, too, "but the bottom fell out of that with the Internet," she says.

The key now is knowing your merchandise and having a good recommendation for any customer who comes in. "Some people don't want any violence; others want a lot of violence. Some people want to stay with what they know; others want to experience places they'll never visit." She reads three or four books a week. "Everything except for true crime, which I don't read because I live alone."

How long will she keep at this murderous business?

"I'm 76," she laughs. "Ask God."

-- Ron Charles

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By Ron Charles |  April 8, 2009; 5:05 AM ET Ron Charles
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