Crime pays for Minneapolis bookstore

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2011 - 10:12 PM

Once Upon a Crime, beloved by mystery writers and readers, will be honored this month at the Edgar Awards in New York.

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When the phone call came last November, Pat Frovarp played it cool. The bookstore was busy, and she wasn't entirely sure what the caller wanted. "He said something about, 'You and your husband, Gary, are going to win the 2011 Raven Award,'" she said. "I'm all agog, making all the right sounds. You know, 'Oh, this is marvelous, I'm so excited.'"

But inside, she was thinking, "Huh?"

When she mentioned the call a few hours later, "Gary just went ape! He said, 'You've got to be kidding! We won the Raven Award?' And I said, 'What's the Raven Award?'"

She knows now. The Raven Award is the top honor for non-authors given at the annual Edgar Awards, sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America. Later this month, Frovarp and her husband, Gary Shulze, will fly to New York -- her first visit -- to do the town and to pick up their prize at the April 28 black-tie banquet.

The pair will be honored for their hard work, support, encouragement and dedication to mysteries, mystery writers and mystery readers through Once Upon a Crime, their cozy and book-stuffed Minneapolis bookstore.

For their friends and customers, it's an award that was a long time coming.

"They're a class act," said Plymouth mystery writer Gerry Schmitt, better known by her pen name of Laura Childs. "They carry your books; they carry your back list; they do publicity; they host launch parties and events. They're phenomenal."

"People know that they're really terrific," said Larry Light, vice president of the Mystery Writers of America. "And it's high time they were recognized."

Frovarp and Shulze met years ago at the bookstore, where Frovarp worked a couple of days a week for the previous owner, Steve Stilwell. "I bought a lot of books from him and I always owed him money at the end of the month," she said.

Shulze began to hang around, initially because he collected first editions and loved books, and later because, well, he was beginning to love Frovarp. "I'd come down to the store, and if customers were in I'd talk to them about books," he said. "I was hand-selling books as a customer. I'd come in and re-stock and do things, waiting for the store to close" and for Frovarp to get off duty. (Still, she points out, "I had to ask him out.")

Around 2001 or so, Stilwell began talking about selling the place. "Gary and I were strolling around the lake one day and chatting, and one of us -- neither of us is willing to take the blame -- said, 'Maybe we should buy Once Upon a Crime,'" Frovarp said. "And we honestly don't remember which of us said that. But we started giving it some serious thought."

They bought the store Aug. 1, 2002, and five years later, on their anniversary of ownership, they got married in the store, in their standard uniform of white T-shirts and black jeans.

Shulze's T-shirt read "Shop Locally." Frovarp carried pink roses. They said their vows standing between the giant cardboard revolver that hangs on the wall, and the mock crime tape that bisects the back doorway.

20,000 books. Maybe 30,000

Once Upon a Crime is at 604 W. 26th St., just off of Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis. You know you're there when you see the sign that looks like a chalk outline of a dead body. Walk down six steps to the screen door, pull it open, and -- welcome to paradise, assuming that paradise involves a resident border collie sleeping on the wooden floor (that's Shamus, named for another writing award), a couple of metal folding chairs, and thousands and thousands of books. The place is packed with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 books -- one copy of each title, to save room on the shelves, starting with A at one end and working all the way around the room to Z. When a book is sold, it's replaced on the shelf from the cartons of stock packed away in the storeroom and the bathroom.

"It's funky," said Laura Childs. "It's like some place in New York, like in Greenwich Village or Soho. It's great."

And if the title you're looking for is something a little older, or out of print, Shulze or Frovarp will open up the annex for you, which is down a back hallway and through a white wooden door. The annex -- well, a person could happily live back there, lounging in the gold velvet chairs, feet on the red Persian rug, reading the thousands of collectible books.

Shulze opened up a locked case and drew out one of his favorites, "The Mighty Blockhead," a rare paperback edition with a dust jacket. "At $150, I might have priced it a little high," he said. "But I don't really want to sell it."

Local writers credit Once Upon a Crime with helping them get their books off the ground; this is where Laura Childs has launched each of her 23 titles. Brian Freeman, Larry Millett, Julie Kramer, William Kent Krueger and David Housewright are all having events there this year, and nationally and internationally known writers -- Camilla Läckberg, Michael Connelly, Lisa Scottoline, Lisa Lutz, Dennis Lehane, Daniel Silva, Peter Lovesey -- have all come by.

"They're well-known as a terrific venue," Light said. "It's got a great reputation. It stays open late, they sell small presses, they have a lot of signings for traveling and local authors, and every year they host the Write of Spring, which caters to Minnesota mystery authors, and the place is packed, apparently, with fans." (This year's Write of Spring brought in 50 authors and hundreds of readers.)

Shulze and Frovarp would say that their customers are pretty great, too. In 2007, Shulze fell ill with leukemia and required a bone-marrow transplant. He was in the hospital for nearly three months, leaving Frovarp to run the store alone. It was, she said, beyond stressful. "I didn't know if I was on foot or on horseback. But I just kept going." And people, she said, started showing up -- authors, customers, publishers' reps -- to help.

"They restocked shelves, ran the till, shoveled snow," she said. "The mystery community is so incredible."

The Raven Award is a way for the mystery community to say, "Right back atcha."

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  • Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze with dog Shamus.

  • ONCE UPON A CRIME

    604 W. 26th St.

    Minneapolis

    612-870-3785

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