Friday, May 6, 2011

Everyone Came to Kate's by Andi Shechter

Andi Shechter is a two-time Left Coast Crime Chair ('97 and '07) and was honored ten years ago as Fan Guest of Honor at LCC in Anchorage.  
She served on the committee for the Silver Anniversary Bouchercon in 1994. Andi lives with the medical mystery of the century.  She can frequently be found, surrounded by her gorilla pals, watching figure skating, reading cookbooks and swooning over really good mystery fiction.

Andi lives in Seattle with Stu Shiffman and spends far too much time on her laptop playing games. She is also a blond, coke-addicted runway model with an attitude from New York. Go ahead, ask her. 

You can follow her blog here:

Everyone Came to Kate's
by Andi Shechter

In recent weeks, I've been immensely flattered by people who have told me what a big deal I am in the mystery community.  Yeah, right. It might seem that I know everyone in mystery fandom but I really don't.   Yes, I know more than the average bear because I've worked on three mystery conventions in Seattle (Bouchercon in '94, Left Coast Crime in '97 and '07) and you can't help it when you do that.  You talk with and meet and hang out with and you email dozens, even hundreds of fans, readers, dealers, agents, publicists and writers. 

I've also lived in some mystery-friendly towns.  After grad school, I moved to Oakland and spent ten years in the East Bay in California. I then moved to the Boston area for five years and since 1990, I've lived in Seattle.   If you've been lucky enough to live in a mystery-friendly place, you might just have been lucky enough to have a mystery bookstore to shop at – not just an independent bookstore but one where the owner and the staff get it. Really get it.

Kate's Mystery Books was exactly that bookstore.  I miss it.  Mind you, I haven't lived in the
Boston area since 1990 and I live in a city which once had two, count 'em two, mystery specialty stores and still has a successful mystery bookshop.  But I miss Kate's.  And I miss Kate.

Kate's Mystery Books was one of the centers of my world in mystery when I lived in Boston.  It was based in a classic old Victorian – as every mystery bookshop should be -  on a major thoroughfare in Cambridge, and therein lies a story which I'll get to down the line.

But just know this.  If you liked mysteries, and you lived in Boston for certain years, well, everyone came to Kate's.

Now, of course, we would not have gotten along – the store and I would have had issues - because I can't do stairs, because my weird disability has me using a power wheelchair. When I first was a customer at Kate's, I hurried up the stairs to the wonder of a bookstore designed by a helpful, opinionated and strong protagonis….er owner.  Kate Mattes had shelves of books alphabetized by author as any good bookmonger does.  She also had special shelves including a couple labeled "strong women protagonists", a part of the store that I made a beeline for from Day One.. Because I was still discovering mystery and while I knew and loved Sharon McCone, I wanted to find more like her.  Sure, you could find Sue Grafton, but did you know about Linda Barnes' Carlotta Carlyle?  Okay, you've read Paretsky, but what about ….and so it went.  The special sub-genres at Kate's appealed to me.  There were other special sections too, mind you. And as I recall, Kate said she designed it simply because so many people kept asking.

And by the way, if you looked just at the right spot, you could see a little plaque that explained that the shelves had been made by one Robert B Parker.  You maybe have heard of him?  Everyone came to Kate's.

So Kate ran her quirky shop the way she wanted – I think there was still an old-fashioned cash register. It was not a computerized operation – not back then. The "want lists" were kept, I think, on 3x5 cards. Not sure how well that worked.  And lots of black cats – I never knew where they came from but you know how it is. One black cat shows up and dozens follow.  I think Kate started that one herself. At any rate, it was The Place to Go. You know that one?  When authors were sent on tour, as many were back then, they all went to Kate's.  One of Sue Grafton's author photos was taken outside the store, I think in the parking lot next door.  Back when Sue Grafton toured; maybe she was on "F" or "G" back then.

Oh, yeah, that parking lot. Came the fateful day when the bookshop met the bus.  The city bus that somehow managed to cross two lanes of traffic, a median, two more lanes of traffic, went through the parking lot and er, well, parked in Kate's bathroom. Gulp. No one was using the bathroom at the time. 

Poor Kate. Poor US!  As I recall it went something like this.  "Well, the structural people won't come in until the gas company people have been here, and the gas and electric people don't want to go in until they're sure the electricity has been dealt with had the electrical folks want to be sure that the water people have been…".and there's Kate with the power of the city's legal department and bus system looming over her.  Kate was not a weenie, you might have guessed.  And Kate of course loomed back, wondering exactly how it was that the bus could have crossed the four lanes of traffic the island, the sidewalk and the parking lot…yeah….

So began the adventure of Kate's Mystery Bus Stop.  No, the city didn't like that and as I recall, Kate agreed to stop using that imagery, but not before it raced around the community.  And yes. We got the tee-shirts. 

In order to accommodate the electrical workers, the structural guys, the gas folks and the ….it was determined that Kate's had to close for a while, and that the shop would be essentially put into storage. (insert image here of the warehouse at the end of the first "Indiana Jones" movie.)  So one weekend, the community, the readers and the writers, descended on the store to pack it up.  And in what seemed like a few hours, dozens of locals lined up at the shelves, listened carefully to our instructions, put the books into boxes and off they went.  Sniff, sniff. Wave hankie.

A while later, after I'd moved from the Boston area, I was standing in a room at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, to ask an author for an autograph (the Men of Mystery calendar, but that's for another day). When I got to the front of the line, I said to this one guy, "The first time I saw you, you were wearing cut-offs and a tank top".  The author looked at me, oh did he ever. So I said "Would it help if I told you I lived in Boston?" And after a few beats, he said, "The last time I dressed like that…" , and I said, "Yeah, you were working as straw boss, organizing all the book packers at Kate's.  I was there that day with my friends Jim and Ellen.  Pleased to meet you, Mr. Healy."  Jeremiah Healy, one of the best writers ever to write a private eye novel, was there that day.  And he was very good at organizing us all. I heard that Jane Langton was there too.  Jerry, by the way, is one of the best organized men I've ever met, and has the best legs in mystery.  But I digress.

The store came back from what we tend to refer to as "that bus incident" and it was larger, thanks, I believe, to Kate's savvy in settling out of court, and it was a better store and bigger and still had fine shelves and had a secret door and everything. And still had lots of cats.  It opened in 1983, the bus accident happened in 1987 and it lasted for years, introducing dozens of authors to hundreds and probably thousands of readers.  It hosted signings and events. The building however sold and KMB(s) was gone.

Talking about Kate's with my partner Stu (who worked for a time at Kate's Mystery Books (everyone, all together now, "Everyone comes to Kate's.) , I thought of the time I was last in the store. I was settled in Seattle, but was back east visiting friends and family.  One advantage of Kate's location was its proximity to good food nearby, and after hanging out in the store for a while, we closed up and went off to Redbones, a nearby barbecue restaurant.  Kate and I spent some time that night reminiscing about a friend who'd recently died, the amazing, talented, terrific Kate Ross.  Kate's been gone 13 years and I still miss her. That trip back east had been planned, in part, so I could see Kate Ross for the last time.  We were not the closest of friends, but we were friends, and she was dying of the leukemia that killed her a month before I got back to Boston.  We'd had dinner in Seattle on her last book tour, and as I talked to Kate (M) about her, about how she always looked perfectly turned out, perfectly dressed and coiffed, Kate remarked to me the obvious – that that perfect hair was most likely a wig.  Sure she was thin, but, oh, what a dope I was.  But that night in Seattle was burned in my memory as so very much fun.  And it was – there was no hint of illness or even tiredness in my friend, and I still cherish the memory.  And I still cry. She was delayed at her signing at least a half hour or more, and in pre-cell phone life, she'd actually called the restaurant to let me know.  I'm sure every waiter who looked at me thought "what a dope. She's been stood up and doesn't know it." But phew, in came Kate and we had a great time and she signed my books and we talked and laughed and had a great time.  She died of the ridiculous age of 41, waiting as I recall, for a new experimental treatment to attack her cancer. (I read "breast cancer" though my memory is that she had leukemia).

Kate Ross was a trial lawyer. She also wrote four of the most spectacular historical mysteries I've read in my life as a mystery reader. She was the creator of Julian Kestrel, dandy and
precursor in time to the likes of Lord Peter, who spent time among the upper classes and yet understood how the other half lived.  I never got her to sign the fourth book.  She was someone that Kate Mattes could not have put on the strong female protagonist shelf but she was a favorite of both of ours, fans of VI that we were. The first time Stu and I met Kate Ross was at a Bouchercon, as we went into total fangirl/fanboy mode, babbling (ok I was babbling) telling her how much we liked CUT TO THE QUICK and how glad we were to meet her.  She smiled a bemused smile and said "you know, I was told I should come to this event and I really had no idea why. No one explained Bouchecon to me.  I think I just figured out why." And we were friends to the end. Not just because we loved her books, but because that's how it works.  You start with the books and you go on from there. 

I don't know everyone in the mystery community, not by a longshot.  But my life would be ever so empty without this bunch of people.  I'm a science fiction fan and a mystery fan whose communities are both geographical and virtual. I have friends in cities I haven't lived in ever, or lived in 25 years ago.  I remember the bus stop that took me to Kate's and that tapas restaurant. And how Jerry Healy looked In shorts.  I've still got the tee shirt.. And I miss Kate's.  




Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Andi, Thank You! All of us here love stories, and you have some of THE most delightful. I appreciate you sharing this with us and hope you'll come back with many more.

Peg Brantley said...

You miss Kate.

I miss you. Your posts on DL were among those I made sure to read.

Thank goodness I get to check in on you from time to time at Meanderings and Muses.

Vicki Lane said...

What a lovely post! I always hoped I'd make to Kate's but alas, it never happened.

And like Peg, I miss your wit on DL. But I always catch your Hedgehog blog -- for which, many thanks!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love the pictures and hearing more about Kate and her shop. I was so sad when her shop closed because I'd always wanted to get over there! Now I almost feel like I have...thanks. :)