You can find Steve Powell’s bookshop in Hulls Cove, a tiny hamlet, on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine in the United States. At first glance, it’s an unlikely location for a bookstore but Steve’s shop has been a fixture in this remote community since 2008.
On AbeBooks, Steve sells as the Mystery Cove Bookshop but his bricks and mortar store is called the Bar Habor Book Shop. The small town of Bar Habor is about three miles down the road.
“Our shop is relatively small,” said Steve, who began selling books in 1981. “I can look out the window and see Frenchman Bay. It’s a beautiful spot.”
Listen to our interview with Steve Powell
Inspired by Jessica Fletcher’s Murder She Wrote sleuthing in a Maine seaside town, Steve originally named his store the Mystery Cove Bookshop but eventually changed it because so many customers thought he just sold mysteries.
Today, this dog-friendly shop offers books about Mount Desert and Maine, children's literature, history and biographies, science fiction and fantasy, books by historical fiction author Kenneth Roberts who was a native of Maine, and a strong selection of crime, mystery and detective fiction.
“Mount Desert is about 100 square miles in size and has a year-round population of around 10,000 people,” said Steve. “A little over half the island is taken by the Acadia National Park, and we got around 4 million visitors this year. We’re connected to the mainland by a small bridge.
"We’re about 60 miles south of Bangor and about 70 miles from Canada to the North. Thousands of books have been written about this island. The flora, the fauna, a school of art that was here in the 19th century. The hiking, fishing too.”
Mount Desert has been a popular destination for people looking for peace and quiet since writers and artists began flocking to the island in the 19th century. These wealthy outsiders, looking for a rural idyll, were called "rusticators" by the locals. Today, the island attracts holidaymakers who come to fish and hike although hunting is strictly prohibited.
The Bar Habor Book Shop is open all year. “Business is seasonal,” added Steve. “It’s like a door closing at the end of October, November. It’s an advantage to have a bookshop because the books come to me from people who want to sell them.”
Steve has a passion for mystery, crime and thriller books, and began his bookselling career as a mystery specialist in the early 1980s. “I had dabbled in bookselling while still in high school, attending auctions,” he said. “I always had a fascination with reading. After college, I came up to Maine one too many times and decided to move up here permanently. I started doing the rounds and buying up mysteries because I enjoyed reading them, filling up my station wagon as I went.
"I ran a mail order business at first, and advertised in magazines and sold at book fairs. I did that until around 1990 when I joined forces with another seller, Bill Dunne, and created a database listing books stored in two locations. We started using the Internet and joined AbeBooks in 1998.”
Steve’s most expensive sale came back in the 1990s when he sold a first edition copy of Fer de Lance by Rex Stout to a customer in Europe for “$15,000 or $16,000.” Fer de Lance is the first Nero Wolfe detective novel and a genre-defining classic. Published in 1934 by Farrar & Rinehart, the book has a stunning dust jacket featuring a pink flower on a black background.
“We thought that was a lot at the time,” he said. “That’s a scarce book and would be worth considerably more now. Prices are only going to go up for books from the golden age of mystery writing.
"Modern books are produced in larger quantities and they get looked after, while those early mysteries had their dust jackets thrown in the trash. Stores used to rent out mysteries for 5 cents a day.”
Steve’s inventory includes an ample selection of classic mysteries published in the 1930s, Doubleday Crime Club editions, and countless novels that begin with a death.
“There will always be demand for mysteries. There’s something in the human psyche that makes people want to know about murder and dishonest deeds.”