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'Willing To Take Them On:' Scottsdale's Poisoned Pen Bookstore Supports New Authors

Local, independent bookstores often hold a special place among the hearts of authors. The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale has hosted thousands of author events and the owner recently launched a foundation to support new authors. 

Not Your Typical Author Event

This story begins outside a warehouse in north Scottsdale. Deanna Sanford is first in line for a first of its kind event hosted by The Poisoned Pen.

“It’s a date night,” she said with a laugh.

Sanford is here to check out the classic cars that appear on the pages of author Clive Cussler’s thrillers.

“In some cases they get destroyed and then rebuilt in the books and then they show up on the back cover and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what it looks like,’” she said. “Really, beautiful cars.”

Like the 1931 Stutz Speedster. The green and yellow of the car’s body match the colors of Cussler’s latest book jacket.

“I think of the bookstore really as the theater,” said Barbara Peters.

She didn’t think that way when she opened The Poisoned Pen in 1989.

“It was just going to be a little, you know, 600 square feet, sell a few books, have a little coffee, talk to a few people,” she said.

At the time, the big chains had a big presence in the Valley, so Peters focused on mysteries. The niche and original location on Main Street in Scottsdale proved to be a powerful formula.

“People kept streaming in because the art district was such a draw and they would say, ‘This is such a good idea, a mystery bookstore’ I wish we had one of these back home in Dubuque,” she said. “So, on day two I said, ‘Sign here, and I will write to you.’”

Peters typed and mailed newsletters with order forms for people to send in checks. Today, the newsletters are emailed but her customer base outside Arizona remains huge — 70 percent do not live in the state and 22 percent live outside the United States, including Alan Shailes.

When he learned about Cussler’s book signing, Shailes booked a flight from London to Phoenix.

“A lot of my life now has been spent on Clive Cussler books and I finally got to meet the man himself,” he said.

Arizona Author Impact

Cussler, who’s written more than 80 novels, lives in the Valley part of the year and The Poisoned Pen can always count on him to attract a crowd. Owner Barbara Peters credits another Arizona author, Diana Gabaldon, with the store’s survival.

“We almost lost the store at 9-11 because all event programs stopped when flying stopped. It was like six weeks,” she said. “The only reason we survived was Diana published, I’m trying to remember it was 'Outlander 4' or something like that, and it was enough you know to keep us going until stuff started up again.”

"You know, there’s a philosophy of businesses — grow or die. The really hard part is if you don’t want to grow, how do you not die? And probably the answer is you have to keep innovating ..." — Barbara Peters, The Poisoned Pen owner

Growing And Helping

In 2004, Peters came close to opening a second store in downtown Phoenix. She feels fortunate she was able to get out of the deal and realized one location is all she wants.

“You know, there’s a philosophy of businesses — grow or die. The really hard part is if you don’t want to grow, how do you not die? And probably the answer is you have to keep innovating, you have to keep doing things that are somewhat different,” she said.

While The Pen specializes in crime fiction, it’s morphed into a general bookstore or, as Peters describes it, an entertainment center with hundreds of events every year.

“Gradually, New York has gotten to see that Phoenix is a major tour stop,” she said. “It’s a big reading city. There are people here on holiday or there are people here for health reasons, or whatever. There’s an extra large reading population in our city.”

In addition to conversations with authors, the store has hosted teas and potlucks, holiday parties and writing workshops. Peters’ reputation makes The Poisoned Pen a "must stop" for established authors and a "dream stop" for debut authors, like Jack Carr.

“She knows everyone and is so kind, especially to new authors,” he said. "She's been amazing to me and introduced me to a lot of people and given me a lot of advice as I start down this road."

The former SEAL team member launched his thriller book tour in Scottsdale last year.

“So, you have a loyal fan base that aren’t necessarily loyal to a certain author that’s coming, but they’ll show up because they’re loyal to that bookstore and they trust that bookstore to bring in interesting people,” Carr said.

Peters recently started The Poisoned Pen Foundation a 501(c)(3) charitable enterprise to help build the careers of new authors by covering travel expenses.

“Because we worry about who’s going to be the next Clive Cussler, who’s going to be the next Michael Connelly,” she said. “You have to be willing to take them on when nobody knows who they are with their first book and espouse it and push it.”

After 30 years, Barbara Peters is planning The Poisoned Pen’s next chapter. She’s not going anywhere — she’s still the main character — but like every good story The Pen has a supporting cast of characters with a stake in the outcome. Peters’ longtime employees know how to keep the plot moving and, when the time comes, they’ll take the lead and connect the next generation of authors and readers.

“I’m really proud of my staff,” she said. “I think it’s remarkable that I have had people working at the store now for over twenty years, an awful lot of them. I’m very proud of them and their growth. I’m giving the store to my staff, that’s our exit strategy, so as long as it’s fun and I can still do it, I will and when I can’t they’ll take it over.”

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.