"We have customers who have been with us for a long time – some whose peccadillos are part of the fabric of our store."
Whodunit Bookshop in Winnipeg, MB was founded in 1994 as a specialty bookstore that dealt in mysteries. Since their family took over the store in 2007, Michael and Wendy Bumsted have grown Whodunit – both literally and figuratively – into the beloved community shop it is today. The Whodunit team spoke with CIBA about how they connect with their customers, their approach to curation, and what they love to read over and over again.
How has Whodunit Bookshop changed over the years?
We moved into a larger premises in 2018, which allowed us to expand in several ways. We use Bookmanager and the advancements in that program allowed us to first have a catalogue listing for every used book in the shop and then for that full catalogue to be available online through our web store. The other changes that have taken place over the years are ones you would expect to find in the industry: our mail order business to customers seeking British import and Canadian titles not available elsewhere shifting from robust to almost nothing, pressure in the earlier part of the 2010s to continue as a physical bookstore at all, etc.
Since 2018, our shop has been thriving due to our new space and new community members. The larger store has allowed us to stock more than just mysteries, and as pedestrians find our newer space more accessible and become advocates for the shop local movement, they have discovered all that we have to offer. While COVID-19 has curtailed in-person engagements, our new space is also much better suited to larger and more varied kinds of author events. Our interior shelves are specifically designed to roll away for chairs, bars, and games.
Whodunit Bookshop is a specialty store that offers an astonishing range of mystery books, but you also carry nonfiction, local interest titles, cookbooks, books for young readers and more. How is your collection curated?
The changes to our space also changed how we curate our collection. With more space, we’re able to carry a wider range of books than we did before – including local books like Darren Bernhardt's The Lesser Known, David A. Robertson's recent content explosion, Anna Lazowski's T. Rexes Can't Tie their Shoes, Jenna Rae's Cakes and Sweet Treats, and Jillian Horton’s We Are All Perfectly Fine. We are happy to tell customers that we will order in titles that we do not have, and our new Bookmanager web store has our customers finding new and varied topics all the time.
Our curation starts with what we know our customers buy. This helps us keep them informed about the next book in a series or a forthcoming title by one of their favourite authors. We cannot survive without our customers, so we try to be open about ordering books that will appeal to our community members – even if they don't suit our own tastes as readers. After that, we move on to what titles appeal to us and what we would like to read. We know it is much easier to share books with customers if we're genuinely excited about them. We also pay attention to what our walk-in customers are asking for – we will be stocking a lot more Manga starting this autumn – and we learn from other bookstores and follow what they are sharing online for ideas.
I’ve read many wonderful reviews from people who have been loyal to Whodunit since they were very young. How do you foster that sense of community with your customers?
We have some customers who have been with us for a long time – some whose peccadillos are part of the fabric of our store. Getting to know those customers when we first took over in 2007 was important and gave us a foundation to build further relationships outside of that core community. We’ve found that taking advantage of the tools available helps us to connect with our newer customer base. Picking up the phone or sending emails with updates about their favourite books or about a sale we’ve having helps us to get a better sense of who they are and what they like. Our willingness to be honest and forthcoming with our customers – e.g., sharing that the book they want goes entirely against their style preferences or is only weeks away from coming in paperback – is also appreciated. It might stop us from making the occasional extra sale, but it helps us show our customers in the long run that we are invested in their experience. This also means they are willing to forgive us when we make a mistake and are receptive to hearing about what we’re most excited to share. Our customers have also built relationships with each other through the store and our events. They love to share recommendations with each other and seek out the books that their friends are buying.
I was very intrigued by The Missing Clue, your bi-monthly newsletter. How did this initiative begin and how do you decide what goes into each issue?
The origins of The Missing Clue itself are shrouded in mystery, but it is a key part of connecting ourselves with our customers. Newsletters of this type really revolve around sharing with the readership what books are coming out. While it does share some of the news, reviews, or announcements, it really is focused on the listings of upcoming titles. Some issues have larger essays on big themes or historical parallels, while others are so full of lists of new books that there is little space for additional content. We try and make sure that everyone who does have something they feel they want to write has space to share it – with also helps with community building.
What is something our readers might be surprised to learn about your shop?
Up until 18 months ago, people may not have known that we had a strong online presence, that we offered a fully searchable listing of both our new and used stock, or that we have always delivered inside the city for free, but Pande-mania has made those things obvious and commonplace. Now, it might be a surprise for readers to learn that we have a slowly growing collection of accidentally-acquired rare editions.
Can you share some of your favourite “have-revisited-many-times-over” books?
We’ve crowd-sourced some answers from our team for this one. Michael insists on a regular dose of Neil Gaiman's American Gods or John Barnes’s One for the Morning Glory. He also regularly totes Mollod & Tesauro's The Modern Gentleman (his first edition of which he regretfully gifted and would happily buy again from any booksellers with copies left). Wendy loves to grab a Dick Francis or Ngaio Marsh from the used section to read at home ("any will do"). Sia annually reads through all the Deborah Harkness and Vivian Shaw titles before the next one arrives, as well as Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment. Laura's favourite re-read is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Avi was on her honeymoon when these questions were answered so we let her focus on other things.
What do you love most about being independent booksellers?
We love that being independent allows us to tailor our store and our stock to our customers and our community.