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Whodunit?: Winnipeg’s long-running mystery bookstore in business for 30 years

Whether passionate about Poirot or hungry for Holmes, Winnipeg mystery obsessives have had a local haunt for over 30 years in which to search out their latest page-turners.

Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore has been a fixture on Lilac Street since it opened its doors in 1993.

Like many classic mystery tales, the story of Whodunit? began in a smoky pub on the high streets of London, England.

Well, not quite.

It began on the equally intriguing courts of Winnipeg’s Taylor Tennis Centre in the ‘90s. Frequent doubles partners Henrietta Wilde and Gaylene Chestnut, two names that sound plucked from an Agatha Christie thriller, spent as much time rallying as they did discussing their shared passion for mystery novels.

At the time, Wilde was reading the Carolyn Hart series “A Death on Demand,” which followed the escapades of a mystery bookshop owner who solved crimes. The series gave Wilde inspiration for her own next chapter.

“I thought owning a mystery bookstore sounded really interesting,” she told CTV News Winnipeg in an interview from her home in British Columbia.

“There were no mystery book shops in Winnipeg, and I didn’t know of any in Canada.”

Wilde, who inherited a love of mysteries from her Perry Mason-reading parents, found a storefront on Lilac Street that used to house a posh children’s clothing store. The rent was reasonable, and she thought the foot traffic from nearby Corydon Avenue could be a boon for business.

She did not want to shoulder the responsibility by herself, so she decided to approach her ally on the courts to be her partner in crime commerce.

“I thought it sounded like a lot of fun,” Chestnut recounted of the offer. “We were really very green, but we had one rule in the partnership – that our husbands couldn’t have anything to do with the store.”

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Henrietta Wilde and Gaylene Chestnut are pictured with writer Michael Connelly after a reading at Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore in 2005. (Gaylene Chestnut)

With that, Whodunit? was born in the summer of 1993.

What they lacked in experience and technical capability, (they forwent a digitized inventory system for a manual card system), they made up for in passion.

“Our goal was to give really good customer service because in a lot of bookstores, half the staff don’t know about the product or a lot of them were just sales clerks,” Chestnut said.

While both proprietors were passionate mystery readers, their knowledge of the genre was different yet complementary.

“I’m more into cozy mysteries, and Gaylene’s more hardcore, so it worked out perfectly. All our customers knew what both of us liked, so they’d know which one of us to come to for a recommendation,” Wilde said.

As the years went on, the duo hosted dozens of author readings, brought in computers, penned a monthly newsletter and made countless memories alongside the other mystery obsessives who became their loyal customer base.

Henrietta Wilde and Gaylene Chestnut pose with author Ian Rankin at a 2004 author’s appearance at Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore. (Gaylene Chestnut)

The plot thickens at Whodunit?

By 2007, both Wilde and Chestnut’s husbands were nearing retirement, and the duo was ready to turn the page on their beloved bookshop.

They sold the business to married couple Jack and Wendy Bumsted, a university history professor and high school history teacher, respectively. The pair were loyal customers before taking it over.

“We bought it on somewhat of a whim, I’ll admit,” Wendy said. “We were big readers, and Jack particularly had a vast knowledge of mysteries, so that was an asset.”

Wendy and Jack Bumsted are shown in an undated photo outside Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore on Lilac Street. (Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore)

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Today, Whodunit? has expanded to the shop next door, offering more than just mysteries.

The Bumsted’s son Michael, having just completed a PhD abroad, also joined the team in 2014.

The family weathered many challenges while at the shop’s helm, be it competing with gargantuan e-commerce giants like Amazon or the many lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID really expanded our online presence and since then, we have done considerably more so that now, we sell books all over the world. We send books to Australia and to Taiwan and to Spain and to Greece and all kinds of places,” Wendy said.

The pandemic was also instrumental, Michael said, in showing the booksellers how supportive their customer base could be.

“It was just so powerful in terms of feeling the community support us. There were people from around the neighbourhood who said, ‘I don’t really read a lot of mysteries, but I want to support you so that you’re still here later on.’ They’d buy our nonfiction or our biographies or our science fiction novels or what have you from us.”

Michael Bumsted is shown with a small portion of the shop’s considerable stock in an undated photo. (Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore)

‘Deeply connected with their communities’

Laura Carter, executive director of the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association (CIBA), says shops like Whodunit? face several challenges keeping pace with corporate competition, namely from the ever-increasing costs of shipping around the country.

Still, they can compete with the Amazons and Chapters of the world because of their intrinsic connection to their customers.

“They are deeply connected with their communities, and they interact with them on a daily basis,” she said.

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“They can also pivot quickly to address the changing needs of their customers. So during the pandemic, for example, many of our stores very quickly began offering curbside pickup and local delivery, often done by bookstore staff themselves, so it’s that deep connection with the community that is really unparalleled.”

The ever-expanding inventory at Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore is pictured on May 6, 2024. (Danny Halmarson/CTV News Winnipeg)

Celebrating decades of Whodunit?

Back on Lilac Street, the Bumsteds are planning a belated 30th anniversary for the shop in November, while the family’s 20th anniversary at the helm isn’t due to be celebrated until 2027.

Wendy and Michael can be found at Whodunit? most days. Sadly, Jack passed away in 2020, and is missed by so many customers who came to rely on his expertise.

“They believed that he was an authority on books,” Wendy said.

“Neither of us have the gravitas nor quite as much time to read in the store as he did at that time, so it makes it a little bit more difficult for that.”

Jack and Wendy Bumsted are shown in an undated photo at Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore. The married couple, who were longtime customers, bought the business in 2007. (Whodunit? Mystery Bookstore)

As for the former owners, both Wilde and Chestnut have fond memories of their days amongst the stacks at Whodunit.

“I don’t miss the store. I don’t miss the work, but I miss the people, our customers,” Chestnut said.

“I miss talking to the people. Our customers were just so great. I can’t believe how good those years were,” Wilde said.

Original Whodunit? owners Henrietta Wilde and Gaylene Chestnut are shown with author Lee Child in 2005. (Gaylene Chestnut)

 

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