Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the
September 5, 2001 edition of U.S. Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Cloak & Dagger Story
"Gumshoe" is my name, sleuthing’s my game, and I had been
hired to investigate the alleged mystery book store scene at the Cloak
& Dagger. I had just met the suspect — er, "Proprietress,"
a.k.a. Aline Lenaz. Although very likely the perp, she slyly adopted
an air that mixed breathless enthusiasm with incongruent helplessness.
She was a tricky one. Clearly, it would take careful interrogation
to destroy her alibi and pinpoint her motive so I could break the
case open and solve the mystery: What’s the story on the Cloak &
I got right down to business: "You must help me," I cried.
To my surprise, she agreed.
In these dot.com days, awash with marketing studies
and business plans, Aline Lenaz’s approach to opening a specialty
book store can only be described as uncommon. At the recently-opened
Cloak & Dagger, Lenaz says she is unconcerned about the "big
rival book stores. She didn’t try to uncover reader preferences in
this area. She even admits to not reading enough, including mysteries,
for Inspector Pete’s sake!
She’s not sure when — or if — she’ll break even; nor does
she dress the part, talk the part, or even use a credit card machine
like a good retailer should. In short, this new merchant is a charming
change of pace.
Describing herself as a "burned out architect," Lenaz says
the store, stocked with 5,000 mystery titles is her playpen: "This
is where my toys are." Before this venture, she knew nothing about
retailing (she has since read a book on the subject) and by late
she still told visitors about her initial mistake with the credit
card machine: she swiped cards and everything seemed to work, but
the transactions were not registering; she first needed a modem.
had to phone all those customers and tell them."
Since her 1999 departure from Princeton University, where she worked
for more than 20 years as an architect-planner, Lenaz has indulged
her wish "to play." She now presides over a cunning little
shop where she can be creative and meet all kinds of interesting
Located at 349 Nassau Street, a few doors from Harrison, the Cloak
& Dagger can be distinguished by its bay window. Up a few steps, the
front door opens into a small hall and a second door, into the store,
where the visitor immediately faces nine shelves, from the ceiling
molding to the floor, filled to the gills with books.
The Cloak & Dagger had its soft opening on June 2 ("Very
Lenaz stresses. "I wanted a person a day. I didn’t know how to
use a cash register" — and her early experiences with
technology were not positive.) In all seriousness, she says the two
chief skills for anyone in her position are knowing how to alphabetize
and how to make change — the first to help with shelving and
books; the second, to let her comfortably accept payment in any
form, and deal with it.
As she had expected, Lenaz has encountered "lots of women over
40 — sensible-shoe types," and beyond this admitted
her customers also include real-life crime fighters (one of whom reads
"cozies"), lawyers, judges, and numerous writers. In contrast
to her excited attendance at mystery writers conferences, she looks
back on her previous career: "You go to architects’ meetings,
and you talk only with architects. Boring!"
These days, she’s delighted to discuss the world of mysteries.
from Edgar Allan Poe and the "Murders in the Rue Morgue,"
a venerable world it is, too — with a range of time periods
through Victorian era to today if not tomorrow) and settings (Egypt,
the American West, England, China, Washington, D.C.); as well as
(from PI’s, lawyers, and coroners to caterers, golfers, crossword
puzzlers, clergy people, and, yes, bookstore owners) — some much
more likely than others to be solving mysteries.
By definition, Lenaz says a mystery "involves something being
solved," and while murder isn’t strictly necessary, it’s usually
a prime ingredient. Mysteries can also be categorized as espionage,
suspense, thriller, police procedural, and psychological novels. She
does not count "true crime" stories as mysteries, and doesn’t
Then of course, a mystery can be hard-boiled or soft-boiled —
not as in eggs — or somewhere in between. His situations and
contribute to Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled reputation. Sue Grafton’s
alphabet books ("P is for Peril" is the latest), which Lenaz
thinks have "a bit of an edge" are soft-boiled. And there
are a few classic situations too, with "the locked room" being
one. No one could have gotten into the room, yet the crime was
so how did it happen?
Although her stable of protagonists includes "sleuths of
chief inspectors who also write credible poetry, and a goodly number
of spunky women, her own favorite mystery sub-genre is
which she defines as "lighter mysteries, without blood and gore
— usually a nice, civilized murder. The sleuth is almost always
a reluctant amateur." She cites Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple
mysteries as "a perfect example" of the cozy.
In conversation about mystery books, Lenaz quickly gives the lie to
her claim, "I’m learning," readily dropping names and titles
far beyond the Agatha Christie and Rex Stout books that are all-time
favorites. Sure, she can still remember that Stout’s corpulent hero,
Nero Wolfe, always wore yellow silk pajamas; how his brownstone was
laid out; and how he preferred his corn on the cob — she’s made
all the recipes sandwiched in the books. But she’ll also warn a reader
that Robin Cook’s work is not for the squeamish, and distinguish
Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford books and her others that are
Told the store’s stock of children’s books was not in yet, one of
Lenaz’s younger customers, age 10, replied, "That’s OK. Do you
carry Robert Parker?" The next day, she and her mother returned
and bought a Sue Grafton and a Patricia Highsmith. "What’s wrong
with your daughter?" Lenaz says she asked the mother, now
aloud if she had simply skipped Nancy Drew.
Now in a setting of her own choosing, Lenaz says she
was "born on the run in Ukraine during World War II," and
lived in Austria till she was eight or nine. She distinctly remembers
being hungry while she, her mother, and grandmother moved from one
displaced persons camp to another. (Her landowner-father, she learned
later, had been sent to Siberia. She never saw him again.) The family
"came over on a ship, like everyone else, with sponsors,"
eventually settling in Chester, Pennsylvania. Her mother, formerly
a lawyer and a judge, was first employed in a meat-packing plant,
but eventually attended graduate school and worked for Ford Motor
Lenaz earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s in
city and regional planning from Pratt Institute, where she also met
her future husband, credentialed in the same areas. Her early jobs
were in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and with HUD, in
The birth of a son, Gerald (now 30), led to a few part-time positions
before she went to work at Princeton University.
Although she speaks Ukrainian, and was familiar with Polish, Russian,
German, French, and a little Italian, Lenaz says she thinks in
With her mother’s death a few years ago, she lost her Ukrainian
partner, so "I go to the Trenton Farmers Market and just stand
at the meat counter and listen." She also cooks, sculpts, paints,
takes photographs, and enjoys boating and skiing. "I have no time
to read after work — I’m beat!"
The Cloak & Dagger was on Lenaz’s mind, and in the works, for years.
She mentions long-ago meetings of "the CEO and the president"
— a.k.a. Lenaz and her husband, Gerald (of Lenaz, Mueller &
— at the New York Diner. There, they chewed over ideas and other
things, filling three notebooks with their plans.
"Gerry said, `Well, how are you going to start (buying books),’
and I said, `I have no clue,’ so I got catalogs and just plunged in.
I had about 4,000 titles in my house before I moved here."
Essentially, she buys the books she hears or reads about, and likes,
in single copy. Then, as quickly happened with the latest Stephanie
Plum book by Janet Evanovich, set in Trenton (U.S. 1, October 28,
1998), she scrambles for more copies.
To lock it up for her use in Mercer County, Lenaz registered the Cloak
& Dagger name in 1989, and she has since copyrighted her logo design.
The couple has owned the building at 349 Nassau Street for about four
years, gradually renovating its three apartments and creating the
600 square-foot book store. She loved this particular architectural
job: no committees and no one else to please. "I know the devil’s
in the details," she says, but for Cloak & Dagger, it was sheer
fun to position the lights, widen the mantel, get approval for the
bay window ("We got a yes for that, but the hanging sign was a
As one of about 90 other independent mystery book stores in the
the Cloak & Dagger is not just books either, Lenaz says: It’s also
audio, video, games, puzzles — "anything in the mystery genre,
I’m interested in it."
"Independent" is the right word: she doesn’t even flinch at
mention of "the chains," or her presumed competitors in the
big box stores. "I’m not afraid of them. I wanted to do this.
It doesn’t matter even with a Barnes and Noble across the street.
I think people prefer specialty stores.
"They’re not gonna do what I’m doing," Lenaz continues. She
keeps track of what every customer buys, so she can head off duplicate
purchases later on, make recommendations, and answer questions.
she says the most frequently asked question is "Who writes like.
. . ?) Highly computer-literate, she enjoys creating and delving into
myriad files and programs that let her cross-reference and check
She is airily sure the Cloak & Dagger is not out of the way and that
customers will come as far north on Nassau Street as her shop. She
recalls earlier conversations when people asked "Are you gonna
serve coffee and is there a place to sit?" "And I’d go, `Down
the street, if you want to sit, go to the library and read.’ I have
no fear of this."
Open just a few months, the store has already hosted
one successful book-signing, for mystery author-playwright Matt
"I expected 10 to 12 people to show up, but 20 came," she
exclaims, "and I only had two ringers!" Her next signing,
for four authors, is booked for November 1.
Lenaz arranges her books in alphabetical order — not, as might
be expected, by subdivisions of the mystery genre, such as police
procedurals, cozies, thrillers. She had started in that direction,
she says, but many authors cross over, writing more than one kind
of mystery. Try to figure how to shelve those. "I go to breakfast
with librarians. They talked me out of it," says the
("That name sounded so romantic!").
So a browser simply follows the perimeter of the store’s two rooms,
working through the alphabet. Of course, Lenaz is happy to chat or
advise — and if two visits are any indication, to offer grapes
that spill out of a pretty bowl near the recessed service nook housing
her business machines and computer.
Centered in each room are white blocks of differing heights that
books and related items she displays to illustrate a theme, such as
"The Grande Dames of Mystery Writing." (She also produces
bookmarks on the featured theme.) Glider-mounted, the display blocks
can be moved easily to free up floor space for book-signings and other
events. Functional architecture at work. And functional former
also at work — thinking up new ways to make the Cloak & Dagger
even more appealing: used books, audio rentals, foreign-language
a line-up of ideas.
did the deed. But since no one has been hurt and her motives have
proven to be the best, she walks. No need to send her to the big
The suspect is "guilty" — and for that, countless mystery
readers will thank her.
— Pat Summers
www.TheCloakandDagger.com. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6
p.m. through September, with expanded hours to come. Parking choices
include eight reserved spaces behind the store, accessible through
a back entrance.
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