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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 &

Dagger?

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

box"

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

August,

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.

"I

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

people.

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

soft,"

Lenaz stresses. "I wanted a person a day. I didn’t know how to

use a cash register" — and her early experiences with

credit-card

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

finding

books; the second, to let her comfortably accept payment in any

recognized

form, and deal with it.

As she had expected, Lenaz has encountered "lots of women over

40 — sensible-shoe types," and beyond this admitted

stereotype,

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.

Springing

from Edgar Allan Poe and the "Murders in the Rue Morgue,"

a venerable world it is, too — with a range of time periods

(ancient

through Victorian era to today if not tomorrow) and settings (Egypt,

the American West, England, China, Washington, D.C.); as well as

heroes

(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

sell them.

Then of course, a mystery can be hard-boiled or soft-boiled —

not as in eggs — or somewhere in between. His situations and

language

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

committed,

so how did it happen?

Although her stable of protagonists includes "sleuths of

size,"

chief inspectors who also write credible poetry, and a goodly number

of spunky women, her own favorite mystery sub-genre is

"cozies,"

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

between

Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford books and her others that are

"darker."

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

wondering

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

Company.

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

Philadelphia.

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

English.

With her mother’s death a few years ago, she lost her Ukrainian

conversation

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 &

Associates)

— 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

no").

As one of about 90 other independent mystery book stores in the

country,

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.

(Already,

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

information.

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

Witten.

"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

"proprietress"

("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

support

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

architect

also at work — thinking up new ways to make the Cloak & Dagger

even more appealing: used books, audio rentals, foreign-language

mysteries:

a line-up of ideas.

The evidence is in; the butler is innocent. Aline Lenaz

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

house.

The suspect is "guilty" — and for that, countless mystery

readers will thank her.

— Pat Summers

The Cloak & Dagger, 349 Nassau Street, Princeton,

609-688-9840.

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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