The Owner of The Mysterious Bookshop Built His Dream House

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good 60,000 books must be in want of a very big house.

At some point in the mid-1980s, Otto Penzler, the indefatigable founder and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop, the Manhattan store specializing in fictitious tales of crime and espionage and whodunits of a high order, could no longer ignore the evidence: His personal collection of first editions had outgrown his office, and cartons containing the overflow were stashed in a pal’s garage. They needed a room of their own.

“I was hoping to buy a place in the country large enough to hold all those books,” said Mr. Penzler, 79, who is also the founder of The Mysterious Press, a publishing company, and the editor of numerous anthologies. The latest, “The Big Book of Victorian Mysteries,” is due out Oct. 19.


Occupation: Bookstore owner, publisher, editor

House, broken: “My second and third wives both knew how to fix things, but I’m totally useless. I once tried to change a light bulb and ended up blowing out everything in the house because I used the wrong size bulb.”


Mr. Penzler and his second wife, Carolyn Hartman, who have since divorced, hunted fruitlessly for two years. “We saw one place with nine bedrooms, but it was useless,” Mr. Penzler said. “All those rooms had a closet and a door and windows, but what I needed was wall space to hold all those books.”

It gradually became clear that the best solution was to build a house, so the couple spent another year looking for the right setting.

“One weekend, we were visiting a friend in Sharon, Conn., and on Sunday afternoon we picked up The New York Times, looked in the real estate section and there was an ad for property in Kent,” Mr. Penzler recalled. “I asked, ‘Where’s Kent?’”

It was just 20 minutes down the road.

The couple made a last-minute appointment with the broker, and fell in love with the area as they drove to their destination. Buying the eight-acre property was a foregone conclusion.

The design of the house was similarly preordained. When Mr. Penzler was a preadolescent living with his family in straitened circumstances in the South Bronx, he and his best friend, a boy named Ted Kvell, were leafing through a magazine and came upon an ad featuring an imposing stone manor flanked by a pair of turrets.

“I tore out the page and said, ‘Someday I’m going to live there,’” Mr. Penzler said. “If I had told my mother I was going to live in that house or on Mars, Mars would have been a likelier option.”

Soon after becoming a landowner, Mr. Penzler phoned his childhood friend, Mr. Kvell, who had grown up to be an architect. “I said, ‘Ted, I’m ready to build my house.’ Mind you, this is more than 30 years later. And Ted asked, ‘You mean the stone Tudor?’”

That’s exactly what he meant.

Mr. Kvell got busy building the model for what Mr. Penzler waggishly refers to as his starter house: a 5,800-square-foot stone-and-stucco affair with half-timbering, a turret and a grotesque above the diamond-paned bay window on the first floor. There’s also a gargoyle whose existence must be taken on faith; it’s obscured by a bush in serious need of a haircut.

“I have a friend who, every time he comes up the driveway, thinks someone is going to call out, ‘Release the hounds,’” Mr. Penzler said.

Construction on the living quarters and the attached library began in 1990 and was done in stages over a dozen years. Mr. Penzler never ran out of steam, but he did occasionally run out of money, which slowed progress.

The house proper, Mr. Penzler said, was mainly Ms. Hartman’s vision — and for the record, a pretty nice one — a blend of elegant gentleman’s club (leather armchairs, lots of paneling, lots of wood, lots of brown) and relaxed escape from the madding crowd, as embodied by the large and very inviting screened porch. Fight Mr. Penzler for the chaise at your peril.

He did want a “statement fireplace.” (The one he found in an architectural salvage shop in Bucks County, Pa., formerly warmed the toes of guests at the estate of John Jacob Astor.) And he insisted that a chandelier that once hung in a movie theater was just the thing for the foyer. (Ms. Hartman initially thought it was too gaudy, but ultimately came around to his way of thinking.)

But what Mr. Penzler cared about most was the library. Modeled on the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, it is a bibliophile’s fantasyland.

“I thought about this room for 30 years of my life,” he said, pointing out the two stories of stacks illuminated by lantern sconces, the tufted green banquette, the stained-glass skylight, the custom-made 16-foot-long table supported by a pair of carved griffins, and the Dante chair.

“We bought an entire trainload of mahogany — real mahogany, not veneer — two and a half tons, I think,” Mr. Penzler said. “Because we bought so much, it ended up being cheaper than pine.”

Alas, most of the beautiful mahogany shelves hold only dust now. Three years ago, Mr. Penzler put his collection up for auction. All that remain are reference books, copies of the anthologies he has edited and a small cache of rare books: the Raffles novels of E.W. Hornung.

“I have no family, not even a nephew or cousin,” Mr. Penzler said. “I thought, ‘If something happens to me, I don’t want the books just left there with nobody to know what to do with them. They had been part of my life for half a century or more.”

Giving them up, he said, “was one of the most devastating things I’ve lived through.”

There is a desk in the library, but Mr. Penzler prefers to work in his basement office, reachable by the iron spiral staircase in the turret. It has the decorative flourishes visitors might expect, including a pane of stained glass with a precise likeness of the Maltese Falcon and an original drawing by Frederic Dorr Steele, a major American illustrator of Sherlock Holmes stories. A genuine dungeon door leads back to the living quarters.

“It fits the house so perfectly,” Mr. Penzler said. “But the young guy who was installing it freaked out and quit. He told me he felt the souls and ghosts coming out.”

Mr. Penzler and his third wife divorced seven years ago, which makes him the sole resident. “Now that I live alone, I wish I hadn’t built the house so big,” he said. “And I miss my wives terribly, so there’s a poignant element.”

Still, every weekend when he heads to Kent from his two-bedroom rental in the West Village, he said, “I feel like I’m coming home.”

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