By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

Trouble is Sheldon McArthur's business.

Each day he deals with murderers, serial killers, grifters, blackmailers, burglars, mugs, molls and plenty of gumshoes hard-boiled, smooth talkers who wear silk suits. But McArthur is no cop, no private eye, no Agent 007.

He runs the Mysterious Bookshop Inc., a hole in the wall on Beverly Boulevard that specializes in crime and punishment and will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in March.

On the neatly stacked shelves is a Who's Who in crime writing: authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who brought the world Sherlock Holmes; Erle Stanley Gardner, who created Perry Mason; and Dashiell Hammett, who sent Sam Spade chasing after "The Maltese Falcon."

Atop tables are signed novels by modern crime-writing superstars like James Ellroy, James Patterson, Tony Hillerman and Dick Francis. And in a case are rare first editions by Raymond Chandler, like his "Little Sister," which sells for $450.

"I love books, I love reading, I love talking about books, I love to see someone discover a new author," McArthur said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

In a world where giant chains and the Internet are squeezing the independents, the Mysterious Bookshop has tried to find a niche where writers, readers and collectors can discuss the latest novels and hunt for out-of-print thrillers.

To keep ahead of the chains, McArthur specializes in service offering novels that no one else stocks and promoting new authors that the big chains choose to pass up. He also has the resources to help find a much sought-after rare book.

When McArthur is not selling books, he is on the phone with bibliophiles in London, Chicago and other cities discussing rare editions. Often, he tells them what to avoid. A doctor in Florida calls repeatedly about assembling a collection of novels by Lawrence Block and Dick Francis.

"He just spent $3,000 on Dick Francis novels," McArthur said. "I am helping him fill out his collections. A lot of it was pretty scattered. I'm helping him redefine it."

Among the celebrities who frequent the shop are former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, who is addicted to novels about serial killers. Screenwriter Shane Black, who wrote the first "Lethal Weapon" film, is another fan, as is director John Frankenheimer, whose movies include "The Manchurian Candidate."

"It's like a club," said Terriel Lankford, who has written two mysteries, "Shooters" and "Angry Moon." "It's a good hang. You might meet an author you have been reading for 20 years who suddenly just drops by. And the customers really know what they want."

If they don't, McArthur will help.

"He knows about every mystery ever published, and when he finds a book he likes he has the ability to really sell it," said Phil Reed, whose latest mystery is "Low Rider." "He read my first novel ("Bird Dog") in galleys and called and said, 'I am going to sell a lot of copies of your book.' This is the best book store of its kind in the country."

It's also a good place to pitch a tale. When Reed had an idea for a possible series of novels, he asked for McArthur's advice. The bookseller not only jumped at the idea, but also told the novelist where he would place the book in his shop.

"His mind is like a databank," Reed said. "He remembered an author from the '30s who had a similar idea, and he tried to find his book, but it was out of print. You don't get this at a chain."

Among the established authors that McArthur likes today are Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehand and George Belecanos. The classics are easier; McArthur cites works by Hammett, Gardner and Chandler.

The bulldog-like McArthur, 51, got his start as a teen-ager working in a Westwood bookstore. As an undergraduate at UCLA, he helped run the campus bookstore, and after graduation, he spent 16 years working for various chains. Along the way, he became a devotee of mystery writing.

When Otto Penzler, who founded the Mysterious Bookshop in 1978 in New York, wanted to open a Los Angeles edition, McArthur's name kept popping up.

He scratched together $10,000 of his own money to open a store on Beverly Boulevard, just west of Beverly Center. Penzler put up $75,000. (A third store was opened last year in London.) McArthur acknowledged that while Beverly was not an ideal location for street traffic, he and Penzler had their fingers crossed.

"We knew it would become a destination store," he said. "The question was how long would it take."

In running the shop, McArthur keeps expenses down by having only two other employees one of them a part-time packer. He also doesn't discount books, figuring that his knowledge and ability to find rare books are worth the difference in price.

The rise of the giant discount chains has forced many independent booksellers to shut their doors. Not the Mysterious Bookshop.

"They have actually helped us," McArthur said. "They seem so huge, but they don't have what we have. A store like Borders might have 1 percent of what we have. If they don't have a book, they recommend us. People now come in and browse."

One recent browser was Lee Beattie, who was looking for some early Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries for his collection of pre-Perry Mason novels. "I read and I collect," Beattie said. "There is nothing like this in this town for service and availability."

The Internet and giant online merchants like Amazon.com remain a puzzle to McArthur, who believes it's too early to tell how these companies might affect his niche business. To compete, however, McArthur has his own Web site, mysteriousbookshop.com.

One area that has been affected by the Internet is the world of rare books, where giant databanks have cut into the discovery of bargains. McArthur said used bookstores can now tap into these databanks to learn the value of their wares. It's doubtful, he said, that he could pick up another gem like he did two years ago when he paid $5 for a rare edition of Nero Wolfe's second novel, "The League of Frightened Men." He turned around and sold it for $7,000.

McArthur warns that the market is volatile. One example is the work of Randy Wayne White, a Florida-based writer. His "Sanibel Flats," which originally cost $14.95, sold for $1,100 four years after publication.

But McArthur never misses a chance to make a deal, no matter how small. Paul Hohenberg, who was visiting L.A. from Troy, N.Y., brought in two battered Mickey Spillane novels and a rough-looking edition of a book by George Simenon, the French mystery writer.

"I collect books," Hohenberg said.

MaArthur scrutinized the yellowing paperbacks and offered $10 in credit for the novels.

Hohenberg agreed.

"It's a vice," he said.

The Mysterious Bookshop Inc.

Year Founded: 1989

Core Business: Selling mystery books

Revenues in 1989: $90,000

Revenues in 1998: $600,000

Revenues in 1999 (projected): $700,000

Employees in 1989: 1

Employees in 1999: 3

Goal: To be the most complete crime, mystery, detective and thriller bookstore in L.A.

Driving Force: The love of books

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