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Kate Mattes, whose Kate’s Mystery Books was a haven for fans and authors alike, dies at 72

Ms. Mattes, whose store for decades was a hub for New England's mystery writers and readers, poked her head out from behind her hidden door at Kate's Mystery Books.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2000

In May 1983 on Friday the 13th — a day chosen for its unsubtle symbolism — Kate Mattes opened a bookstore that was packed floor to ceiling with mysteries. You don’t go into that line of work to get wealthy, she’d say, but she knew she’d be surrounded by riches of a different sort.

“I figure the worst thing that can happen is that nobody will come in,” told the Globe on the cusp of the store’s opening, “and I can sit around reading all these books.”

She had to put off a life of leisurely reading until she retired more than 25 years later. Kate’s Mystery Books quickly became an iconic destination for mystery book lovers everywhere.

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Ms. Mattes, whose Cambridge shop was as storied as the tales inside the 10,000 volumes lining her shelves, died March 26 in Bennington, Vt., of cardiac arrest. She was 73 and had been treated for congestive heart failure in recent years in Vermont, where she had lived after closing her store in 2009.

Though distant readers made pilgrimages to her Massachusetts Avenue shop, among her biggest fans were writers whose books she sold. Robert B. Parker was one of many authors, best-selling or otherwise, who did book-signings in the store. He even helped Ms. Mattes install shelves.

“She connected with writers. It wasn’t just readers, she had a whole community of writers,” said best-selling author Hallie Ephron. “We all adored her.”

For many writers, Ms. Mattes wasn’t just a bookseller, and her shop wasn’t merely a store.

“Kate was much more personal in her approach to readers, writers, and editors,” said Sara Paretsky, best-selling author of the V.I. Warshawski series.

When Paretsky visited Boston on book tours, “she would put me up overnight. I can’t think of another bookstore in the country where that happened.”

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In 1986, Ms. Mattes helped Paretsky launch Sisters in Crime, an international organization that promotes the advancement of women crime writers.

And in their friendship’s early years, they’d attend the annual Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards, sneaking in a bottle of Chivas Regal to pass back and forth beneath their table.

“Then we would entertain each other by editing the speeches. People would go on and on,” Paretsky said, laughing at the memory.

For writers starting out, Ms. Mattes’s store was a place to meet readers and an invaluable hub.

“Visits with Kate and reading her store’s newsletter was my connection to the mystery community in those pre-Internet days, and the writers I met at the store are still my friends and colleagues,” Toni L.P. Kelner, whose mysteries include the Laura Fleming series, wrote in an e-mail.

“When I published my first book, in 1994, I did my first event at Kate’s,” Kate Flora, a fiction and nonfiction crime writer known for her Thea Kozak series, said in an e-mail.

“To me, doing a book-signing at Kate’s meant my official entry into the crime writing community. Launching at Kate’s was like getting a blessing,” Flora added. “Kate was the one who knew us all, encouraged us all, and gave mystery writers a place to gather and connect.”

Kate Mattes was born in Chicago in 1946 and grew up in Des Moines, where her parents were editors at the Des Moines Register.

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Her father, Joseph Mattes, was a copy editor there and later was editor of the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, Her mother, Alvina Iverson, was food editor of the Register and had a column.

“Our parents worked with words and they were great readers,” said Ms. Mattes’s sister, Emily McAdoo of Putney, Vt. “It was part of our upbringing that there were always things to read, and we discussed grammar over the dinner table.”

Their father’s “idea of a vacation was to go find used bookstores and browse around,” McAdoo said, “and my mother had a full library of cookbooks.”

The oldest of three siblings, Ms. Mattes graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School Des Moines, where “she was very athletic,” her sister said. “She was a sports fan and she was in the synchronized swimming club and played baseball with the guys.”

Ms. Mattes graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Beloit College in Wisconsin where, according to her sister, her thesis examined the fictional spy James Bond as he relates to the seven deadly sins.

At Washington University in St. Louis, Ms. Mattes received a master’s in social work and taught women’s studies.

“Frankly, she was a strong feminist, and that was very much a part of her. That emerged very early,” her sister said.

Ms. Mattes eventually moved to Cambridge, where she had spent an undergraduate semester working with youths. But she was a social worker who wanted to run a bookstore, so she left her job and learned the business from Otto Penzler, proprietor of the legendary Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

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In a 2000 Globe interview, she recalled that he “told me to buy the property I’m in now and to pay the rent to myself. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have survived.”

Along with purchasing books, visitors to her Mass. Ave. store, north of Porter Square, wanted to revel in the ambiance and inhale the dusty fragrance of books that had been passed from hand to hand.

Annual parties to decorate the store’s Christmas tree drew a who’s who of mystery writers — a must-attend for new novelists, and a chance to renew acquaintances for established writers like her friend Parker, who died in 2010.

A black cat motif scampered through the shop in its logo, decorations, and doormats. A patron who stroked a black cat curled in a corner might find it was as stone cold and as fictional as the characters in novels lining the walls.

In the back, a door disguised as a bookshelf opened to a secret office; A staircase passageway led to Ms. Mattes’s collection of expensive first editions.

“I would imagine that someone put a body there in somebody’s book,” Ephron said. “I’m sure many of us have thought of that.”

In 2015, Ms. Mattes was honored with the Robert B. Parker Award, given to those who best represent the mystery tradition in New England. The Mystery Writers of American had given her the 2008 Raven Award for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing.

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A few years earlier, in 2003, her beloved brother, Jed Mattes, a literary agent in New York City, had died of cancer at 50. She missed his love and advice, and began planning for the day the store would close.

She then moved to Vermont, living in communities including Dover and Newfane. She welcomed the proximity to her sister, and to her niece, Ruby McAdoo.

Though Ms. Mattes struggled with ailments in her last years, “she left this world in the same witty, quick form that she’s always been,” Ruby said.

A memorial gathering will be announced for Ms. Mattes, whose sister is her only immediate survivor.

As a girl, Ms. Mattes began by reading mysteries written by Agatha Christie — “Like half the world,” she told the Globe when she opened her store. “Isn’t that how most people get started?”

And when she closed the store in 2009, she finally had the leisure to again devote more hours to her favorite pastime.

“I have tons of mysteries I wanted to read,” she said then.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this obituary listed the incorrect month in 1983 that Kate Mattes opened her Cambridge mystery bookstore. She launched her business in May.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.