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'This one involved bullets.' For Detroit bookseller, gunfire doesn't mean a final chapter

Detroit — The cat has recovered nicely from the echo of gunfire and the explosion of shattered glass that left her cowering between a bookshelf and a wall. To the amusement and exasperation of Susan Murphy, Pip was standing on a table, swatting at one of the red-and-yellow tulips a friend brought by the week after Murphy's typically placid bookstore took incoming fire.

Murphy has recovered, too, she said, and that's important to put in the prologue. Pages Bookshop in North Rosedale Park was only closed for two days, no one was hurt, and it appears that one of the city's leading independent bookstores was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I've never felt unsafe here," Murphy said last week. "I don't feel unsafe now."

But, yes, she conceded — it's been a strange experience, and not just for the plumpish black-and-white kitty.

In the early hours of April 19, somebody fired at least two rounds through the display window of a perfectly harmless and even beloved business.

Shots happen; in a city of 139 square miles, the six square miles covered by the ShotSpotter sound detection system have recorded 782 of them in just the first four months of 2021, police said. In some neighborhoods, gunshots are almost part of the ambiance, even when there's no sign of ill intent.

But along Pages' stretch of Grand River Avenue, it's the empty storefronts that jump out as unusual, not the occupied ones. Within the five neighborhoods that make up Grandmont Rosedale are garden clubs, home tours and monthly newsletters. 

"I'm kind of a no-big-deal person," Murphy said. A couple of break-ins since she opened the store six years ago last Sunday? A little damage to the door, maybe a few dollars missing from petty cash? Turn the page.

"This one involved bullets," she said. "That freaked me out a little."

It alarmed her regulars as well. They responded with hundreds of phone calls and Facebook messages, some with affectionate instructions (please hug Pip!) and some with heartfelt requests (please don't leave!).

Murphy, 64, said that unlike Pip, closing is not on the table.

The pandemic has her keeping limited hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. Browsing is by appointment only. Order ahead and she'll bring your purchases to the curb. What used to be shelf space in the back of the 1,400-square-foot storefront is now a shipping center.

Eventually, though, she expects the shop to return to what she set out to create — "a comfortable place to come in and get lost in books."

Pages is the sort of spot that not only has a resident cat, it has the cat pictured on T-shirts. It has a small display of coloring books and jigsaw puzzles, with artist Diego Rivera featured in both. It has a fundraising vending machine for a nonprofit called InsideOut Literary Arts along the east wall; for 50 cents, you get a poem written by a high school student and folded into a plastic egg.

The body of the vending machine is red, except for a silver indentation the size of a half-dollar. That's where one of the bullets hit.

Alarming reports

The alarm company called around 1 a.m. to say something triggered the circuit in the bathroom.

Murphy and her husband, John, live in Lafayette Park, having moved from Northville four years ago after their three kids were grown. She's only a few minutes from the store, but how could the bathroom be in peril if nothing else was breached? She went back to sleep.

The next call came seven hours later from the Detroit Police Department.

Alerted by construction workers, responding officers found two shell casings on the sidewalk and a hole in the front window big enough to step through, which they did. They saw one bullet on a rug and one hole in the drywall near the poetry dispenser, an apparent ricochet.

A detective remains assigned to the case, said police spokesman Cpl. Dan Donakowski.

What's been deduced is that Pages Bookshop was not a target, at least in terms of premeditation and further criminal acts. What's uncertain is whether the damage came from the gun that left the shells behind, or whether a shooter was aiming toward the street and someone was firing back.

What's surprising, Murphy said, is how far a bullet can propel shards of quarter-inch-thick safety glass.

"Vacuum, sweep. Do it again," she said. She found glass halfway to the back wall, between a carousel of birthday cards and a shelf with a Nikki Giovanni volume called "Love Poems."

The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp. — "The best landlord in the city," Murphy said — had the window boarded over within hours. Three days later, Douglas Johnson of D&S Glass in Detroit put in a custom-ordered pane, 76 inches wide and 74 inches tall.

"Getting the window in made an amazing difference," she said. "It was so dark in here ... I thought, 'I will never underrate my window again.'"

Installation and cleanup took about an hour, said Johnson, 55, who's been in the glass business since he graduated from Denby High School. He's the D in the company name, and on a given run, "we might do a mirror wall or we might do a sneeze guard."

Or, he might pick up where gunfire left off. "Doesn't matter," he said, "long as they ain't fighting when I get there."

He didn't mean to sound cavalier, and neither did Tom Ridgway, Grandmont Rosedale's construction and facilities manager.

Ridgway, 57, popped by to check on Murphy last week as Johnson replaced the glass in her front door, cracked in a minor mishap unrelated to the shooting. Alarmed by the pounding of Johnson's tools, Pip was nowhere to be seen.

"I shouldn't say I'm jaded," Ridgway said, "but it's the reality of living in Detroit."

Back to business

Maybe so, said the bookstore's next-door neighbor, but it's a reality she can do without.

Asia Hamilton, 42, owns the Norwest Gallery of Art, one of five tenants in a divided building that held a furniture store back when Detroit housed more than a million people.

"It could have been this place," she said. "What a scary thing to have to deal with."

Murphy doesn't go as far as "scary," but she used the two-day closure that followed the shooting for more than custodial purposes.

"Part of it," she conceded, "was that I just needed to settle down."

Two weeks later, she can take a bit of reassurance from a copy of Langston Hughes and Daniel Miyares' "This is My Dream!" with what appears to be a bullet hole in the cover. It must have been a random event, she said, because the book was in the front window, and who would shoot Langston Hughes?

Murphy's background is data processing, followed by teaching at community colleges, followed by starting on a master's in library science just as the 2008 recession hit and librarians were getting laid off. She finished anyway, did pop-up book sales in the city for two years, realized that books are too heavy to lug around, and opened Pages.

Six years later, "people are still discovering me," she said, among them Aubri Godmar of Beverly Hills.

"We usually go up north in the summer and buy a sack of books," said Godmar, 37. With that mission scrubbed by COVID-19, and given her love for independent bookstores, she went online and found Murphy's shop — "Fifteen minutes from home, and free parking right out front."

She scheduled an appointment for Wednesday and found books by three favorite authors. Her 5-year-old, Graham, picked out "Dino Detective and Awesome Possum," combining dinosaurs with one of his other favorite things, solving mysteries.

Godmar said she'd be back. Murphy said she'd be waiting.

Pip leaped onto the table again, prowling for tulips.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn