You’re never really working if you love the work you do — even if what you love to do tends to slightly veer into the shadowed corners of the strange and lurid.
Jenn Carpenter said she has performed that danse macabre for most of her life. What she never fully understood until she opened Deadtime Stories is that there was a whole tribe of others doing the same morbid mambo. She started the bookstore dedicated to true crime in late 2020 in a small basement space under Thrift Witch in Old Town Lansing, but demand and popularity prompted her to move into her own larger storefront at 1132 S. Washington Ave. in Lansing’s REO Town this March. In the handful of months since, Carpenter expanded even further, opening the Screamatorium gift shop and ice-cream counter next door.
“Things were going well enough in Old Town that I needed a storefront, my own space,” Carpenter said. “I thought if I had more room, I could do so much more. So I left my job of 13 years with the state and decided to make the move, make the push.”
The REO Town location of Deadtime Stories increased the store’s square footage by sixfold even before she opened the Screamatorium. While true crime dominates the shelf space at Deadtime Stories, some stock is reserved for tales of hauntings and the paranormal. An author of two tomes herself through Arcadia Publishing — 2018’s “Haunted Lansing” and the recently released “The Cereal Killer Chronicles of Battle Creek” — Carpenter keeps a Michigan-centric spotlight on much of her inventory.
“Because I had a relationship with Arcadia, I reached out to them early on and brought in some of their books,” she said. “And I had relationships with other local authors like John K. Addis, who wrote “The Eaton,” and John Robinson, who wrote “Paranormal Michigan.” … So, a lot of it is Michigan. We like to keep a local focus.”
Carpenter said she has leaned toward the unsettling for as long as she can remember.
“It’s just always been my thing. I’ve always been into the really dark stuff,” she said. “When my mom would finish a Stephen King book, I would read it when I was in my preteen years. And back then, I think “20/20” was pretty much it as far as true-crime documentaries (on television). But I would always watch that kind of stuff — “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Rescue 911.” I was super into all of that as a kid.”
A trip to Chicago where she and her family explored The Congress Plaza Hotel, dubbed the most haunted place in Illinois by Travel + Leisure magazine, helped prompt Carpenter to start Demented Mitten Tours LLC in 2016. The company takes guests on excursions of the eerie and unnatural true-crime and paranormal locales in mid-Michigan. She also began hosting the “So Dead” true-crime podcast.
The touring company and the podcast helped clue Carpenter in that there was a much wider audience just like her who were drawn toward the outlandish. The success of Deadtime Stories only confirmed it.
“I think that people like to talk. I don’t want to call it gossip, but people like to tell stories: ‘Hey, did you hear what happened to so and so?’ And that’s what these books are,” Carpenter said. “A lot of people like to get into the psychology of it. Some people are just interested in different aspects of history or life stories. Why people like true crime is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, it can be a bit harder to read. On the other hand, it’s just fascinating to wonder about the whys and hows.”
As far as she is aware, Deadtime Stories may be the only bookstore dedicated to true crime; and she has heard from people who find its focus on unsettling events distasteful as well as those who have been personally touched by the subject matter and are happy the lives of their loved ones are not being forgotten. The latter outweighs the former.
“I had three separate people come in on Friday because it was their birthday and they didn’t have plans,” Carpenter said. “This is where they wanted to come — to the true-crime bookstore and get true-crime books.”
Perhaps it can be called a conjuring of souls from a unique shared spirit — or at times an environment of emotional unburdening. Carpenter noted that one of her customers was a man who visited the store to kill time while his wife was at an appointment. He began talking to Carpenter about his niece who was horrifically murdered back in the 1980s.
“At first I was like, why are you telling me this? Then I realized many people have these stories, and they don’t have anybody to talk to about them because they’re so awful and people don’t want to hear it,” she said. “But now they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s that weird lady with all the murder books. I can go there.’ So that’s been interesting.
“I’ve always felt like such a weirdo, and it’s not that way anymore. I appreciate that,” Carpenter said. “I think it’s just the atmosphere and knowing that, you know, it’s not weird. You’re not weird for being into this stuff. Because, look, there’s a whole store full of it.”