"This [used book] business is well-stocked with misanthropes and curmudgeons." That was the first thing John Dillman, the proprietor of Kaboom Books, said after Art Attack informed him about our plans for a series on Houston's independent bookshops. It was a peculiar sort of warning to offer up as we stood in the small fortress of books - not particularly ominous, but certainly cautionary.
At both of Kaboom's locations, books rise to the ceiling, lining the walls, invading the room in a maze of homemade shelves. They're small shops, though, according to Dillman and his wife Dee. "We had a shop for 31 years in New Orleans," says John. "After Katrina, we decided to gradually sluice everything over here, close the shop there, and open up here." They say their previous shop was medium-sized. "We had the final shop there for about 10 years; it was about 80,000 books."
Situated in the back of the French Quarter, the shop sustained damage to the building but fortunately no damage to their stock. It'd be heartbreaking to sort through soggy tomes, tossing out piles of literature, but fortunately the couple avoided such a scenario. The storm wasn't the primary reason for their relocation, though. According to John, "we had gotten to the end of the expansion in New Orleans, and there wasn't going to be - for another 10 years or so - the consumer base to do more innovative things," something they feel is possible here.
So not being familiar with Houston, they began moving 48 tons of books here (a feat that took 60 round trips) and opened, as they say, "a little bitty footprint of a shop here, on Studewood." It's next to Antidote, and bears the peculiar designation Kaboom Books, Less P. Open only Thursday through Sunday, the small spot features about 20,000 titles in 42 categories.
Having split locations was about practicality. John explains: "We didn't want to take a medium-sized shop with 80,000 books and site it somewhere that in two years we'd say 'what the fuck?' We didn't know Houston that well, and you never can get it right the first time." The Houston Avenue location followed (the larger of their two stores), with about 35,000 titles in 76 categories, open seven days a week. They've also appropriated a spot in Winter Street studios, where they store their internet stock and some backup copies.
Again, John's answer is one of pragmatism: "If you put the internet stock in the shop, by the time it sells it's degraded. What you want is like Christmas - you want people to open the box and say 'oh, I would've thought it was much worse than that.'" The backup space is also open during Winter Street's Second Saturdays.
"There's still books in storage," Dee says. "They reproduce."
The couple has certainly been in the used book game long enough to be adept at it. John laid out several other secrets, tricks, and keys in our discussion - only have one copy of a book at a time on your shelves - "everything has to pay a shelf rent," but you also have to be able to locate your backup copies immediately. Dee says John's got a photographic memory, something that probably doesn't hurt, but another trick is not trying to remember where every single book lays. Knowing about 2% of your stock is the key - and the rest can easily be filtered through similarities, variant editions, and other mnemonics. Handling what you know is another tip.
While the Houston Avenue location is a bit tucked away - just south of North Main, next to Interstate 45, the Studewood shop is much more visible. That's why it struck us as odd when Dee informed us "people still don't know about us." John says it's due to the nature of the city and its massive spread, offering, "for a big old neighborhood-y city like this it takes a long time for word to get out."
They do host readings (mostly the Nano Fiction series), and some bibliophiles have even stopped by to have their engagement photos taken in the shop. "I honestly don't think there's any less eccentricity in Houston [than in New Orleans] - people here are just ashamed of it, that's all. They don't live by it," declares John.
We tend to agree, for the most part: - there are definitely people in this city that embrace eccentricity, but Houstonians often seem reluctant to do so. John also notes the natural aversion many Houstonians have to walking. "I really did not know how far Houstonians would walk, but when I asked, the answer that I got was one half of one block. That certainly has turned out to be right," he says
When we finally inquired about the Studewood shop's peculiar "less P" situation, it comes down to Mr. Dillman paying a nod to Georges Perec, a French writer of the 1960s. "In the late '70s [Perec] produced a novel, about 230 pages, which in translation is called A Void, and in it he did not use the letter e. So to honor that, like retiring a baseball player's number, I took out all the mainstream authors whose names begin with P," John explains. "But I can do that because we've got a big old P batch over [at the other shop]. It's the same store, less P."
Kaboom's goal is simple: "the predication here is that the world's a very, very complicated place, and the stock should reflect that. It should reflect the most complicated possible reaction to the world."
Throughout the conversation we heard many "great things" about the used book business - the beacons of hope for those misanthropes and curmudgeons who run all the stores. But the greatest, according to John, is the customers. "People that come in are intelligent and interesting; that's what makes it tremendous - the customers."
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Though it may be a seemingly clustered selection of books, the Dillmans are more than happy to help find you something, and they can narrow it down quickly. As John states, "I know literature, and I know books. If you give me a couple things that I can triangulate with, I can basically tell you, 'oh, this or that.'"
And there's an awful lot of "this or that" within the stacks of both Kaboom shops, too.
Kaboom Books 3116 Houston Avenue, Houston, TX 77009 713.869.7600
Kaboom Books (Less P) 733 Studewood, Houston, TX 77007 www.kaboombooks.com