Houston By The Book: Kaboom
"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.
Marc Brubaker It took 60 round trips to New Orleans and back to transport the stacks of stock.
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.
Marc Brubaker The Houston Avenue location
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.