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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
From the depths of Book Purgatory, our good friend (and beleaguered Chelsea supporter) Andrew Brininstool reports on the oasis that is Houston’s Kaboom Books.
There are no bookstores where I live.
I don’t mean there are no good bookstores, or independent bookstores. I mean there are no bookstores (To be fair, our town does have a Hasting’s. For those unfamiliar, Hasting’s is something like a cross between Blockbuster and a joke-shop; and insofar as three-tenths of our local chain’s floor-space is devoted to shelves that hold books, and insofar as these books are available for purchase, then, yes, we have something of a bookstore.).
Such a notion shocks and horrifies my friends in the writing community, though it isn’t difficult to imagine a day (and soon) when this could be the reality of every small town in the nation. One needs to look no further than the plight of the record store to envision what awaits bookworms.
Residing on this side of the divide has taught me how to adapt. I’ve become increasingly dependent on online retailers such as Amazon. Brown packages in the mailbox are met with joy; the general feeling is that of receiving crucial supplies via airdrop in remote and dangerous territory. The uglier truth is how easy the transition has been. Online retailers allow for the purchase of a wide array of titles at cheaper rates, all from the comfort of home. It is, in many ways, the realization of those Jetsonesque notions from the 1960s—the hassle-free somedays we live in now.
Purchasing books online often seems unrewarding. When I feel the need to temporarily assuage myself from my responsibilities as a faculty member, a husband, a responsible and levelheaded citizen, even a writer, it’s the comfort of a bookstore I desire most. This urge takes me on a 141-mile trek to Kaboom Books in Houston, Texas.
The drive to Houston follows I-59 through towns with populations in the three-digits, past firework and watermelon stands and Quonset huts that double as churches and corrugated shacks with aerated pools in the backyard—places where a book is nowhere to be found, but cardboard signs point out that live catfish go for $1.59 per pound. This is the territory of a William Gay story, a bizarre and beautiful throwback landscape interrupted, finally, by the sight of downtown skyscrapers. Like most cities in the hinterlands, Houston just sort of appears all at once.
Despite its notoriety for sprawl, there are pockets of picturesque neighborhoods throughout the city. Kaboom Books occupies a 3,000 square foot building in historic Woodland Heights, minutes from downtown. The store’s owners, John and Dee Dillman, moved Kaboom from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It took John two and a half years and sixty round trips to transport forty-eight tons of books between the two cities. He moved every title himself.
John has also built every bookcase in the store by hand. They rise floor to ceiling and are merchandised in a labyrinthine manner, allowing a browser to follow the layout into pockets of, say, rare biographies. Behind the store lies a cozy patio area that serves as a venue for the Lit Fuse Reading Series, which showcases Houston’s bright young poets and writers.
In these ways, so much about Kaboom feels right, feels the way a bookstore ought to feel. There’s no denying how increasingly rare this kind of dedication and personal touch has become. The preface to Don DeLillo’s Mao II ends with the famous exertion that the future belongs to crowds. We are living in that future. Big-box stores do little to relieve the anxiety, and while online retailers offer bargain and convenience, the process is isolating, cold. I am willing to make the two hour drive in order to experience what the independent bookstore can only offer: Sanctuary. An escape. Kaboom is one hell of an escape.
Andrew Brininstool’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, New South, PANK, Quick Fiction and Best New American Voices 2010. His stories have also received the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from Mid-American Review and the Editors’ Prize from /nor. He is currently at work on a novel and collection of stories.