On a bustling thoroughfare in Woodlawn Heights sits a charming bookshop where time seems to move in slow motion.
This bookshop, which does business under the name “Kaboom Books,” deals entirely in secondhand volumes.
I remember my first visit there fondly.
At the entrance my eye was caught by a sign: “We couldn’t be more open.”
I stumbled into the dwelling of the muses and looked about.
Shelves ran around the wall, carrying books to the ceiling and dividing the space into little alcoves. The air was heavy with the sweet, beloved reek of ink and pulp. Sun poured in through the front windows, giving the shop a warm and comfortable air.
Passing through the store, the general effect became more and more fantastic. Towering above me were shelves and shelves stuffed with books. (I tell you, for a book lover there’s nothing like being surrounded by thousands of books that one has not read.)
The place was completely silent, peopled only (so it seemed) by serious book hounds hungry for good books, absorbed entirely in their search.
Stuffed with tens of thousands of titles, the store seemed a haven where one could ferret out that certain book they didn’t know they needed until they came across it. It was as if there wasn’t a book published that the sprawling store didn’t have.
“Yes, this will do,” I thought as I poked about, calculating how long it would take to scan every title (a fool’s errand). The feast of used books would no doubt satisfy my browser’s appetite.
Greedily, I flitted from cover to cover, shelf to shelf, room to room, an exhaustive ritual which made for hours of browsing. Though I only viewed a fraction of the stock, I amassed quite the stack of must-buys.
There are, by the proprietor’s estimates, approximately 130,000 volumes stacked in the shop’s shelves, all instantly available to browsers. The titles on hand run from the obvious -- all the classics -- to the obscure.
Books fill the whole shop; there are paperback and hardcover books; there are the usual classics, hobbies, and children’s sections, as well as those on more specialized areas like literary criticism, espionage and journalism -- altogether, there are 84 sections. One is titled “Books on books.”
The owners, John and Dee Dillman, said they strive to cultivate what they describe as a haven for browsers. In that effort, I’d say they’ve succeeded.
“There’s no filler here at all,” John said. “You can’t afford to just pack stuff in without a thought. You have to really think about how you’re moving stuff out. I’m the least intuitive of people, but I do have an intuitive sense of when the inventory is overbalanced or is underbalanced. A little ping goes off in the back of my head where I think ‘Oh, I’ve got to build that back up again.’”
John said there’s probably a continuous inventory of about 260,000 to 275,000 titles that move through the shop with regularity. Beyond that, there are another 100,000 to 150,000 books that he only occasionally sees.
“Part of the art of bookselling is to be able to tell someone who comes in looking for a particular title ‘We don’t have it now, but we’ll almost certainly have it within the month’ or ‘I only have seen that about three times in 45 years,’ you know that sort of thing,” John said, “So you give them a kind of timeline as to how scarce or accessible that sort of thing is, and if you can, you eventually put it in their hands.”
Putting a book in someone’s hands is “the whole point of the store,” John said.
“Honestly, my idea of the bookstore is that it presents the local society with choices that they might not otherwise have in terms of the books, but it’s the ideas that are in the books that are most of interest to me.”
“I don’t go out of the way to get in people’s faces but I do want them to appreciate ideas that they maybe would not have considered before.”
John said if there’s anything that he enjoys more than the books, it’s the people who come for them.
“When I started selling my own books in the flea market for about a year and a half before I opened my first shop, what came to me fairly rapidly is the fact that the customer base was uniformly intelligent and interesting,” John recalled.
“The customers are the most rewarding. That’s the whole point.”
Kaboom Books, 3116 Houston Avenue, between Oleander and Alma Streets, (713) 869-7600; Open daily, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
What are your favorite bookstores in the city? And what are your most treasured moments there? Tell us about them in the comments.