Interview: Kilgore Books

If Wax Trax opened a bookstore, it might look a lot like Kilgore Books and Comics, which is fitting, since it occupies the storefront next door (the one that used to house Across the Trax a few years back). Much like the record store, Kilgore is fiercely independent and offers a nice selection of new and used underground gems that are lovingly and carefully stocked by its owners, Luke Janes and Dan Stafford. Throughout the store’s DIY shelving units, one might expect to find reasonably-priced used books by Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, Kilgore-published issues of Noah Van Sciver’s comic Blammo, or zines like Cometbus and even The Yellow Rake. On a bustling afternoon, I spoke with Dan about the essence of Kilgore while a cavalcade of 13th Avenue regulars thumbed through the shop’s selection of books, zines, and comics.

Brian: What was the motivation behind the founding of Kilgore Books?
Dan: Luke Janes is the guy I run the shop with. He and I were roommates at a place on Marion and 13th. He was working at Cap Hill books and I was doing non-profit, mostly environmental work. And we were having one of those three-or-four beer conversations on the porch, like, ‘What’s your dream job?’ And we both realized running a used bookshop would be the coolest job in the world. So we basically went from there into a critique of all the used bookstores in Denver. I mean we have great used bookstores in Denver, but the big thing that was lacking was that no bookstore had a huge science fiction section — except maybe Fahrenheit’s; I don’t want to cast aspersions — but we wanted ours to be better. And then a lot of kind offbeat stuff that we like to read — not even that offbeat, but like Kurt Vonnegut or John Fante, that kind of stuff — you couldn’t find used anywhere. It would always blow my mind that I would go to a huge used bookstore and I couldn’t find a single Kurt Vonnegut book, and he’s one of the biggest writers of the 20th century. We needed a bookstore that always has the really good shit. And of course the other thing that was really woefully missing from the Denver scene was independent comics. Tattered Cover wasn’t really doing comics at the time and the zine library was closed at that point. The zine and comic scene in Denver was really lacking in terms of a space for people to sell their stuff. So that was the rational: Both of us wanting to be our own boss and to run the kind of bookstore we would love to go to. The kind of bookstore where you’d literally want to hang out for four hours because there’s good music and a good vibe and it smells good and there’s an uncrotchety guy behind the counter.

Would you consider the decision to open the store a success?
Yeah, I would. It’s funny; I had these two guys in the store today who are old Denver book guys — one is in his 80s and the other in his early 70s and they’ve run different shops throughout Denver for the last 40 years. One guy said, ‘How’s it going?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s good. We’re making a living.’ And his jaw dropped, and he said, ‘You’re making a living selling books?’ Luke and I have really understanding wives with good jobs, so that helps. But I’m really happy we’ve done it. It’s opened a lot of doors that we wanted open: being able to do publishing stuff like comics and being able to provide local writers and local artists with a venue that wasn’t just a gallery space. So I think it’s been really successful. I do think we’re at an interesting crossroads right now where the space is great, but we’re at a maximum capacity. This is the amount of space we have and we’ve filled every nook and cranny of it. Only so many people will come here on a given day, so it will be hard for us to grow. And while we are making a living, it’s not a great living. Our hope is to figure out an expansion plan so we can incorporate more mini-comics, more zines. Since there are only two of us, we can only do so much outreach to people to say, ‘Hey, come sell your stuff here.’ And until we can do more of that, we’re not going to get more customers who come in looking for a wider variety of things. We’re looking to find a bigger space if we can, but we don’t want to move, because that would suck too.

Is it nice being next to Wax Trax?

It’s awesome, are you kidding? I’ve expanded my record collection. It’s doubled in the last three years. But more importantly — well you interviewed Duane [Davis], right?

That guy’s awesome. Him and Dave Steadman are the last of a dying breed of really respectable DIY businessmen. The other day I went to get a thing of water and I was walking past Jelly and Beauty Bar and I was thinking about those two businesses that are new in the past year. And both of them are the kind of thing where the people had some capital and they spent a 100 grand and they got the nice sign made and the fancy lighting and whatever. And I thought, ‘Huh, we didn’t do any of that at Kilgore.’ Every single thing here we built with sweat and getting our friends to do it — just going the cheapest possible, DIY route versus the ‘take a big loan’ and do it that way. That’s kind of the Wax Trax spirit, punk rock thing that we love and seek to honor and emulate in some way. And honestly as our landlords, those guys are great. We have a handshake deal with them and we’ve paid the same rent every month for three years and it’s a really low amount of rent. That’s the thing that allows us to make a living at this. They could have charged us a lot more but they don’t need to so they’re not going to, which is unheard of in a landlord.

You do have a kind of Wax Trax vibe here, kind of a non-pretentious shop that appreciates independent, creative expression. That’s probably the kind of thing you wanted to begin with, right?
Yeah, when I was a kid my friends and I would make zines. And one of my best friends bought a photocopier from the school supply auction for $50 and we would make zines and send them off to Factsheet Five. When I was doing the political stuff, I kind of got out to that whole scene, but my memory of it was like, listening to the Dead Milkmen, riding a skateboard, and photocopying funny shit — maybe writing Jello Biafra a letter and hoping he’d write back. Getting back into it, it’s funny because there is there hyper-pretension of the small press community of these precious art object books, which I think are really beautiful and have a place. But that was something I discovered. It’s like the concert poster thing. I used to collect concert posters because I was like, ‘I was at that show and it was awesome. I’m going to put that in my bathroom and every time I take a piss I’m going to remember Butthole Surfers or whatever.’ And now show posters are limited edition and screen-printed with 14 colors and they don’t hang them up anywhere. I guess our one pretension is that we try to be anti-pretension.

You worked for non-profit campaigns before opening Kilgore, and you’re still very connected with that, obviously. You ran as a write-in candidate for city council in the 8th district. By the way I’m not in your district or I would have voted for you.
Thanks. [Laughter]

Oh yeah. Anyway, do you miss working with non-profits in more of a political oriented atmosphere?
Yes and no. I think that to me, all of that stuff is wrapped up in who you are as a person. The way you live your life, the way you treat people, the way you operate a business, the way you engage civically, the way you treat your kids, the way you treat your partner — all those things are who you are as a person. When I did political organizing work, I never thought, ‘This is my job, and then I have a separate life.’ I was fortunate that I got paid to do something that I believed in strongly. That same ideology blends itself into the Kilgore thing. I think we treat people fairly when they come in to sell stuff. We pay for stuff up front because we know consignment kind of sucks. We push local people because we want those people to be successful. It’s just that spirit of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. To me, whether I’m involved with politics or some creative venture or business venture, it’s all the same. But I still do a lot of the political stuff. I spend about 20 hours a week working for this organization. I still have a toe in each water anyway. And the election thing was just dumb luck — well luck isn’t the right word because someone died. But it was a crazy confluence of situations where our City Council woman — who was pretty good — passed away so it was definitely going to be a write-in election because hers was the only name on the ballet. And I though I was the only person that I trusted to actually be a progressive voice on the City Council. So that’s what I was going for.

Is there anything else you wanted to touch upon? Does Kilgore have an underlying philosophy of sorts?
The only thing we try to do is we try to say yes to as much as we can. For example we had a lady come in the other day who just wrote a kid’s book. And she said, ‘Do you do anything with local authors?’ And I said, ‘Yes we do.’ Because anyone who’s taking the time to try to create something—it’s a hassle to try to deal with the bureaucracy that is involved with disseminating your creative vision. And so if we can help with any of it, even a little bit — if we can sell one book by a guy who really put his heart and soul into it, and that makes his day and it makes our day and it makes the reader’s day — it’s the greatest thing on earth. Of course, Luke and I can get curmudgeonly about some of the people who come in from time to time.

Who wouldn’t?
Yeah, it is retail. But the idea is like, ‘Yeah, let’s say yes to everything.’ And some of it will work and some of it won’t, but at least we’ll try. It’s a pretty good philosophy for us.