By Casey Ek
In 2007, an adolescent boy walked into Midway Book Store and spotted a first edition copy of Robert W. Chambers’ The King In Yellow. Bookstore owner Tom Stranksy placed the book in the boy’s hand, allowing him to brand its shape and weight and the cover’s emblematic snakelike figure into his memory forever. Its price: $150, well out of reach for the boy, but just a fraction of its actual value. So the boy, named Josh Hames, went on a quest to raise the funds to purchase the book. But when he returned the book had vanished.
Until one day—perhaps as a result of some unknown cosmic force—the book entered his life once again.
On a day this November, Hames was contacted by one of his neighbors in West St. Paul who learned that the boy, now a man, is in the business of buying and selling books. That neighbor sent a snapshot of the potential sale items in question when Hames spotted the book whose characteristics he’d learned well.
When Hames finally had a chance to meet with the seller, there was no mistaking it—he’d found the copy Stransky placed in his hands 15 years ago. When he opened the front cover, there was “$150” in Stansky’s handwriting. A label inside the book told of its time in the library of a Detroit sanitarium. On its front cover was what Hames determined was tuberculoid blood. Such imperfections typically reduce books’ value, but to Hames, the book is priceless—though he is yet to pull the trigger on buying it.
Mysterious forces like the one that may have reconnected Hames with that grim pocketbook are the subject of most of the books that fill the shelves of Other Skies Weird Fiction, a bookstore that Hames and his fiancée Becca Olene opened on Oct. 28. It is located at 803 Dodd Rd.
Both are artists and contributed to the design and feel of the store. The pair have been collecting weird fiction since well before the idea of opening a store came to mind, and both their influences can be felt. Where Hames might have tracked down a Stephen King book, Olene might have procured antiquarian books featuring the art work of NC Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. Their combined tastes culminate into a cohesive blend of magnificent macabre.
To describe weird fiction, Hames used phrases like “magical realism” or “any fiction that is darkly dreaming” and “fiction that dwells on the unknown,” but he was quick to note that he’d rather not linger on the textbook definition of the genre as one is likely to know weird fiction when they see it. Authors like Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Margaret St. Clair are emblematic of the genre.
Walking into Other Skies, one would immediately see a display of VHS tapes of movies like ‘80s horror classic House. A central table holds a copy of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, and a near-scale bust of H.R. Giger’s alien. Sub-enclaves in the store hold works on the occult, Japanese animation and concept art.
Reflecting on his first ever book signing event for his latest book Beneath the Jack-O-Lantern Sky, which took place at Other Skies on Nov. 6, Wisconsin-based horror writer Tylor James described the store as of a different world and of a different time.
“…Look at all these rare, wonderful books lining the walls! And the tall, stately clock standing sentinel in the corner, with skeletal black hands whirling about the clockface! And the cozy couch beneath the window! And the . . . casket?” James writes in a recent blog post.
At the back of the store rests an open (unused) casket Hames was drawn to when preparing to open the store. Olene, according to Hames, was skeptical of the purchase—in fact, Hames bought two caskets—but once the artifact was placed in the store all seemed to fall into place. The sleepy neighborhood off Dodd Road and the dark brick building only add to the store’s allure.
“It’s out of a weird tale,” Hames said of the store and its surroundings.
Within the casket are some of the store’s rarest and most valuable volumes, including a rare edition of Compendium Maleficarum, Brother Francesco Maria Guazzo’s 17th century account of his investigations into and handbook on witchcraft. Alongside the book is a collection of works by Polish surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński, who famously depicted macabre scenes.
“Every book in the casket is some form of meditation on mortality,” Hames said.
One flipping through the titles on the Other Skies shelves might assume Hames relishes in reading hopeless literature, but in fact, he feels that weird fiction has the power to liberate and uplift the reader. Weird fiction, Hames says forces the reader to grapple with a fear of the unknown, and in doing so becomes more robust against their daily struggles. Hames noted that at least part of the reason for the casket is that it reminds him not to take life too seriously.
This lighthearted mentality carries over into how Hames and Olene present their merchandise. You won’t find even the most valuable volumes at Other Skies behind display cases. That’s because the owners want the books to be read and felt by patrons. Hames hopes this attitude will allow readers new to the weird fiction genre to gain a love for it like he has.
Asked why the couple decided to open an independent bookstore in a world of big box sellers, Hames said he “never believed the whole ‘bookstores are dead’ thing. It never made sense to me.” He added that he believed it was his time to take up the mantle held by sellers like Stransky, who all those years ago lit a flame in him and that it is now his and Olene’s turn to join what he called “an order of weird monks” and light that flame in young readers.
“I can’t just expect (independent bookstores) to always be here.” Hames said of the responsibly he felt to open a store.
Asked to describe the feeling of getting someone to love weird fiction, Hames called it “the best feeling in the world.”
As for the name of the store—that comes from a line H.P. Lovecraft’s poem To a Dreamer.
The store is open Friday and Saturday noon to 10 p.m. and Sunday from Noon to 7p.m.
“A bookstore just feels different at night,” Hames said.
By Casey Ek