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Other Skies Weird Fiction is a used and collectible bookstore opening in West St. Paul. How weird? There’s an actual coffin used as a display case.
What’s weird fiction? It’s the overarching genre for horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Think Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, Arthur Machen. And OK, yeah, Stephen King. There’s a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall, a Star Wars boxed set, a Mad Max VHS.
“Minnesota has a rich, storied history of weird fiction,” said Josh Hames, who along with his fiance Becca Olene are the proprietors. They’re both graphic artists and illustrators with work displayed in the store.
Used and collectible: You won’t find much if any new fiction, except maybe independent work. It’s mostly collectible books, ranging widely from unique paperbacks to pricey rare volumes.
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Where: 803 Dodd Road in West St. Paul’s 40 Acres.
When: Hours for the opening weekend are:
- Friday, October 28: 6 to10 p.m.
- Saturday, October 29: Noon to 10 p.m.
- Sunday, October 30: Noon to 7 p.m.
- Monday, October 31: 5 to 9 p.m.
- After opening weekend they’ll be open by appointment during the week and then Friday through Sunday with regular hours.
“I want to be open odd hours,” said Hames. “A bookstore is very different at night.”
Why a Bookstore?
“I’ve always wanted to live in a bookstore.”
For the love of books: “The main reason I’m doing the bookstore is because it’s what I love to do. I love being around this stuff and sharing it with people. Also it’s a great opportunity for me to be able to acquire more—it’s the beast that feeds itself.”
A family obsession: “My fiance and I have been together for almost eight years and she’s just as into the collection as I am and so this has grown out of control,” Hames said. “We were basically living in a museum for the majority of our relationship.”
Evangelism: Hames approaches it with an evangelistic fervor, which is ironic, given the number of books on display with ‘witchcraft’ in the title. “The bookstore is like a strange platform through which you have a captive audience to talk to people about this stuff and get more people interested in it.”
“I still remember being bullied for playing video games and reading spooky stuff and being called weird,” Hames said. “Well, yeah, I did double down on it.”
The genre is transformative for Hames: “The stories themselves were so tremendously informative to my imagination, both as an artist and as an obsessive fan of this type of stuff. It really activated more than I thought it would. Not just the stories, but the objects that contain them.”
He’s evangelistic about the genre: “I like to think that I can get people really excited—people that would normally never touch this stuff. I will find them a story that will completely turn their world up, and not necessarily in a horrifying way but in a way that can really deeply affect them.”
But Hames also sees weird fiction as broadly appealing:
- He says weird fiction has a working class appeal, and it comes from people loving the material. “There’s an element of wanting to be entertained.”
- “Genre fiction has a way of being a great equalizer for people that don’t necessarily read a lot.”
- “Whenever I will be in West St. Paul, South St. Paul, Chaska or Brainerd or Grand Marais—I love smaller town areas, and that’s where I would find really good, well kept, well maintained, and dearly devoted genre fiction.”
- West St. Paul and the West Side are steeped in it: “What I do know is that people around here read it. …This entire wall here, every book that I bought pretty much for the last two months, I have not needed to travel more than four blocks.”
Why West St. Paul?
The working class roots of West St. Paul certainly appealed to Hames, but he was also drawn to this specific location.
- “There’s just that atmosphere about it where there’s a legitimate change in vibe, where you can almost hear the synth music start when you’re going across the High Bridge.”
- He described visiting the shop at night in May: “This whole area is so different with the streetlights and the quiet.”
- A humid night, fog rolled through the street and he saw this spooky, creepy, 1920s brick building with shadowy canopies. “There’s so much life in the weird, weird architecture.”
- Despite the genre, he’s not a superstitious person. But… the address lined up with his birthday, which was two days after the move-in date, when he happened to be turning 30.
- “That’s a good story, you know, for a place that sells stories.”
Now he’s making more stories in the space: Hames proposed to Olene on his birthday in the building.
Rare & Collectible Books
Hearing that Other Skies Weird Fiction focuses on rare and collectible used books might turn some people off.
But Hames is definitely not snooty about his books: “I think people should read rare books. The actual physical copies. There’s a mentality among a lot of people that this is an $800 book, it’s got to be kept behind glass and never touched. Here there’s only one fixture with glass at all and there’s no lock on it. And that’s because I want people to handle them.”
He’s evangelistic about rare books too: “For me, wealth is measured by how many people you affect and how many books you have.”
What’s the allure of rare and collectible books?
- Hames describes a lesson his grandfather taught him about the difference between a novel and a book. One is the story an author tells, while the other is the physical container for that story.
- Hames illustrates by grabbing two different editions of Toplin by Michael McDowell. One is an inexpensive paperback, and the other is a rare hardcover: “Reading this copy of the book versus this one—totally different experience. Having the illustrations where they’re supposed to be in the book, having the text laid out in the way that it should be… Same novel, very different book and very different experience.”
- Another example is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, a book that takes the experience of reading to a new level. It’s a meta-narrative, and as the story progresses the book starts to fall apart, with bizarre layout and passages you need to read in a mirror. Different editions of the book are wildly different, some with color and one even featuring a passage in braille that’s left out of the others.
- “It’s nice to have a sexier version of a book you love. Or maybe giving a novel you didn’t like as much another chance in a different form.”
And the Twin Cities are a good place for rare books: “I firmly believe we have the best independent used book market in the country, if not the Western Hemisphere.”
- “In five years I see myself publishing books.”
- Hames is also thinking content creation—videos, essays, a podcast planned for next year.
- He also wants Other Skies Weird Fiction to host events, from author readings to Dungeon & Dragons campaigns.
First Author Event:
- Local author Tylor James will be doing a reading, signing, and Q&A.
- When: Sunday, November 6 at 5 p.m.
- Hames described Tylor James as a “local weird fiction legend in the works.”
- James’ latest release is Beneath the Jack-O-Lantern Sky: Tales of Sweet Hollow.
- “I want to give him a platform and get as many eyes on his work as possible.”
The Right Vibe
When Hames and Olene got the space in August, the first thing they moved in were the coffins. That’s right, plural. Two coffins, sitting side by side in the front room, visible through the window from the sidewalk. In the initial days, they only came and went at night, leaving watchful neighbors to draw their own conclusions.
But it’s nothing nefarious. One coffin is being used as a display case, while another will travel to events and liven up their booth space.
Keep up with Other Skies Weird Fiction on Facebook or Instagram.
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Nice addition to the neighborhood. And not far from the former Zoff’s Affordable Coffins that used to be on Smith Avenue. https://www.startribune.com/thinking-beyond-the-grave/175284731/
I just got this edition of WSP reader in my email a week after the last event listed in the article happened. Was this in an earlier edition and I missed it?
Holly, that’s our monthly email, so sometimes things we share are a little older. 90% of this story is about the bookstore and not the one event, so we thought it was still timely and worth sharing. If you want more timely updates, we have a weekly email for members: https://www.patreon.com/weststpaulreader