She was a dame named Maria, smoldering stare and initial gruff manner softened by an endearing gap-toothed grin, who had plans to lure the pulp-besotted masses seeking a good time between the covers – paperback covers, that is – into her den of literary iniquity.
When he walked through the door, he didn’t know what hit him ...
Actually, I had an inkling of what to expect when I crossed the threshold of Kayo Books on bustling Post Street, mostly because I’d heard filmmaker John Waters, king of kitsch, rave about the place on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and read his endorsement in the San Francisco Chronicle: “It’s the best place to buy a present in the world. It’s the most amazingly curated bookshop, I think.”
But there’s often a fine line – maybe even a chalk outline – between expectation and reality. I thought I’d be wandering through stacks and stacks of well-thumbed, frayed and moldering Mickey Spillane titles and other pulp knockoffs that would warm the cold-blooded heart of Quentin Tarantino, peruse covers featuring bottle blondes in off-white slips draped across a bed holding a smoking gun, as in a David Lynch flick, and maybe get a peek at what passed for soft-core porn in the 1950s.
What I didn’t expect, but was quite pleased to find, was that Kayo Books provides a fascinating journey into the often repressed, sometimes reviled, era of congenitally low-brow pop culture, circa 1940s to 1970s. And it’s far from being a dusty, musty and disheveled space. Owners Maria Mendoza and husband Mark Blum have lovingly assembled an impressive array of well-preserved offerings from the true-crime/detective genre, as well as sub-genres represented by rack cards ranging in subjects from “Juvenile Delinquency” to “Catholic Guilt” to “Office Girls & Bossman” and several categories too blushingly frank to be repeated here.
Lest you think Kayo is only about kitsch and its kissing cousin, sleaze, peek into the glass case at the checkout counter, where Mendoza keeps the pricey, pristine first-edition copies (some sell for as much as $800) that would make even antiquarian book snobs take note.
Genre-leaping crime-writing greats such as Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford reside there, with lurid noir covers that define the period and undoubtedly drive up the price. Of course, also behind the case, deemed too valuable to be pawed by the looky-loos, are exploitative classics, such as Ed Wood Jr.’s “Toni: Black Tigress.” Throughout, you can stumble upon by-gawd actual highfalutin literature, such as paperbacks of Émile Zola’s “Nana” and J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” graced with the same over-the-top covers.
That’s the thing about Kayo books, believed to be the only strictly pulp and vintage paperback brick-and-mortar store in the nation: If you’re seeking an obscure paperback that used to sell in cigar stores, bus stations or curbside newsstands, there’s a good chance you’ll find it here. You’ll also find comic books, photographs and pulp artwork from the period but, really, those are mere bit players to the paperback stars.
There seems an endless supply, too. Even though Mendoza said Kayo limits its inventory to just four decades, the place teems with titles. If they had the means – the book business, after all, is in notoriously precarious straits – the owners could probably fill a warehouse with this stuff. But they are content to stay in their current three-room digs, packed floor-to-ceiling with paperbacks. This summer, Kayo will celebrate 20 years in its Tendernob location, a significant milestone in this age of Amazon.com and e-books.
“We started out as collectors,” Mendoza said, “doing little book fairs on weekends for fun. When you collect, you end up getting too much in your house – apartment, for us. So we thought, ‘What are we gonna do? This is out of control.’ So we said, ‘Hey, we’re having a baby; this is a great time to open a bookstore.’ This place was available and the rent is cheap, so ... .”
So Mendoza and Blum shared their passion for pulp. And they found others equally enamored, enough of a clientele to keep the place open, though Mendoza admits online sales from Kayo’s website certainly help. Pulp fiction is having a resurgence, it seems, spurred not just by auteurs such as Tarantino but by book lovers. High-brow media has noticed, as well, with The New Yorker’s Louis Menand’s recent essay “Pulp’s Big Moment” chronicling the enduring mass-market appeal.
“That New Yorker article was great but kind of too scholarly and dry,” Mendoza said. “After I read it, I was, like, ‘This is boring.’ It should be fun and exciting. I don’t consider this a scholarly topic. It’s democratic, sexy, funny, sarcastic. It reflects an era. When you go through a magazine that’s dated, it’s like time travel. It reflects a lot of who we were.”
One thing Menand got spot-on in his New Yorker piece: “You can’t tell a book by its cover, but you can certainly sell one that way.” The pulp covers at Kayo are equal parts whimsical, lurid and titillating. It’s not going too far to call them works of art. I suspect some Kayo customers have no intention of actually reading these paperbacks; instead, they just want to show them off.
Some of the most subtly salacious cover offerings come from the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s, a time when Mendoza says obscenity laws were such that the “erotic stuff was just hinted at” in the prose but the covers were “very racy for the gentlemen of that era.”
There’s the cover for Jay Carr’s “The Love Seekers,” featuring a brunette in a bra and hiked-up skirt sitting on a bed with hands running through her hair – kind of an Edward Hopper knockoff. All you need to know about the plot is printed on the cover as well: “Behind the quiet façade of a respectable rooming house, the guests were tangled in a web of passion.”
A tad more explicit, and infinitely more hilarious, is the cover for “Everybody Loves a Eunuch,” by Scott Arlen, which features a photo of a naked blonde lying in a field of wildflowers, apparently the frustrated lover of the titular eunuch. The cover blurb explains it all: “Corporal Buck Riddleman’s trick to get out of the Army left him ill-equipped for civilian life.”
Some of the more explicit books at Kayo do not purport to be novels at all. Rather, they fob themselves off as “case studies,” such as 1964’s “The Cross Report on Perversion,” the “uncensored case histories” by “Dr. Harold H.U. Cross.” Next to the “Case Studies” shelves are rows and rows of gay and lesbian pulp novels, with titles such as “Hollywood was a one-way ride into ... The Gay Trap.”
“There are so many gay male erotica back then that it’s fascinating,” Mendoza said. “Society was so repressive back then that this was their way to (communicate). Now, I have gay men coming in buying (books) because it reflects what their community was like decades ago. Libraries who collect them because it’s a cultural touchstone. Now, anybody, gay or straight, can get their porn on the Web or a thousand other places.”
True, today’s book buyers can discreetly hide the cover of “Fifty Shades of Grey” on their Kindle. But there’s really nothing much to hide, its cover being a lame silk tie in a Windsor knot.
Tell me, where’s the pulp in that?
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
Where: 814 Post St., San Francisco
Hours: Thursdays-Saturdays: 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Information: www.kayobooks.com; (415) 749-0554