Thursday night I rode my bike from Manhattan to DUMBO, a small Brooklyn neighborhood next to the water, nestled under the Manhattan Bridge. I was on assignment: I was to attend the grand opening of Singularity & Co., a Kickstarter-funded sci-fi bookstore.
DUMBO (which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), isn't "on the way" to anything, despite being located close to downtown Brooklyn, and so it seems an unlikely place to put a bookstore. On top of that, Singularity & Co. isn't even located on one of DUMBO's main drags, or even a through street: its street corner is literally fenced in by an adjacent power station. Ash Kalb, the store's founder, calls it "the bookstore at the end of the world," which has a nice charm to it, but doesn't sound like a great business idea.
And so, as I got lost in DUMBO, asked for directions, got lost again, and finally was helped out by a kindly old lady with a cane, I wondered to myself: "why?" As it turns out, the question Ash Kalb and his co-conspirators asked was "why not?"
"You can't really buy books from people who are into books."
For a genre that's so well served in movie theaters, at Comic-Con, and online, there's still a unique feel to going into a bookstore. It's different, somehow, than a comic shop — perhaps because I'm a sci-fi novel guy, not a comic guy. At the Singularity & Co. launch party, I met some people from Melville House, a DUMBO-based publisher which has its own small storefront (as it turns out, DUMBO has a ton of bookstores). They were dramatically discussing book covers — the unanimous favorite was "space bagpipes" (I forget what the actual book was called), where a shadowy figure was holding a psychedelic, kaleidoscope bagpipe, which was ejecting a uniform, rainbow stream of color out one end. It would make for a great Tumblr post — it probably will make a great Tumblr post — but it was fun to discuss and appreciate in person.
Even just thumbing through the books feels like you're touching a bit of sci-fi history. As a continually marginal, oft-despised genre, each book that's survived to make it on the shelf seems a small miracle. Many of the books have bookmarks or other relics still inside — they even found a computer punch card in one — and Singularity & Co. makes sure to leave them in the books as a little surprise for buyers. The more worn a book is, the more it seems like you're joining a small, select group of readers who've ever known of the book's existence — like you've been passed a family heirloom.
Singularity & Co. started off as a Kickstarter project to find forgotten, out of print sci-fi gems, digitize them, and sell them as e-books. The idea took off, and they raised $57k in funding.
Even before funding, however, Ash had begun to buy grab bags of sci-fi books to hunt for possible unknown titles. It's not hard to do: there are tons of listings on eBay where you can get a huge box of pulpy sci-fi and fantasy novels, or a huge stack of Analog and Amazing Stories issues. A good portion of it is crap, but there are typically some gems, like short run paperbacks and early edition classics. As he's perfected the art, Ash looks out for collections of books where people don't know what they have: "you can't really buy books from people who are into books," he says. Singularity & Co. also started working with some Storage Wars-types who find whole abandoned collections at a time, which has upped the odds of finding good stuff.
As a lover of sci-fi, I understand the gems-to-crap ratio Ash and the gang are up against. Most books in these collections, just like most of the books in the minimal sci-fi section of any given used book store, are trashy fantasy paperbacks from the 80s and 90s with jacket art that looks like it was done by a romance novel cover artist on his day off. The most common of these, as it turns out, is a book called Split Infinity by Piers Anthony — the used book hunter’s equivalent of REM's Monster. As you can see in the attached photo, the book's cover features a shirtless man, wearing a Robin Hood hat and hair pants, crossing swords with a unicorn. They find a copy in nearly every box they open.
The goal, of course, is to find truly forgotten books — they want to bounce between out-of-print landmarks of the genre, pulpy so-bad-it's-good finds, and incredible unknowns they come across. It starts by judging the book literally by its cover, checking out the publisher, year, and author to get a vibe for it. Jack Bechdolt’s Carrying the Torch, the second e-book to be offered by Singularity & Co., was one of the early grab bag finds, and it’s a post-apocalyptic future history of "a western civilization after its descent into a new Dark Age."
One of Ash's favorites, which he hopes to get a chance to re-publish, is Not This August by C.M. Kornbluth. He was a contemporary and promising rival of "all the guys you know the names of," explains Ash, but died young and has been mostly forgotten.
Any copy in the trash means that book is one step closer to disappearing forever
But by now, Singularity & Co. has a whole "hopper" of books under consideration or negotiation. The primary bottleneck is obtaining the rights to re-publish. Conveniently, Ash is a lawyer by trade, but that doesn't make things easy. A lot of books from the 50s were optioned by Hollywood and are trapped in bad, complex deals, which means the existing printed copies are all we have. For some books, the original publishing house claims to have e-book rights, and denies them to outsiders like Singularity, but won't publish an e-book version themselves — which Ash thinks implies they don't actually have the e-book rights.
Even for books in the public domain, Singularity & Co. make sure to track down the estate whenever possible and offer them royalties. A lot of out-of-print sci-fi authors are still alive, and were under-compensated during their careers. No matter what, Ash says he offers fair royalties to the rights holders, which he claims are high in comparison to industry norms.
As of right now, Singularity & Co. publishes one e-book a month, which you can get for a $29 a year subscription fee. Thousands of people have signed up already, and the company is already profitable and confident it can continue to make good on all of its Kickstarter promises.
Meanwhile, the rare book hunt filled an entire bedroom in Ash's apartment, which he shares with one of the Singularity & Co. co-founders, CC, and something had to be done with the thousands of books. Ash mentioned how heartbreaking it was to hear how some of the collections he'd bought would've been just thrown away if he hadn't bought them. Plus, around 75% of the books worth holding onto — basically, sci-fi books and every single copy of Split Infinity — were out of print. With the short runs that many of these books had in their brief heyday, any copy in the trash means that book is one step closer to disappearing forever.
I mentioned the bogeyman in Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End, a huge machine that scanned whole libraries of books at a time, but destroyed all the books in the process. The image was "haunting," said Ash, and had stuck with him throughout the whole process. Singularity & Co. doesn't do any destructive scanning of books, and in general approaches its entire business as a religion, or at least a form of reverent archeology. Throwing away the books was obviously out of the question.
"I think not really stopping and not really thinking about it has really helped us out," says Ash.
And so Singularity & Co. opened a bookstore at the end of the world to house, and sell, the collection. Even the trashy fantasy stuff they've kept around, to be sold by the pound.
While a decent size for a single-genre used book store, Singularity & Co.'s DUMBO store is a little small for the number of friends, family, and nerds that showed up on Thursday night for the launch party. Additionally, a nerdcore / rockabilly band called Sky Captains of Industry played, and seemed to raise the temperature a couple extra degrees. Things got loud, and hot.
The most astonishing attribute of the crowd was that they kept buying books. There was an open bar at the register, but people kept handing small stacks of fascinating paperbacks (I always had to take a peek) over the assorted bottles of wine to whoever was manning the bar / register.
I bought four books, including a copy of Split Infinity, for a total cost of $30. The books aren't cheap: copies of Split Infinity can be had for $1 apiece, but some of the early edition classics can run from the $50 to $500 range, and most of the other books sell for a little bit less than their cover price. It's jarringly expensive for someone used to picking over stacks of 75 cent paperbacks at flea markets.
But it's that same flea market training that makes the curated books irresistible. At a used bookstore I'll typically buy any book I see that I've had recommended to me, or which I recognize the author name but not the title, or which has a shirtless guy fighting a unicorn. Even the best used bookstore only has a couple of those titles, and they're usually $3 to $7 — you'd be crazy not to buy them, you tell yourself. But Singularity & Co. is a store composed entirely of those books. It's full of must-haves. I was lucky to make it out of there without an entire shelf-worth.
The rent is cheap, the books were already bought, and the real "business" is online
I visited the store the next day. It opened late, and I only saw one customer come through in the hour or so I was there: he dropped $50 on five paperbacks, after browsing the shelves quietly for 20 minutes. Ash and the other partners in Singularity & Co. are all self-employed in various industries, and plan on using the store as an office. It's "always cool to have a clubhouse," says Ash.
Ultimately, this physical bookstore is a hobby for all involved. The rent is cheap, the books were already bought, and the real "business" is online. Even Ash admits that his primary reading method is electronic. He currently uses the iPad mostly, but would "kill" for a backlit E-Ink Kindle. The whole reason he got interested in the venture because he was running out of decent books to read — he feels "caught up" on the genre. So in the hunt for another good out-of-print book to add to the hopper, he typically reads one of his paper books a week (he doesn't sleep much, he says), but finds e-books vastly more convenient.
And of course, Split Infinity is best when read aloud to friends:
"Now I thought I could conquer you, Neysa. I thought I could ride you and make you mine, as I have done so many times before with other horses. I see now I was wrong. I rode you, but you are not mine. You will kill yourself before you submit to the taming. I hardly know you, Neysa, but I love you; I would not have you sacrifice yourself to escape me." Stile felt moisture on his cheeks, and knew he was crying again, as he had with Sheen. Few things could move him that way. A woman was one; a horse was another.
Next up for Singularity & Co. is to re-publish some under-appreciated female authors, many of whom wrote under men's names. They're also looking into print on demand to be able to offer paper versions of books they've licensed. Ash also claims a secret plan to publish new books in some never-before-done way that will "democratize" the process. With an already-working business model, Singularity & Co. is able to offer books DRM-free without worries: they charge money to "support the next book," and the key word is "viable" not "lucrative." Ultimately, they have room to experiment, and so far it seems to be working.