Brian Keene is awesome. So is Mary SanGiovanni. And they’re opening a bookstore. Read on for Brian’s words about the why and how of it, and also how you can help —
It was summer of 2006 when I realized that — while they may be able to write them — most writers didn’t have happy endings.
I’d just participated in a mass book signing in Washington D.C. — one of those events that combined then big name veteran authors like Douglas E. Winter, F. Paul Wilson, and Steven Spruill with then still-newbies like myself, Mary SanGiovanni, L. Marie Wood, and J.F. Gonzalez. After the signing, author Matt Warner invited everyone back to his home for a party. Mary, J.F., L. Marie, and I were hanging out in his kitchen, talking about J.N. Williamson and Charles L. Grant. Williamson, the author of over forty horror novels and nearly two-hundred short stories, had passed away in a nursing home the previous December. During his funeral service — the sparse attendants of which were basically his sister, and authors Gary Braunbeck and Maurice Broaddus — the preacher disparaged Williamson’s life’s work, taking all of the joy and entertainment it had brought teenage us and reducing it to glorification of the devil. Our conversation then transitioned to Mary’s mentor, the great Charles L. Grant, who — having written countless horror novels and short stories and edited some of the best quiet horror anthologies spanning two decades — was in very ill health and wasting away in hospice. It disturbed me that an author whom Stephen King once called “One of the premier horror writers of his or any generation” was spending his final days that way.
Doug Winter, who had come into the kitchen for a beer and was then eavesdropping on us newbies, squeezed my shoulder and said, “Now you know what keeps us awake at night, kiddo.”
On the drive from D.C. back to Pennsylvania, J.F. and I vowed to each other that we weren’t going out like that. Despite our then relatively young age, we were already both aware that death comes for all, horror writers included. Richard Laymon, Karl Edward Wagner, Mike Baker, Buddy Martinez, and Mark Williams were already gone by then. We knew it could happen. And so we made plans to take care of each other’s literary estates, should we eventually pass. I’d oversee his and he would oversee mine. Our goals were the same — keep our stuff in print and make sure our children benefited from it.
Something else we used to discuss at length was coming up with a viable second revenue stream. We’d heard about a well-known author (whom I won’t name here to protect his family’s privacy) who — after a storied and celebrated career writing prose, comics, television, and film — was now suffering from dementia and still beholden to cranking out a novel every year to keep a roof over his head. That was a terrifying prospect. And J.F. and I had learned by then that advances and royalties don’t last very long, even when you’ve written bestsellers (as we had with The Rising and Survivor, respectively). We’d also begun to learn — much to our dismay — that most writers have a shelf life, no matter how popular they are. Sure, everyone still reads Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or Charlotte Brontë, but what about their peers? What about the hundreds of authors who were published alongside them? This was particularly true for mid-list authors such as ourselves, and doubly true for genre authors. J.F. — a student of the pulps — could spend hours rattling off the bibliographies of pulp-era horror writers who nobody else remembered. It bothered him greatly that they’d been memory-holed. But that’s what happens. It’s inevitable. Case in point — how many of you reading this have actually heard of or read J.N. Williamson or Charles L. Grant? Props to you if you have, but it’s okay if you haven’t, because that’s what happens. Those guys were giants to people like J.F. and I, but eventually, all that’s left of giants are their footprints, and in time, even footprints fade away.
What’s worse is being forgotten while you’re still alive, and yet, we saw that unfolding before us, as well. There was an entire generation of horror novelists — folks like Ronald Kelly, Ruby Jean Jensen, and William Schoell, to name a few — who had seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth during horror fiction’s mid-1990s collapse. Where were they now? Nobody knew. They could have been working at Walmart or a factory somewhere. Or teaching, perhaps. Or dead. It wasn’t until Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell, and the subsequent imprint from Valancourt Books, that readers began to discover these long-lost treasures again.
J.F. and I knew it could happen to us, as well. Indeed, it was already beginning to happen. With horror’s second implosion, we’d both seen the end of our nice little midlist careers, and new we were in danger of having happen to us what had happened to Ronald Kelly and the others. We scrambled to make sure that wouldn’t happen, helping to reinvent and mainstream independent and small press publishing, and in the process finding a home for many of our peers in the same situation. But we were still fearful of what was to come. Those lessons learned from Williamson and grant still loomed large. And so, we’d return to brainstorming those ideas for a second revenue stream. I suggested we become forest rangers. I envisioned us in a tower somewhere, overlooking the Pacific Northwest, writing novels and stories while getting paid to watch for forest fires. J.F. was of a mind that we should buy a tugboat and become independent operators in the Baltimore harbor.
We never got to do either of those things, because cancer struck him down. But because we’d planned ahead, I’ve done my duties as his literary executor, and made sure his stuff remains in print, and that readers haven’t forgotten him, and that his family benefits from it all.
But the idea of that second revenue stream still haunts me, and it haunts Mary, as well. In the years since that sobering conversation in the kitchen, when Doug Winter scared the hell out of us, she and I have gotten married. We make an okay living together — as good of a living as two midlist horror writers whose core audience is beginning to age out can make. But we are fifty-six and forty (clears throat) and most of our readers are that age, as well. Over the next two decades, that audience will continue to dwindle. We are painfully aware that those royalties will lessen over time, and that we could very well go the way of the giants.
So, we decided to do something about it. Mary wasn’t inclined to become a forest ranger or a tugboat captain, so we opted for a different second revenue stream instead — one that is connected to writing, but doesn’t involve writing. One that, when managed properly and professionally, can supplement those royalties and advances. One that will allow us to give back to our community and our peers, both locally and nationally, and keep those forgotten giants in the collective memory a while longer, as well as elevating today’s new voices, so that they will one day be giants, too.
We’re opening an independent bookstore.
Inspired by Dark Delicacies, Butcher Cabin Books, The Poisoned Pen, Bucket O’ Blood, Mysterious Galaxy, and other indie bookshops, we are opening an independent bookstore specializing in Horror, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Bizarro, and other speculative fiction genres. Vortex Books & Comics will open Spring of 2024 in the historic district of beautiful Columbia, Pennsylvania — easily and quickly accessible from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, New York City, Washington D.C. and more. We’ll carry a full complement of books from the Big Five, as well as hundreds of books from many cool indie publishers and small presses, and titles in Espanol and other languages. We’ll host weekly signings, readings, workshops, and other events. Our goal is to make the store a destination.
Understand, this is not something we’re doing on a whim. I didn’t wake up one morning and roll over and look at Mary and say, “Hey, you know what might be fun?” This is something we’ve been researching and investigating for several years. We’re confident we can make it a success, and we’ve invested in the tools and resources to achieve that. Indeed, we’ve invested a significant amount of our own money into this endeavor. We have a thorough, intimate knowledge of this industry — wisdom gained from thirty-five years of writing, publishing, and selling. We’ve talked the the marketers and the distributors and most importantly, other booksellers. We know this business, and are familiar with its ups and downs, ebbs and flows. We realize that we are uniquely positioned to make this work.
After investing our own money, it was suggested to us by several knowledgable mentors that we give the community an opportunity to chip in and help. And thus, we’ve launched a GoFundMe. If you would like to show your solidarity and support with a donation, it will be put toward further set-up costs such as fixtures, security, inventory, marketing and advertising, signage, etc. thus giving us a bit of breathing room and time to make the store profitable. However, you are under no obligation to donate. We appreciate your support regardless of whether you wish to donate or not.
Thanks to Chuck for allowing me this space, and thanks to all of you for reading us these last thirty years, and allowing us both a place at the table. We are very excited for this next chapter of our story, and giving back to our peers and fans in an all-new way.