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Interview with Kilgore Books Owner, John Kuebler

By Faith Diaz

Established in 2008 and having survived the pandemic, Kilgore Books is a used bookstore and unsung hero of the Denver, Colorado Metro Art scene.

Located in the Capitol Hill district of Denver, Kilgore books is an underground but popular word-of-mouth safety hub for the community. With its own small publication promoting local artistry, it’s cradled in an 800 square foot space between two versions of the same record shop.

I interviewed current store owner, John Kuebler, to chat about the progression of the store since its conception and its longtime support of other local businesses and creators. We began chatting right before the store was set to close for the day and John effortlessly navigated conversation while prioritizing customers first. With witty phrases stuck in between heartfelt facial expressions, the love of Kilgore is obvious in his explanation of its journey. We started where all great stories do, right at the beginning.

If you don’t mind going over the background of the establishment with me, I believe you folks were established in 2008?

"That’s correct, June 1st, 2008 was opening day, and I was not here that day. The shop was opened by Luke James and Dan Stafford, our founding fathers."

I believe you’re the first owner after them?

"Yes. I bought the shop from those guys. I used to work for them part time. And they both moved away one by one and when Luke moved away they asked if I would be interested in buying the shop and I was. "

What made you decide you wanted to buy the bookstore?

"I was very interested in working for myself for one, but I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I had been in the nonprofit world for a while, and I was back in the restaurant business too. I was thinking about quitting my restaurant job and buying a lawn mower to cut grass just so I could work for myself. And about that time is when they asked so it was serendipitous in that way.

Yeah, it was really nice. The timing was right and I just knew it was the time to jump. And I didn’t know what it was gonna cost me or how I was going to manage but I wanted to try. I’ve been going to used Bookstores ever since I was a little kid. There was one by my grandmas house in Kansas City called the Bookworm and that started my book collecting. I was already reading at that point but I had started to become a collector. First was comic books that they sold there then it was James Bond's novels, I’d lay them all out and look at them.”

With the pride that one does, when they just get new books. (A common notion in the States is to admire your books if you get to buy more than one)

“That’s right, exactly. So, I've always been a book lover - a used bookstore lover, because in a used bookstore you can find a lot of things you didn’t know you were looking for. Just sitting on the shelf, ready to be taken up.”

So, when did you get the store?

“I took over on my first day on August 15th of 2015. I just celebrated eight years as owner. “

Before I forget, I meant to ask you, why the name Kilgore?

“We’re named after a fictional character; Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout was a fictional character who appears in several Kurt Vonnegut novels. And he’s the main star of Breakfast of Champions. Dan Stafford was a huge Vonnageut fan, so he and Luke named it Kilgore after Kilgore Trout. So yeah the fish (trout) motif isn’t on everything, but is on most stuff."

Also you have that lovely poster outside, the trout.

“The walking fish was done by John Porcellino. He’s the creator of King Cat Comics, and is kind of a legend in a certain scene and he was friends with the guys and living in Denver at the time and painted that. And then we have some stuff painted by Noah Van Sciver, another cartoonist of note. He was kind of nurtured along by Dan and Luke in the original incarnation of Kilgore and he's gone on to you know do really well for himself.”

So John Porcellino does King Cat Comics, and I know you folks have a very well-known small publishing press, do those have any correlation?

“There’s no overlap anymore except that we're friends but Dan Stafford is running the publishing arm still under the name Kilgore. When I bought the place, they let me use the name and I wasn't going to change a good thing.”

So how did that publishing come about?

“Noah Van Sciver, who I mentioned earlier, used to creep around here right after the guys opened it, story has it, with little hand stapled comics that he had printed at Kinkos (printing). He went from that to stepping up his game a little bit to making a full size glossy comic called BLAMO! He would sell them here in the store."

“And he was publishing them in small amounts at a local printer not getting any kind of bulk discount. So Dan stepped in and with number five, he kind of foot (paid) the bill or Kilgore foot the bill for the publication of BLAMO! #5. Noah added a little, Kilgore Books logo, like you would DC or Marvel up in the top left corner, and a publishing empire was born. So they continued to publish BLAMO! and Noah has published with a lot of different publishers in various languages and he’s done very well for himself. His publishing career I guess started right here. And he used to work here part time too. So, Dan has continued to publish things and he tries to find new, exciting cartoonists and some established folks but all Indie cartoonists.”

For Denver Residents, how do they go about getting in contact with you guys if they have a zine or idea to publish?

“Some people reach out by email or phone but the best idea is just for them to come in here and talk to me personally. I handle all the consignment. They come down here, they bring a couple of issues of their zine or chapbook or comic and, unless there's something unreasonable about the pricing or something, rarely does any local artist get turned down. I want to make the space for them and sort of continue what Dan and Luke started with keeping space for local artists.

It’s exciting when you get published, especially for the first time. I think I still relish in it myself.

"Yeah. To see your byline or, even if it is self published, to see the physical object is something special."

Kilgore is an artist safe haven here in the city. Is there any particular identification you have with the store? Yourself personified into it ?

"I really just spent all of my energy on the collection here. I don't sell online. Anymore, I did a little bit during the pandemic. Everything is focused on the bookstore. All of my energys go here. And I feel that in a smaller way, it's still this great sort of community space and literary scene but without the events. I still get a lot of local writers and book enthusiasts who come through and really appreciate that we are going out and finding like 500 new books every week and putting them up on the shelves. That’s about average I’d say."

What does that process of book finding for you look like ?

"So we get about a third of the books, maybe a little more these days, from people bringing them in to sell for cash or trade. And the other two thirds or so we go out looking for at library sales, estate sales, garage sales, thrift stores, anywhere we can find a book cheaper than we can sell it for here. And in fact really, there you are, the only service that we provide is we go out and look at a shit load of junk books and find the very best ones. The cream. (As in the phrase, the cream of the crop also known as the best of the best) And we skin the cream from everywhere, all over the Front Range, and we bring it to this location. So that the neighborhood can come in and not have to look through all the crap, they can go oh this is what I am looking for. Or I didn't know I was looking for this. "

Two questions. First, can you describe for folks what the Front Range in Colorado is?

“The Front range is just when the Kansas plains kind of bump up against the famous Colorado Rockies. On the Eastern side of the Rockies you have Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Fort Collins, not in that order. The Front Range cities have the bulk of Colorado's population. I don't know what that number is.”

Secondly, what does it mean to find the Cream of the Crop book for you?

“There's two things I mainly look for. One, books that I know sell and that's just based on experience. And sell here I mean specifically, we have a pretty young clientele so they're not reading a whole lot of Henry James. No offense, Henry.

I’m looking for Murakami and Octavia Butler, that kind of stuff. So I have to go looking. Anyway, the cream is either the stuff that everybody is looking for or it's something that turns my eye. And I trust my eye. I curate the store for the most part. So yeah, in that way, to answer I think a little bit of an earlier question, that's the part of me that extends out. That this is a representation of me personally. I’m the cranky old bookseller here and yeah, this is my shop and I’m proud of it.”

What have you noticed over your time organizing Kilgore about the changes and fluctuations of the Denver Art Scene over these last couple of years?

“Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m very much so kind of on the edge of the scene and I don’t mean to imply that I’m edgy (a word for trying to be different than typical society). Just that I’m not, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of it. So the things I notice are more like changes in the demographic of the neighborhood, that kind of thing. Capitol Hill has always been a young neighborhood but it's becoming even younger I mean. Just judging, you know the record store (Wax Trax Records) and this place draws a pretty youthful audience, but yeah it seems like I’m always hearing from a person who looks like they're 20 years old and saying “I just moved into the neighborhood.”

Ah, the nature of Denver.

“I know artists that I've really admired that have gone elsewhere and it seems like Denver is that kind of place and will always be that kinda place. Right? Of course it’s gonna have its own scene, and I don't mean to disparage those who stay, but a lot of talent ends up leaving for the coasts. Because there's no chance to make it from here to a certain level, I think. I think. Again, I don't know what the opportunities are. I used to be in the theater business in town and just kind of know more about what was going on but I kind of lost touch a little bit with all that. But I have seen people leave. So that's what I attribute it to and that's kind of an old story. I mean I'm from Kansas City originally and that was the case there, too.”

Yeah, something about flocking to the coast for chance and life-thriving just kind of, I think happens.

“To make it to whatever that means, exactly. “

You were mentioning the crowd keeps getting younger and younger, so what does that look like comparatively then to now?

“It’s always been kind of a draw for younger folks here and again, Capitol Hill kind of always been a young neighborhood. I mean a mix of young and old. Cause the interesting thing about Capitol Hill is that you have people who own these old Victorian single family dwellings right next to an apartment or a house that's cut up. So you've got kids so called, you know renting out a place right next to someone who's got a house that's worth two million dollars so it's always been that kind of strange urban mix here.

Can you describe in just a few adjectives this collective space but also the artistry of Denver specifically?

“What's specific about the art and the artsy, well I don’t know. But I will say, to answer in some way that, Print is Not Dead. That young people appreciate a book in-hand and they’re also creating actual zines and comics and books. Chapbooks or otherwise. And so there's still a desire for the print media, both to create in it and to have it. You know, Put it on your shelves. The zine specific, zine and sort of mini-comic scene seems to be thriving besides just here.

I could ask you a million more questions, but I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. Is there anything else you want folks to know about Kilgore Books?

"Kilgore, you know, in the 800 square feet that we have, we try to really distill the collection so that there's no filler. And I mean we are not at 100% saturation there's a few books out there that probably should be pulled from the shelves and put on the bargain shelf. Stuff that's just not that good or maybe nobody wants to buy anymore. Whatever the case may be. Henry James at all.

We just have a really highly distilled small bookstore and we really put a huge importance on buying. We pay cash for books cause we want people to come in with their good stuff and we want to give them a fair price. And I think the bookstores I’ve admired like Fahrenheit's books, which have been my long favorite in Denver and other bookstores I've known in the past, the best ones pay cash right there at the counter for books. There's a lot of bookstores that just offer trade credit and I think you can tell. You walk in, spend a few minutes in those bookstores and you can tell they don't have a lot of the great stuff.

We’re trying to be one of the best bookstores. We've got a great block of shops. We’ve got used records, used clothing now again across the street and it's nice for people who want to shop second hand. They can kind of hit a few different places right here in this pocket. The only other thing I want to say is that Wax Trax Records has been such an important part of Kilgore’s success. For 15 years, they've been our landlords and friends and without Wax Trax there is no Kilgore so in a way, we are the Wax Trax bookstore."

Thank you so much for chatting with me!

Thank you, Faith.

If you happen to wander in, make sure to follow up with John about his latest favorite finds and stop by next door to Wax Trax to take home some records. Kilgore Books is located on 624 E 13th Avenue, Denver, Colorado, 80203. It is open everyday from 12pm to 6pm.


Faith Diaz, originally born in Bronx, N.Y., USA, spent most of her childhood moving from place to place. She graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington with her BFA in Creative Writing. Her hope in the future is to continue sharing the stories that matter, from people who do even more so.


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