Browser Update: Kayo Books Goes Online- and Appointment-Only

(Photo by Maria Mendoza)

UPDATE: On Thursday Sept. 8, Kayo Books will begin clearing its stock. Every item in the store will be discounted by 30 percent, and the discount will gradually increase up to 90 percent until regular store hours cease at the end of October. 

Comb through the 30,000-plus paperbacks at Kayo Books at 814 Post St., and you’re bound to find something that will titillate even the most San Franciscan of sensibilities. Buried in the stacks of this three-room Tendernob store are titles like Gang Girls, Ten-Inch Toker, and Circle of Perverts, each of which is meticulously organized by genre, subgenre, and — mostly — in alphabetical order.

Kayo is the last outpost for vintage paperback books from the 1940s through the ’70s — they’re colloquially called pulp novels, though that term actually refers to the paper on which books were printed — and it’s the only place in the country where you can dig through beautifully drawn, sometimes poorly written, and amazingly interesting books about nurses, juvenile delinquents, gay sex, travel, the counterculture, hillbillies, and so much more.

“People would say our store is like a museum — and in a way, it is, a little bit,” says co-owner Maria Mendoza, who opened Kayo with her husband, Ron Blum, in 1995. “We put [the paperbacks] in a context. It’s not just mysteries, it’s not just science fiction. No, it’s like this is our interracial section, this is our Catholic guilt section, these are all books about people having sex on airplanes. That section is called ‘plane people.’ ”

Kayo’s “museum” of a bookstore is open three days a week, but will shut its doors to the public on Nov. 1 and become an appointment-only and online operation. Blum and Mendoza have run the store themselves for 21 years and, in a plot twist that deviates from the recent San Francisco narrative, they have not been priced out. They simply want a change of pace.

“It’s kind of a shame, because browsing is a big part of the store. That’s the whole point of it. But time has run out on the browsing option,” Mendoza says.

The store was never meant to make a ton of money, Blum says, but it served as a sort of performance piece for well-loved and disposable books. Blum had been collecting paperbacks for years — mostly digging through flea markets, estate sales, and the small collections of bookstores across the country — when he and Mendoza happened across a vacant storefront. Their growing book collection needed a home.

“I was always interested in those old paperbacks from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. I guess due to the design, the content, and definitely by illustrators,” Blum says. “Then the whole vintage erotic paperback and magazine thing — we were always interested in that, and I think the store sort of drifted a little bit in that direction.”

Kayo’s back wall is indeed filled with steamy novels in every sub-genre of smut you can imagine. Sections on LGBT love, swinging, and leather are up for grabs, featuring brightly drawn covers with occasionally ridiculous titles. The infamous director and filth-meister John Waters, who owns an apartment in San Francisco, frequently picks through it.

“It’s so much fun to go in there, and I always give myself an hour or 45 minutes; you can’t quickly go through it,” Waters says, adding that his latest round of purchases included the titles Young Jock Snapper, English Leather, and Bend Over, Pig — the cover of which features a biker banging a cop. “Every time I go there, it’s just my favorite thing to do. It’s one of the reasons why I have an apartment in San Francisco.”

Waters is such a fan of Kayo’s collection that his 2014 hitchhiking novel, Carsick, features a chapter “that is basically a hymn” to the store. In it, Waters hitches a (fictional) ride with Bernice, a crazy librarian and insane collector of un-collectable books who was fired from her job but continues to distribute old paperbacks. Many of the titles in Waters’ book were lifted from things he saw in Kayo.

Waters adds that he often gives the vintage paperbacks as gifts during the holidays or at dinner parties instead of a bottle of wine. For a friend’s recent nuptials, Waters purchased all the books he could find about sex and marriage; titles like Murder and The Wanton Bride seems like appropriate gifts from the mastermind behind Cry-Baby and Pink Flamingos. What those books about sex, love, and marriage lack in practical advice, they make up for in laughs.

“I like the ’60s sex-novel artists, [bondage and fetish illustrator] Eric Stanton and Robert McGuiness and some of these guys who just had such a sense of humor and freedom of what they’re doing,” Blum says. “They were capturing the sexual revolution.”

Still, Waters and the owners are quick to point out that the store isn’t only about smut — it also carries comics, novelizations of films, and original cover art for the paperbacks. Even the books about sex aren’t as explicitly pornographic as what we’re used to today.

“If you were looking for porn, you would be disappointed. Porn today is really ugly. This, to me, is a high-class shop. It is a literary, high-class place that happens to be way ahead of the curve,” Waters says. “I just thought it was so great they just have such amazing taste in tasteless things. Kayo may sell books that were never thought of as classy, but that was the point. They’ve magically turned these books not only into respectable but sustainable things.”

While bookstores of the day would have nowhere near the collection present at Kayo, the smutty, salacious paperbacks were once commonplace in drugstores, cigar shops, and adult bookstores. Publishers would crank them out based on the day’s hot topics, and writers would often churn out work under multiple pen names. City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one of the first people in San Francisco to sell such novels in a major bookstore.

Kayo has its own place in this history — as the neighborhood was once a hotbed of used book, magazine, and comic stores (The Magazine still stands as a remnant of this time). “In the ’60s and ’70s, there must’ve been dozens of them, because we find business cards all of the time in books that said Jones Street, Geary Street,” Blum notes.

The books themselves also occupy a special place in history, Mendoza argues. During the pre-internet days when there were but a handful of TV channels, publishers would release books that reflected what was happening in society and how social mores evolved. What started as science fiction in the 1940s and ’50s turned into spy fiction during the Cold War, and later into sex spy spoofs. The same could be said of books about drug use, which started off as serious stories of abuse before more exploitative stories became popular.

“That’s the part I really like — how keyed in publishers were in exploiting things in popular culture,” Mendoza says. “It expresses something about our culture: who we are, our anxieties, our hopes. I know it sounds corny but it really does. They publish so much of it that you can pull a lot about us from [the paperbacks], especially when you see it all in one place.”

Kayo’s owners — whom Waters calls “the classiest smut peddlers” he’s ever met — plan to host sales and events ahead of their Nov. 1 change in business model. Anyone who wants to browse for a tasteful, tasteless gift, or an over-the-top title to read on the train, is encouraged to get ’em while they’re hot.

Kayo Books 814 Post St.415-749-0554 or kayobooks.com

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