Imagine a horror-specialty retail store that has not only survived for two decades but has helped shape the very genre it markets, and you’ll get some idea of why Dark Delicacies is one of horror’s (not so) hidden treasures. Located in the Magnolia Park area of Burbank, California (where Dark Delicacies’ success seems to have spawned neighboring stores with names like Halloween Town and Creature Features), Dark Delicacies was founded by Del Howison and Sue Duncan, who were married in the store (on Halloween, of course) several years after opening in 1994. Although their original focus was on books (new and used), they’ve since expanded into clothing, DVDs, memorabilia, and even horror-themed scents. As the store’s reputation grew, their legion of author friends urged them to expand into areas outside of retailing, and Del (with Jeff Gelb) edited three volumes of the award-winning Dark Delicacies anthologies and a Dark Delicacies comic. This interview was conducted with Del, since Sue prefers the role of silent partner.
This December, Dark Delicacies will be twenty years old, and it remains one of the most unique stores in the world. Did you have any models when you opened the store?
It was from Dangerous Visions in Studio City that I learned the value of signing events. Art and Lydia put on signings religiously for the fans. I also learned a couple of things not to do by attending their and other stores’ signings.
Did you ever consider extending your specialty to other genres as well?
There were mystery stores and stores with large science fiction areas, so we didn’t want to go there. We didn’t want to be competition. We wanted to be unique. We also knew just enough about those other areas to hurt ourselves.
You’ve built up a core of loyal customers. How did you make that happen?
By being here twenty years and making mistakes. But more so by making friends and fans slowly, treating people right, listening and handling things the way we would want them handled if we were walking into the store for the first or fortieth time. You have to be able to adjust. You have to trust your gut. You have to walk around your store and look at different areas and ask if the products there are earning their keep, and change it even if you are dumping something you really like for something that may not really appeal to you personally. Keep your vision and core aim, but change if you need it. A grocery store doesn’t only sell the food that the owner personally likes but food in general. That’s its aim and vision. Within that vision is room for flexibility.
How important was knowledge of the horror genre to making Dark Delicacies a success?
Of prime importance. Yet, at the same time, nobody is born with that knowledge. It is learned. For somebody to work with me, I would prefer customer service and retail experience over horror knowledge. But they’d have to be interested in it and willing to learn, because our customers ask a lot of questions.
Was there a point in your early history when you thought, Hey, I think we’re actually going to make it?
Since you opened the store in 1994, you’ve extended the brand to a series of three highly acclaimed anthologies, a comic book, and even Dark Delicacies scents. Did you always plan on expanding past just a retail store?
Like a shark, keep moving or die. I’m currently looking at a web talk show, a novel, film, whatever. None of these may work out. That’s okay. I’m not afraid of failing. I’m afraid of not trying.
How important to your business model have signings and author events been? Has it changed over time?
The signings and events are our bread and butter. They’ve altered in the respect that we have more of them a month and the focus has changed, or at least grown in scope, to include composers, artists, directors, actors, FX people, etc. They’re not just authors anymore, since horror entertainment has grown by leaps and bounds digitally. The very first month we were open Sara Karloff signed for us. She was our first, and Tony Todd was our second. We have never had a month without a signing, and it has now grown to where we barely have a week without a signing or two.
Aside from your genre focus, are there other aspects of Dark Delicacies that separate it from other specialty bookstores?
After twenty years, it is still a mom-and-pop store. Sue or I are here or in touch with the store every day of our lives. We were married in the store and even on our one day a week that we are closed, we’re usually running around taking care of store business. There is an attempt to cover all bases of horror, from skull-and-crossbones baby bibs to original jewelry. We cater to customers from the womb to old age.
Dark Delicacies has been around long enough to see the genre endure a few ups and downs. How do you ride out the lower parts of the cycle?
There were and probably still will be months where we’ll wonder if we’re going to cover all the bills. But I don’t change my spending and buying philosophy with the roller coaster. When times are good I don’t spend more, nor do I cut down on bill paying when times are tough (although I may cut closer to the minimum on some credit cards to get through). I try to maintain an even flow so that as the business goes up and down I don’t feel the ride as much.
You take a lot of interesting items on consignment. Have you ever been pitched something that you wouldn’t carry because it was just too extreme?
When I started, I had some serial killer art. Not that it was wrong, but it didn’t fit the direction I wanted the store to head in. Now some of that is carried by a local art store called Hyaena who specialize in brutal and horror art. They are doing well with it, I believe.
Do you have any personal favorites among all the items you’ve carried?
Sure, items signed by the masters who have passed and whom I’ll always miss, like Matheson, Bradbury, Bloch, and Harryhausen.
Has the success of shows like Oddities or even American Pickers made you consider carrying more antique items?
I do and always will if I find the items and they fit us, like poison bottles, gargoyle motifs, and such. We’re also a couple of blocks from The Bearded Lady Oddities, which carries some neat stuff, too. This area has turned into a Horror Hood. I love Magnolia Park.
Do you attend a lot of trade shows looking for new items? What are the defining characteristics something needs to have to become part of Dark Delicacies’ stock?
We look everywhere, from trade shows to estate sales. My wife defined it best when she rejected an item of jewelry from a local artisan as not befitting the store when she said, “It can’t look too motorcycle and it can’t look too Grateful Deadish. It’s that other thing.”
Has the recent increase in popularity of e-books affected your business at all?
Yes and no. The only thing it eliminates seems to be the mass market books because they were designed for convenience, which the e-readers have now taken over. But over all I think they help in getting more people to read.
Does social media/an online presence matter much to Dark Delicacies?
Even though we are a brick-and-mortar store we wouldn’t exist without the web and social media. I work it every day.
Have you ever considered opening up branches or a second store somewhere? What about licensing the name?
Everybody else seems to have been considering it. I get emails everyday asking me to open up a branch some place. Maybe someday. We’ll see. But it would be a different store depending upon where it was located. On the other hand, I am now venturing into Dark Delicacies Productions with media ideas, so licensing could be happening down the road. I’m open to ideas.
Has Hollywood figured into the success of Dark Delicacies at all? Could the store work as well anywhere outside of Southern California because of that?
At first we were the epitome of location, location, location. But now it has grown to the point that I’m rethinking that because we have a brand name.
I’ve seen many younger authors talk about how their dream is to sign at Dark Delicacies, or crow about their book reaching a certain ranking on your bestseller list. Was helping new writers be discovered a goal from the beginning, or just a happy by-product of your success?
Absolutely. The same way I always leave some spots open when I edit an anthology to get new blood into them and give some of them a start. The e-market is open to more, but not as highly regarded as the print market, even today. I heard one author at the World Horror Convention in Portland say that they considered it a “Rite of Passage” to sign at Dark Delicacies. That made me smile.
Is it ever hard being both married partners and business partners? Do you ever think horror has taken over your lives?
Twenty-four/seven would be hard with any business partner or marriage partner. She’s lucky I’m so easy to get along with . . . just don’t show her this answer.
Do you ever find yourself wanting to take home everything?
In the beginning, yes, because we were selling our own collection. But now we think of it as a revolving collection that we get to spend time with. Occasionally too much time.
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