A Coffee with .... Russell Etchen: Domy Books founder talks about why his store is so unusual
As we walk from Domy Books to Progress Coffee, Russell Etchen, the bookstore's tall, red-bearded manager, waves at an acquaintance biking past. He has a tendency to drift toward the middle of the street.
We pass a walled-in metal scrap yard and gaze in, slightly awed. "I love this," Etchen says, as we look at the multicolored, geometrically stacked metal. "It's like instant sculpture."
Domy, the art bookstore and gallery, took over most of a small building on East Cesar Chavez Street two years ago and has become a fixture of East Austin art and counterculture.
Etchen orders a tangerine Topo Chico. "I don't know that I think of it so much as a bookstore. For me it's like headquarters," he says. "It's like a launch pad to engage the community and create a destination that you want to tell your friends about."
One reviewer called Domy "the anti-Barnes & Noble," a fitting tagline for a store with an audacious selection that occupies one and a half rooms. Its tables and shelves are arranged almost at random with handmade art books, rarities, elaborate architecture treatises, stunning cartoon toys, subversive art zines and prints.
"It's about creating a space that's super-inclusive," Etchen says. "And to not worry about how certain books should be in one place or another."
Tangibility counts. "The kind of books I'm stocking — you can't translate that into a digital page yet. For now, I think it's still important to have a memory of something, a tactile memory."
"I remember where I bought all my favorite records, and I remember the bookstores that I bought all my favorite books from. I don't remember the afternoon the Amazon box showed up on my doorstep and carefully revealed itself to me."
Yet, just being local is not enough, Etchen says. "Intimidation, like, coming from record store culture \u2026 I mean, I love record stores, but I hate that most of the mentality that you find is snotty and exclusive. And I reject that."
Etchen arrived from Houston to start Domy's new sister store. "In Houston, I feel like there's a lot of anger and a lot of frustration, because of the nature of the city, because it really tears at you.
"There's like a different kind of pride — it's like a stubborn pride. You have to want to live there. It's not a very transitory space, whereas here, my relationships so far have been a lot more temporary.
"All my best friends are still living in Houston," he says. "I didn't know anybody in this town, and some of the people I did know I wasn't really interested in being friends with. So, yeah, I've made a lot of new friends. I feel like I've bounced through a bunch of little micro-scenes.
"In this town, I feel it's constantly changing. In Houston, I found myself selling things that I just wasn't into anymore.
"I was a music promoter for four or five years. Didn't have any interest in the arts — outside of graffiti, which I'm just obsessed with."
Graffiti? "I don't know if I should express these things," he says at first. "There's something romantic to me about vandalism. The mentality that someone has to have in order to wreck something that's not theirs.
"Left on my own, I'm just a hermit. I'm a Cancer, so I have this desire to sort of be by myself most of the time, except for a couple of friends that I feel comfortable with." Yet, Etchen is often drawing at a park or coffee shop. "I like to eavesdrop. I like to sit and draw and write down other people's conversations."
He is completely straight-faced. "Oh, I'm unusually frank, normally. I'm actually holding back because I know this is going to be recorded."
Appropriately, he is not interested in falling into a rut just to make money. "It's like, I don't want to sell this anymore. I don't care if people are looking for it. It's just, I'm done with it. It's out there, I need to move on."
That, and, he admits, stubbornly continuing to stock things that he loves that haven't yet caught on.
After coffee, a man in work clothes comes in the door of the bookstore and hovers around the front table and register. "What kind of bookstore is this?" he asks.
Domy Books. Noon to 8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon to 7 p.m. Sundays. 913 E. Cesar Chavez St. www.domystore.com/austin.