This weekend, Houston will lose Domy Books, a one-of-a-kind artist bookstore and exhibition space, and a pipeline between artists scattered throughout Houston and Austin. Domy Austin shuttered in December 2011, with the owner, Dan Fergus, citing “seven years of breaking even” as the cause for the closures. It’s a sad end to a powerful model for artistic activity within the state.
In 2006, Fergus and a handful of artists opened up Domy in a cozy, one-story house along a busy stretch of Montrose Avenue, nestled between antique stores and coffee shops. (Formerly, that spot housed Mixture Gallery, which Fergus also owned, and included now-Lower East Side Dealer Lisa Cooley on staff.) Though Fergus is the backer, he’s always let the founders play a strong role in shaping Domy’s programming.
“I co-founded the bookstore in Houston alongside Seth Alverson and Patrick Phipps,” Russell Etchen told me over the phone yesterday, “and the owner gave us free reign of the store.” Thus began Domy’s experimental model for running an artist bookstore. Soon after, Russell left Houston to embark on opening up a second Domy location in Austin.
Etchen and others involved with starting up Domy cited the lack of artist book stores in Houston, and Texas generally, as an impetus for starting the store. New York had Printed Matter, Chicago had Quimby’s, and Los Angeles had Ooga Booga. It seems we’re in a golden age of artist’s bookstores, and Domy contributed to that, which makes its closing seem all the more bittersweet.
What made Domy different from many bookstores was the team atmosphere that churned out the noise, sweat, and ink that went into nearly every show. The shops hosted a drawing club, sold artist editions housed in flat files, and put on music shows—just because they could.
“It was a gathering point,” artist Alison Kuo told me, who worked at the Austin location from 2008 through 2010. She’s now in graduate school at SVA, but refers to her time at Domy as her original “graduate school”. Kuo began as an assistant, and then started organizing shows of her own. At Domy, there was a gung-ho ethos about the place. If Kuo, or anyone else had an idea, be it for hosting a drawing club, bringing in touring bands, or using a storage closet as an exhibition space, then it would be done.
Located on a formerly empty stretch of Cesar Chavez, Domy Austin books found neighbors with artist collective Okay Mountain and the contemporary gallery Art Palace. That familial atmosphere helped propel an artistic community, which on that street, has changed rapidly over the years: Okay Mountain is now mostly artist studios, with a few exhibitions per year, and Art Palace has relocated to Houston.
Domy was more than a neighborhood niche space; it became a portal between the artistic output of Houston and Austin—which often favored material tinkering for the sculptural, and a comix aesthetic for the 2-D.
“There’s a big wall that exists between the two cities,” Etchen mentioned. But Domy helped to change, and spur an exchange. Houston-based artist and curator Cody Ledvina, Etchen recalled, was given one of his first solo shows at Domy Austin. Coming full circle, Ledvina is now represented by Art Palace, and over the next few weeks, he will move his gallery The Joanna, rebranded as Tha Brandon, into the Domy Houston space. The first show will open in September, and it will continue to be a collaborative effort, of sorts, between Dan Fergus, Patrick Bresnan, and Cody Ledvina.
As for Domy Austin, which quietly closed in December, several former employees opened up Farewell Books in the same space, now shared among an array of other shops like Schmaltz, a vegetarian Jewish deli, and Las Cruxes, a vintage clothing boutique. “It’s a totally a different beast now,” Etchen, adding that they sell, for the most part, used books.