Dark Delicacies, America's Only Horror Bookstore

Del Howison, the "ringmaster" of Dark Delicacies
Del Howison, the "ringmaster" of Dark Delicacies
Photo by Danny Liao

Del and Sue Howison made the decision 20 years ago this December: They were going into business together.

They'd met at the Burbank bar that Del always visited while his clothes were spinning. "It was one beer for the wash, two for the dry," he recalls, "and then one day I saw Sue sipping soda."

New to the area after working at Port Hueneme naval base in Ventura County, Sue found Del hard to miss, what with his shock of long, white hair. He'd started turning white at age 14, which his father, a Detroit cop, attributed to the 1967 riots.

"He was the sergeant in command of the raids that started the riots, so our family got threats," Del explains. "What I remember the most is seeing my dad in full riot gear, and he's got my 4-year-old sister in one arm and a teddy bear in the other."Del asked Sue if she wanted to go to another bar, and as they walked up the street she asked him, "You're not a mass murderer or anything, are you?" Straight-faced, Del replied: "No, I kill them one at a time."

"I basically married my designated driver," Del laughs, as his wife bustles around their store and chats with customers. The only specialist horror book and gift store in the country, stocking topics from UFOs to the occult, witchcraft to cryptozoology, Dark Delicacies was born out of their shared love of the genre - and their inability to find sufficiently macabre decorations after they moved in together.

"We pooled our horror book collection, but all we could find were those birdbath outdoor gargoyles, nothing close to where our heads were at," says Del, who will give his age only as "the new 40." "We thought there must be other people like us, so let's put all the tchotchkes in one place."

They'd made some money selling horror-related goods and books at a couple of local conventions, when Del saw a storefront in Burbank. "We both had full-time jobs - me in the Garment District and Sue at Nestlé in Glendale - but I thought it was time to move on from chocolate and clothes. It was a crazy economic decision." After all, they had just $5,000 in the bank.

So they padded the shelves with their personal book collection. And since, at the time, new horror books came out only about once a month, they hunted for tchotchkes and used books at estate sales and antique stores to keep up their inventory.

Books initially made up 70 percent of their sales. Not anymore. While there are still nearly 7,000 books on the shelves, over time the couple moved them to the back. The jewelry, action figures, scents and posters are in the front. (They stock as many handmade and local products as they can.)

After moving twice, they're now at home on West Magnolia Boulevard, amongst the comic, Halloween and oddity shops.

They initially thought they'd be selling to "Goth edge and single males," Del says. "But in the first year my customers were 52 percent female."

Today, local moms have made best-sellers of purses and clothes with bats or skull motifs. There's even a "kids" room of spooky fluffy toys and clothes.

A lot of business comes from the nearby studios, too, which are always coming in for set decorations, props and jewelry. "We couldn't do this in Des Moines," Del says.

Signing events - the store's weekly bread-and-butter - began with one featuring Sara Karloff, daughter of legendary actor Boris. It was a wild success, and now Dark Delicacies hosts actors, composers, writers and directors, often in what Del calls a "group grope." [Editor's note: This paragraph was corrected after publication. See note at story's end.]

A January event, "Day of the Scream Queens," honored two dozen actresses who'd appeared in horror films including Jaws 2 and Return of the Living Dead. Del says, "Getting them to all sit down was like herding cats."

Originally, Del moved to L.A. to be an actor. He's landed parts in more than 20 of "what we call C-movies now," he says, and has played various permutations of Renfield, from Bram Stoker's Dracula, in no fewer than four productions.

A year after their store opened, Del and Sue made another big decision: to get married. They chose Halloween, of course, and had a coffin-shaped chocolate cake with red cherry filling, which "bled" when it was cut.

When you visit the store, you can tell who's on duty by the background music. Sue's a huge fan of movie soundtracks, and she supplements that with classical music. If you hear blues or classic vinyl, Del's at his post.

They open and close up together, but Sue takes the morning while Del does the banking, mail runs and errands; they switch at lunch. Del's also very much the face of the store - "the ringmaster," as Sue describes it.

She hates interviews, calling public relations a "necessary evil," yet she's everywhere at signing events, chooses the majority of the products, spends hours online looking for new authors, and is really the engine that keeps everything running.

Monday, the only day the store is closed, has become a date night of sorts: They watch a movie, order in, drink beer. They share their home with a white cocker spaniel, a rescue named Bebe, and are enamored with their 5-year-old "surrogate" granddaughter, whose Goth parents were surprised when "one day she woke up a fairy princess who loves purple and pink."

Del also gets up at 2 a.m. daily to write for an hour (after which, oddly, he goes right back to sleep). He'd love more time to write and Sue would like to spend more time working with animal rescue, but what they really miss are those early trips hunting for inventory. "Yes, the days of, 'Wow, look! I found a raven on a skull sculpture!'?" Del says.

"But I can't complain," he adds. "A bad day here is better than a good day at any of my other jobs, and though there have been months when we thought we wouldn't hit the rent, and events where no one came, we both love what we do. And friends took bets on how long our marriage would last!"

With that he's off to Staples, and Sue chats for a moment as she opens a big box of new books, lamenting that only movie-related, young-adult books still sell. Then she's off to the back office. Even as she keeps an eye on the store through a two-way mirror, the sound of clacking computer keys mixes with classical music.

Editor's note: This story originally gave the wrong first name for Boris Karloff's daughter Sara. We regret the error.

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