Where the Books At: A Profile on Ruben Cardenas, Owner and Curator of B_KS@

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Hidden in plain sight on the service drive behind Gratiot Avenue is a treasure trove. A few steps down the weathered brick-paved path is a metal door covered in graffiti, and an 8.5”x11” square orange sign reading simply in bold helvetica: “B_KS@.” Blink, and you may stroll right past it. Beyond these doors, owner Ruben Cardenas sits cross-legged at the corner of his little bookstore. Much like how a master craftsman appears at peace among his oeuvres, Ruben is truly at home among his archive. His demeanor and appearance oozes good taste; he has an aesthetic curated through years of experience. His dress is simple and chic, donning carefully assembled monochromatic outfits. His white beard and thick angular-framed glasses only add to the sage’s aura. He has something to say about every piece in the store, and is enthusiastic to share his wealth of knowledge with you. The attentive assembly of the space and the contents on her shelves are indicative of his high level of dedication.

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B_KS@ is no larger than 200 square feet, but it in the case of this business, less is more. Once inside, the space Ruben lovingly refers to as his “laboratory” springs to life. The worn brick wall on one side and exposed ceiling lend a feel only an old Detroit building can exude. A shuttered window allows just enough natural light in. The ruggedness of the bones of the space are juxtaposed by Ruben’s sleek assembly of the decor. The middle island, shelves and display are made from precisely cut wood with squares of the logo’s signature orange hue interspersed through the blocks. An interesting geometric lighting fixture hangs above the books on the wall. The simplicity of the space allows the colorful and creative covers of the books and zines to steal the show, drawing you immediately to them. The store is small yet homey, condensed yet comfortable. It forces an interaction between you and the works, making it irresistible to explore every issue, and impossible to not converse with the owner. B_KS@ has quickly become a favorite among the cool kids and fashion/art crowd of the city since its opening last May. Ruben has dug out a niche providing artistic provisions and inspiration through his selling of specialized fashion biannual and quarterly zines, and photography books that are of the highest taste level, and are usually very hard to find.

For Ruben, the project is a lifetime in the making. His love of books and print media had an early start, “The very first book I sought out was a copy of Lord of the Rings when I was 14. I was just so intrigued by the cover.” From then on, Ruben paid attention to not just the content of the books, but what made the difference between multiple editions: the cover art. This intrigue for print media and the dexterity of the craft involved with it evolved into a penchant for fine art that would define Ruben for his lifetime.

In 1979, he moved from Detroit to Manhattan, working as a broker. He spent his spare time immersing himself in the wonderful world of print media, art and fashion that was exploding in New York at the time. “Bookstores were everywhere in Manhattan at the time, but unfortunately not anymore. Bookstores provided a sort of cultural sustenance,” he tells me, “that’s where you got culturally fed.” Archiving and collecting print media became his true passion, as he explains to me, “It wasn’t just a hobby, it was a necessity. I had to do it.”

The vibrant culture around the city at that time only perpetuated this interest, inspiring Ruben at every turn. His eyes light up as he regales some of his favorite memories from his 35 years there, getting to see the early openings for Jean-Michel Basquiat, his admiration for other street artists like Snobbo and Clemente, and the art crowd at storied night clubs like Studio 54 and Area. He pours over his admiration for the fashion at the time, citing the boom of legendary Japanese brands like Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Matsuda as curating some of the best shopping experiences in New York. Eventually, the city’s glamour and artistic fervor somewhat fizzled in his view, “It became less about creating, and more about corporate wealth. When that happened, New York lost a lot of its glamour to me.” In need of a fresh perspective, Ruben uprooted again and went back to the city he was born and raised in. He was drawn back home because Detroit today has one defining parallel to NYC during the time that he initially moved there in the 70’s and 80’s, “Detroit now is a space where you can create and exist. Now, that’s an important thing. Back then, you were in New York because you wanted to be. You may not have been living glamorously, but it was possible to focus on your craft. New York is always gonna be New York, but that part of it has died out. In Detroit, though, now you can do it: create and exist.”  

Back home in the D, Cardenas wanted to open a space that treats magazines and books equally, and exhibit the immense talent and artistic merit of these limited cultural zines. The selection on his shelves however, are not your immensely popular monthly editions of Vogue or GQ. Ruben instead gravitates more toward niche annual, biannual, and quarterly editions of fashion and art zines, explaining, “They take more time to curate, and allow the stories in them to be cultivated over time. I don’t have anything against the popular monthlies, I just don’t know how they can keep up with that much content all the time.”

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In a world where media is run by the need to produce endless feeds of content, Cardenas instead is drawn to books and zines that take their time to ensure the highest taste level in the final printed edition. Zines like Purple, a beautiful Parisian hardcover biannual that has been documenting the artistic, fashionable, and cultural happenings of the City of Light for 25 years now, System, a biannual fashion-centric zine dedicated to profiling the most relevant and powerful figures in the industry, Document Journal, an independent fashion, arts and culture biannual out of New York, or Garage Magazine, a contemporary arts and fashion biannual that has had past contributions from prestigious artists like Hedi Slimane, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Marina Abramovic. Other notable editions on the shelves are incredible publications like AnOther, Replica, 032c, Fantastic Man, and Dazed. There is also a selection of artistic photo books from both local and global talents. Most of these publications are known mostly in the elite fashion/art cities, and now they have a home here in Detroit. Cardenas is an exhibitionist of sorts, giving this city a window to vast global opinions on fashion, art and culture through the atmosphere he has created.  

Fashion is one of the most democratic mediums out there
— Ruben Cardenas
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B_KS@ is a rare space so full of influential and exquisite art, purveyed by someone who has genuine love for the craft and not an air of snobiety. Being unfamiliar with a title is almost encouraged, as Ruben relishes the opportunity to explain his knowledge, “I’m trying to create an environment that allows someone to explore, ask me questions, and further the conversation. I’m asking the customer to trust me, to trust that what I’ve put out and what they’re flipping through is important.” His excitement for not just the books themselves, but a strong admiration for fashion enhances his merit. “Fashion is one of the most democratic mediums out there,” he proclaims, “It brings together fine art, architecture, design, photographers, cultural icons and of course the clothes themselves are ‘art’. It’s an area where it’s almost all equal: you could be walking around in a $15,000 Chanel suit, or have a $100 Chanel keychain in your pocket. At the end of the day, both are representing a label, their stories, and their ideas, so it’s equal in that way.” This lens of clothing being a cultural equalizer is an admirable philosophy. His poetic idealisms speak like a sage on his mountaintop, a wise perspective necessary for a generation of artists that often seek clout over artistry.

B_KS@ is a worthy pilgrimage for those seeking creative sustenance. Cardenas has created his store as a shrine to visual arts and print media. He is excited by the idea of human interaction over monetary gain, telling me, “My motivation is more about the currency of information, shared from one person to another. I want to share what inspires me to as many people as I can.” He has done just that, as it is impossible to not be enthralled by his friendly demeanor and wealth of cultural knowledge. It is no surprise that his hidden space has still attracted so much attention in the year since it has opened. It is easy to get lost in this 200 square foot space, as the flip of each page transports you to another realm. In a digital era, experiences like this are becoming more and more sparse. However, in B_KS@, print is not dead, it comes alive.

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Words by Avery Naman

Photos by Petra Alam