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The State of Comic Shops

Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter has written a heartfelt, thoughtful apologia for comics shops that I have been pondering off and on while I go about checking proofs and swearing at the damned Toshiba copier, which has decided it doesn't want to work as a printer for me anymore. Here are a few points that I thought I'd post my thoughts about.
"I love comic shops. As much as I enjoyed as a kid pedaling to Ross Supermarket or Marsh or Klink's and accosting their spinner rack, as much as the feel of turning one with a couple of fingers hooked over a thick, coated wire made of metal with a slight flick of the wrist is a sense memory as strong as any I maintain, it's the comic shop that cemented my childhood fascination with the form and enabled me to remain a reader into my teen and adult years by allowing me access to comics that appealed to me at whatever age I happened to be. [...] I owe comic shops my relationship to a great International art form that has enriched my life.

"That's one of the reasons why I'm always a little bit astonished when people go after comic shops in nasty, summarily dismissive fashion."

Since nobody's experience is universal, I'll try to address some of Tom Spurgeon's astonishment by describing my early experiences with comic book shops. It seems that his comic shop was his equivalent of my neighborhood library, or the world as seen from a banana-seat one-spead bicycle, I suppose -- the vantage point from which I learned to observe, as the writers of the books I read observed their worlds. It's strange to me that a comic shop could produce that feeling of discovery because I don't love comic shops. At least not those that I went into when I first started reading comics. It wasn't until I went to Atlantis Fantasy World in Santa Cruz that I realized that a comic book shop could be something different from Comic Zone or Comics Depot, the two places in my home town where I got my comics.

Comic Zone was where my male friends had been getting their comic books since the dawn of time, apparently. It was a tiny, dark shop near the railroad tracks. Posters hung over the windows to prevent curious passersby from seeing in and to protect the precious merchandise from sunlight. The place was cramped with shelving and had McFarlane toys hung all over. To find a comic I might like, I had to squeeze past shelves of "Swimsuit Issue" covers (this was the early nineties -- I was lucky if the cover featuring the barely-clad Lady Death wasn't embossed so that fanboys could feel her up with their thumbs). The proprietor was a small, creepy (in that creepy way you can't define and could be a complete mischaracterization except every instinct you have says it's so) sort of fellow. Once, I found that I didn't have enough cash on me for the Black Orchid trade paperback and asked if he would hold onto it for a few minutes while I got some money. He gave me a suspicious look and a disgruntled affirmative, warning me not to take too long. I knew for a fact that my male friends often asked him to hold merchandise for days, until they got enough money to pay for it. Comic Zone closed a few years ago. I hadn't been there for years before.

Comics Depot was a typical comic shop -- magazine racks for new issues, long boxes of back issues. They carried a few indie comics and the owner was very obliging about special ordering. Unfortunately, he often was dressed in overalls with no shirt and smelled of whiskey and cigarettes. He employed men who had a habit of looking at me in a way I didn't like but couldn't quite pin down, one of whom once even called another man from the back room of the store so he could look at me, too. Comics Depot is closed now, too -- they shut up business about a year after I started working at SLG.

Except for the occasional visit to Treasure Island (a bright, clean, well-run comic shop with friendly staff in my town that is, unfortunately, mostly stocked with DC and Marvel books), I don't go to comic shops anymore. I've walked into a few and known that I would never go back. (Dark, dusty, full of sweaty adolescent boys playing card games, take your pick.) The best comic stores around here, like Atlantis Fantasy World, Comic Relief and Isotope are too far from me for regular visits. Because I keep apprised of what's going on in the industry, get Previews in the office and for the most part don't read floppies, I don't need a comic shop. I order graphic novels from Amazon.com or buy them at conventions. Sometimes I'll get them at Borders or Barnes and Noble. As a consumer, I don't support the direct market, not from any philosophical predisposition, but just as a matter of convenience and preference.

I know that not all comic book shops are like those I first encountered, and I've been lucky to learn about comics shops that are wonderful places. But I can see how someone who has only had experiences like mine would soon go sour on comic shops, and perhaps comics themselves.

Another quote from Spurgeon's article:
[Comic shops'] basic business arrangement's consequence in allowing low-capital entry into the market via non-returnability has been a boon to the serviced art form equaled by no other medium in the last 30 years, and that can continue.

I'm not exactly sure how non-returnability has been a boon for anyone. Sure, it means low risk for publishers -- comic stores cannot return unsold stock to distributors, unlike bookstores, which can. However, this makes trying new merchandise risky for comic book shops and encourages the pattern of shops carrying the comics that already appeal to existing customers, rather than taking a chance on comics that they can recommend to their existing customers or comics that might attract new customers. In the long run, this is bad for independent publishers, who have to do the hard work of convincing comic shops to order their non-returnable comics that they are not sure they can sell rather than stocking only comics they know they can sell.

I don't know if returnability in the direct market is a solution, however. In the current system, if we do get comics shops to order our comics, there is no guarantee that they will get their customers to buy them. In my experience (very limited, admittedly), a lot of comic stores seem to operate on a system in which they put comics on the shelf and if someone buys them, someone buys them. I think that most shops could probably learn from better-run shops that are creative in their displays and have knowledgeable, personable employees who do more than take money and make sure no one steals anything -- Spurgeon addresses this as well, in the second part of his editorial.

Another excerpt:
"But it is a market, a valuable one, one that allows and should continue to allow nearly every publisher to have a deeper catalog, a market that allows hundreds and hundreds of creators a better living than would be available to them were they not there, and a business model that keeps work before an audience in a sustained, perennial fashion that many art forms can only dream about.

My god, I had no idea that comic shops were veritable artistic Utopias. And cynicism wants me to say that if there were no direct market, perhaps there would be no more comics, and perhaps people who are comic artists and publishers now might have directed their creative talents and energies into something that actually made them money.

That aside, I really am not at all confident that all of this is true. Had comics become integrated into regular bookstores long ago, I don't know that it would matter if the direct market weren't here. I can go into a bookstore and buy a book that was first published 200 years ago or more. That's "sustained and perennial" for you. As I said, I haven't been in a comic book shop very recently, so I have to ask: Is it easy to find back issues in comic shops you go to? Is there diversity in the titles they carry?

So the apologia portion I have some problems with. But Spurgeon's suggestions on how to improve comics shops are excellent. Here they are in digested form. Read the article at The Comics Reporter to get the full story.

1. Comic book stores should have employees who are knowledgeable about the industry and willing to help with special requests.

2. Diamond Comics (the "not a monopoly" distributor of comics to comic book stores) should do a better job of promoting a fair marketplace for small publishers.

3. Publishers should work to have more regular publishing schedules. (Oh, don't I know it. In good news, it seems the schedule craziness at Diamond has been resolved. Books that should have been in stores the first week of August are only now making it to them.)


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 13th, 2007 12:58 am (UTC)
this time without an absurd boldness throughout.
I love the idea of the comic shop. Comic books, graphic novels, &c...these are my favorite forms of fictional story telling.
I imagine a venue with comics lining the walls. Awesome posters line empty spaces, statuettes and related media (board games, action figures and other displays) sitting upon shelves. Oh, it's wondrous! The other people in their--well they love comic books just as much as I do! And the nice, somewhat nerdy fellow who runs the place is very helpful. He aids me in finding a new series to read, or introduces me to great works I may not have read yet. He greets new customers with a sincere smile as they enter and offers to either point them in the direction of what they're looking for or help them find something. A few times a month there are readings, or other events where persons with similar interests can get together and network. And this shop isn't just for the 17+ crowd. There's a section stocked with comics aimed at people of all ages.
I love this comic book shop, but I've never been in it.

Being a certified geek, having read thousands of comic books at this point, I shouldn't to any extent be intimidated of a comic book shop, but I am. I get knots in my stomach walking in to a new shop because most shops are intimidating.
They're designed poorly, so it's often difficult to find what you're looking for. Most patrons are quiet and stoic, attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible lest they reveal their identity. God forbid they have to admit to the world they like comic books. But worst of all, the one factor that could overturn the impact of anything else, is the comic shop employee.
Most comic shop employees I've encountered love the medium, and they have a lot to say about it, but they're just not right for a customer service position. And maybe the owners of these shops don't realize that the face of a comic book shop must be personable and engaging.
Mind you I'm speaking from my own experiences from growing up in Miami and my year here in San Jose. These comic book shops, it's not that they're bad</i>, it's just that they're not great. It's difficult to attract new readers when the shop culture almost requires a rite of entry. I blame the comic shop owner. Again, they're not bad people, they simply may not realize that the atmosphere they bolster causes stagnation rather than good, long-lasting growth.
My rant may be completely off base with the way others feel, but this is my huge pet peeve. In "real" life (that is, the non-internet world marked by physical interaction with other human beings) I have NO friends who share my interest in comic books. This is harrowing because I spend so much time enjoying the hobby and have no one to share it with. I blame the comic book shop. There are thousands of people out there like me who have a deep love for the medium. I want to share it with others, revel in it with friends who also appreciate it. But I have none of this.
Perhaps I'm too idealistic, but is it wrong to think that the comic book shop is the right place to meet other comic book fans? Unlike large, cookie cutter chains such as Virgin Records and Barnes and Nobles, small specialty shops survive these days, in the face of monstrous competition, by offering that very thing. A specialty environment, which more personalized service.
I think this lacking in many shops is causing stagnation in the quality of comics that line the best sellers lists. Maybe I'm off base with this next one, but I'd think that shops where owners and employees are more involved in the experience their customers have probably sell more independent comic books, and sell more in the non-superhero genres. (Although I imagine this will not apply to shops that have that personalization, but are run by die hard big two fans)
I do like superhero comic books, and I do read some Marvel and DC, but I take very little they publish seriously, and hence buy very little they publish. But I feel as though many fans just don't know any better. They've been so conditioned into this pattern of DC and Marvel that they don't even know that there are better comics to be found elsewhere.
Anyway, this was just a big long rant. I apologize if any of this was nonsensical, but like I said I'm a sad, lonely, little comic fan-boy.
Sep. 13th, 2007 01:05 am (UTC)
My experiences with comic book shops have all been very similar to yours, and now I almost ignore them completely. Amazon's evil, deep dish discounts call to me. And I don't buy single issues either.

But there's something in me that wishes that I had a regular comic book store to visit, mostly because I'd like to be a part of a comic book community, and it seems if you want that, a good comics store is where to find it. Unfortunately, extreme shyness prevents me from taking that first step...
Sep. 13th, 2007 02:09 am (UTC)
Ah.. that brought back my own memories.. as a girl growing up on an island with one comic shop (we were lucky!) and that shop being a poorly lit and poorly organized mess, I frequented it just for comics. I went in, I grabbed, paid and ran. The owner was a sports collectible guy, only sold comics cause it made him money. I knew where more of his stock was than he did sadly, but they did carry alot of Image comics, my favorite publisher at the time and amongst picking up my oh so girly Sailor Moon manga, I would also pick up titles like Echo, Fathom, and whatever else caught my eye whilst trying to avoid the disgruntled and creepy owner. That shop must have broken at least 12 different fire codes, what with longboxes spilling out onto the floor in huge piles, dim lighting that made it near impossible to see and general chaos.

And yet once I moved away, I found a lovely comic shop called Tate's. Packed with so much stuff, it would take an eternity to find what you were looking for, yet it was a brightly lit wonderland. And then it moved to a much larger building, no more cramped spaces, now it looked like the 1939 World's Fair only with comics! and Toys! and so much other random detritus that was just so neat you had to have it!

Strangely, I still have a love for the hole in the wall dimly lit shop just as much as the huge and brightly lit ones, even though I did have bad experiences. The good outweighs the bad I suppose. Perhaps it was being raised at sci-fi conventions where even a regular attendee feels slightly out of place?
Sep. 13th, 2007 05:12 am (UTC)
My local comic book store allows women to carry in large purses but does not allow backpacks of the same size used for the same general purpose. The staff is quite rude about this and makes it clear that they're doing it to prevent shrinkage.

The problem in this is that I am disabled and carry a backpack with quite a bit of very expensive prescription medication in it. Additionally, the backpack generally has a laptop computer in it which contains confidential information of various descriptions. I run a web site and I am a writer ...

They will not allow me to enter the store unless I leave my backpack sitting unguarded. Uh, no. It's a mall store and anyone could grab said pack and run. And yes, I acknowledge there are various ways I could get around this policy, but I should not HAVE to go out of my way just to shop in a store that generally has two clerks to every customer. Particularly since I routinely spend in excess of a hundred dollars each and every time I shop.

Plus, even if I were to leave backpack home and stuff my meds into a purse rather than a backpack of the same size, or carry everything in my hands they don't even allow you to *browse.* I don't know how many times I've been trying to look at a book and had a "helpful" staff member snatch it out of my hands and announce in a cheerful tone that that they'll hold it at the front for me. (Translation: We want to make sure you don't steal this.) Or if I protest and then I spend too long looking at something they'll tell me I need to buy the merchandise if I want to read it, that they're not a library.

In the end, it's much easier and more convenient to order my comics online. Or, for manga, I go to Barnes and Nobles or Borders, both of which tend to be cheaper and have wireless connections for the laptop. And they don't mind me browsing -- heck, I can even buy a coffee, sit down at a table, and peruse a stack of possible purchases for hours if I want. Rather than being treated like a potential thief I'm treated like a valued customer.

And then, I'm sure, the small comic book store complains about the big chains stealing their business. In reality, they're so worried about their merchandise being stolen that they're driving their business away.

(I wish Barnes and Nobles sold more graphic novels and carried floppies ...)

-- Leva
Sep. 13th, 2007 06:18 am (UTC)
The only real 'comic book shop' I went to while I was in the US (I think in El Paso) sums up everything about comic book shop stereotype I've read, dark, dingy, dusty, with only superheroes titles, and scary-looking guys playing table top games. I couldn't find anything I like, they really didn't have anything besides marvel/dc, a few image/darkhorse, not even IDW stuff to be found, I had a feeling that they might kick me if I dare to ask about manga. :P

on the other hand, I had more positive experience browsing through graphic novel section in barnes & noble and borders, even half-priced book store is better, I'm not surprised why there's people who think that it's probably better to just let these comic shops die, when they refuse to adapt.

Sep. 13th, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
I am so lucky to have a great comic shop about 20 minutes from my house - Oxford Comics in Atlanta. They carry manga, Big Two, and indies in about equal numbers. they only keep a few longboxes around for the older stuff, the newer stuff is on bookshelves, the floppies on magazine type shelves. A large part of the store is a mix of anime (sales and rentals), all kinds of comic and anime collectibles, gaming, and a smattering of related items. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and evenly split male/female. It's bright. It even has windows. It's not the exclusive den of stereotypical Comic Book Guys.

And it's the only one like it I've seen. I always look for shops when we travel and 99% of the time it's a tiny hole in the wall, sweaty smelling, and the only reason they even sell comics is because they and their friends collect the Big Two and manage to sell enough to pay the rent so they have a place for their gaming tables. I know shops like Oxford are out there and I've seen some that are good enough I'd return if we went to that town again. But so, so few.

I have no problem with those stores existing. I hate that someone going to one of those shops as their first visit and being totally turned off to comics will happen. I have no illusions that will ever change.

But if a retailer actually cares about the comic business as a whole, it seems they would want a more balanced store. Yet there are still so few. I know a lot of the shops around here that focused on the Big 2 collectors and had huge back catalogs have closed their brick-and-mortar stores and only do online and convention sales. (Oxford, BTW, doesn't even have a website. Yeah, he just said that!)

And that's where the smaller and self-publishers should be - the internet and conventions. There just aren't that many stores that are interested past the four top publishers, and maybe some of the art comic and boutique publishers. If you believe in your book you don't just want it in a store so you can see it on the shelf - you want to sell it and have people read it. That's where online serialization and POD are coming into play. Also, I'm finding more small local publishers are interested in printing comics now. You can get much smaller print runs that way. And that's much cheaper than POD, but you pay for it with time and effort. take your pick.

I think people should get over this seeing the DM as a Utopia for all creators and treat it like the business it is. There are alternatives to the Diamond-DM pipeline and hopefully more creators will realize that. You can argue that shutting out smaller creators/publishers isn't fair, but Darwinism doesn't care about fair. It cares about survival. This is business Darwinism. It's not the end of the DM, but, hopefully, the beginning of a more realistic comics marketplace and the DM is just one piece. It will still be considered the Holy Grail, but it won't be the only cup you can use to drink.

Sep. 13th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)
Anyone who thinks that the average comics shop is just hunky dory fine as is must never have been in another store that sells anything of any variety EVER. The "murder mart" convenience store around the corner from me that sells incense, 40oz beers and condoms is a far more welcoming environment to the average consumer than most comics shops I've ever been in. I wish all comics shops were like the (alas, closed) MacGuffin:

Sep. 16th, 2007 04:58 am (UTC)
My main issue would be a lack of variety. In most every comic book shop I've been to(besides Tate's), there's an overabundance of Marvel/DC stuff. I mostly like comics for comics sake and want to read a bunch of things from a bunch of styles. Sadly, that's not always available.

I guess another issue would be the whole collectability nonsense and the floppy format. It prevents you from having a broad range of things. And the floppy format makes it hard for people to window shop or look for something specific unless they enjoy scouring through rows and rows of Independent A-Z and other stuff. It also makes it hard to archive and reprint older comics, which would allow you to have more comics for all ages, and make access to a broad range of comics something not just for the super collector.

If they fixed that, and some common sense stuff(cleanliness, customer service, etc.), I'd be sold and just maybe comics would catch on more in America. I know I'd like to have a store(maybe it would have a different focus, or coffee/tea or something), that would have a wide range of comics from all sorts of sources available for sale, just because. Not just Marvel/DC, but focusing more on different backgrounds and styles.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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