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A Letter To You, Newbie

My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.

So we just recently lost a longtime employee at our shop, one on whom I depended a great deal to keep things running smoothly while I was busy with my own Sisyphean task of managing my own store responsibilities. Well, I didn't lose him, I know where he is, as the old joke goes, but he's moving on to greener pastures and more power to him.

While I'm happy for him, at the same time I'm in a bit of a bind. We've hired a new fellow to replace the person who just left, and just replaced another employee a month ago, so I now have two relative greenhorns to shepherd through the wonderful world of funnybook retailing. And training these fellows will, of course, take away from the time I need to spend on my own work. Which is fine: we all need to start somewhere, and in short order I imagine our two new recruits will be whipped into shape.

However, it's been a while since I've had to directly train new employees, since our employment turnover is relatively small for this type of business, so I need to sit down and think about the sort of things our newbies need to know about working at a comic book store. Sure, some things are pretty basic - working the register, sweeping and vacuuming once in a while, not letting people walk out of the store with merchandise stuffed into their pants - but there are a few items specific to working at a comic shop that need to be addressed.

In fact, if I were to write these new employees a letter, it may go something like this:

"Dear fresh meat...."

...Well, okay, I wouldn't really start it like that.

"Dear new employees of our fine comics emporium,

"I'm glad you've come to work with us here at our store. Working in a comic shop, while not the (ahem) most financially rewarding job in the world, can be a lot of fun. It usually is a lot of fun. However, to keep it fun, there are certain chores and responsibilities to attend to, certain attitudes and behaviors you need to keep in mind.

"Initially, if you have any interest in comic books at all, the temptation is to spend all your free time on the job poking through the back issue bins, especially those kept up behind the counter out of the customer's reach. Now that you have full access to the store, you can easily eat up hours poking through the old comics, either looking for goodies to buy for yourself or just window shopping. Hey, that's okay, it happens to most everyone -- ask me about how it seemed like I was practically being paid in old Cerebus issues when I started -- and pouring over the old comics is a good way to learn what we have in stock and where we're putting it. Just don't overdo the 'shopping for yourself' thing...again, ask me about that Cerebus deal.

"On the topic of shopping for yourself, now that you're working for us and you're closer to the funnybook source, as it were, the temptation is to set aside far more comics, books, toys, what have you, than you can comfortably afford. It's the old 'kid in a candy store' problem...your eyes are bigger than your wallet, and the next thing you know, you have a mountain of merchandise earmarked for yourself and no way to easily pay for it. See also: 'owing your soul to the company store.' Again, we all do it...even as I write this, I have about four pricey hardcovers waiting for me back at the shop...but it's just something to watch out for.

"Be aware that customers are going to ask a lot of questions that will center on some obscure bit of trivia, or require an encyclopedic knowledge of a certain title. I don't expect you to know the answer to them all. It may seem like I know the answers to questions like these, but that's because I've been reading comics longer than you've been alive, and I've read far too many of them to really be considered healthy. But if you get stuck with one of these inquiries, and I'm not around to help, turn to the resources in the store. We have several price guides and reference books that you can use to look up artist and character appearances, title durations, and so on. Plus, we do have an internet connection...if worse comes to worse, Google it up.

I once was able to find an online checklist of Taskmaster appearances for a customer, who ended up using the printout I gave him as a back-issue shopping list for weeks afterwards.

"Speaking of customers, right now they all appear the same to you. But, eventually, you'll begin to discern the differences between them. Some customers know what they're looking for and take care of themselves, some customers are a little more high-maintenance. Some customers buy pretty much every comic you show them, other 'customers' come in once a week, every week, like clockwork, and never spend a penny. You'll begin to learn which ones need more attention, and which ones seem to get along fine on their own. You'll also start to recognize certain 'looks' of particular types of customers, such as the 'I'm completely lost and need help finding a comic I'm buying for somebody else' look, or the 'I'm looking for really cool pictures for tattoo ideas' look. They're hard to put into words, but trust me, you'll come to know those looks when you see 'em.

"Again, regarding customers...now I know you have your opinions on certain comics. Perhaps you think that Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea Man is the single worst superhero comic you've ever read. Sweet jumpin' Judas, it's a terrible comic. You'd prefer uncontrollable bleeding from every opening on your body to having to inflict this funnybook on yourself. And, perhaps, 99% of the comics-reading populace agrees with you. But the second you say, out loud, in the store, 'Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea Man is a crummy comic,' you'll discover that the World's Biggest Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea Man fan just happened to be in the store at the time, and the three copies he was planning to buy for himself (one to read, one to preserve in Mylar, and a third for...well, you're probably better off not knowing) are suddenly back on the shelf, as that fan is now either too embarrassed or to angry with you to want to buy the comics from us.

"Don't get me wrong...if a customer asks you for your opinion about a book, feel free to give it to him. But do so on a one-to-one basis...shouting across the store 'that comic sucks' will either keep other customers in the store at the time from buying that comic, or leave them with negative feelings about us if they still decide to buy it. Even when talking one-on-one with a customer about books, I wouldn't emphasize the idea that you may think a particular book is terrible. Try to describe what the book is about, without passing a negative judgment on it. It may not be your cup of tea, but the book in question may turn out to be just what the customer is looking for. To use a real world example: I'm not a fan of zombie comics. As such, I'm not a fan of Walking Dead, a currently popular zombie comic book. Nothing against it, I'm just not interested. But people interested in horror comics generally react very well to it, so I try to recommend it to customers looking for scary comics.

"As time goes on, you'll learn specific customers' tastes, and you'll feel more comfortable about recommending certain books to them, while steering them away from books you're fairly certain they won't care for. Give them enough good recommendations, they'll learn to trust your judgment, and in some cases will eventually buy books simply on your suggestions. I know how that sounds...that's a situation that seems ripe for abuse, but it really isn't. so long as you keep sending them in the direction of material you think they'd enjoy. You're not going to be 100% in your suggestions, but so long as you're honest and sincere with the customer, he or she will usually forgive the occasional clinker.

"Oh, and that one guy who calls every single week and goes through a short list of titles, asking if the new issue for each one has come out yet? Even if the most recent issue just came out last week? You'll get used to it.

"If you're not helping or serving customers, there are plenty of other chores to do around the shop. You can check the back issue bins for missing issues. You can straighten up the book, toy, and comic shelves. The t-shirt racks need maintenance on a fairly regular basis. You can check and see if there are any trade paperbacks that need to be reordered. Maybe you can come up with a way to improve how we're displaying some of our product. At the very least, things always need some cleaning...dust what you can't Windex, and sweep everything else. What I'm trying to say is, unless you're on break, don't just sit there like a bump on a pickle. It doesn't look good to the customer if you're just standing there behind the counter, staring off into the middle distance, a strand of spittle dangling from your lower lip. We're a busy store...there is always something that needs to be done.

"The most important thing to remember that this is a real job. People might give you grief about working in a comic shop, but you know what? Any job where you deal with the public is a real job, and there's no shame working a retail job at an independently-owned small business. Hold your head high, friend! You're not just selling funnybooks...you're contributing to the well-being of our country's economy!

"The other important thing to remember...if I occasionally seem impatient with you, because you don't automatically know everything there is to know about the store and all of our customers, it's my fault, not yours. I got used to how smoothly (well, relatively smoothly) everything ran with the previous employees, who had everything down pat, and I'm not used to dealing with newbies again. So don't worry, after a few weeks, you'll have the hang of it.

"And for God's sake, don't quit anytime soon. I don't want to have to do this again for a while!

"Your kind and loving superior,


If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com. I loves me the e-mail, so send me some already!

-- Mike Sterling

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The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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