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Thursday, February 19, 2004

 



Jim Crocker -- I first made the acquaintance of Jim Crocker on The Comic Book Industry Alliance's Delphi Forum, a discussion group for retailers, creators and other industry figures. I found his posts there to be insightful and intelligent, and was very interested in watching his experience as he guided what was then a new business, Modern Myths, a diverse and incredibly well-stocked comics shop in Northampton, Massachusetts. I've visited Jim's store a few times and gotten to know him in person and by e-mail, and have developed a great respect for his approach to comics retailing and life in general. I've visited only a handful of truly progressive comics stores that try to serve a full range of customers with as wide a range of comics as possible, and Modern Myths, as far as I can see, points the way to the future of comics retailing. After you've read Jim's answers to the Five Questions, see if you don't agree.

What drives you to be a comics retailer, and what would you say is the primary mission or vision that informs the way you manage your shop?

Like many careers, it’s something I ended up doing sort of by accident. In college, I was convinced I was going to take my theater degree on to New York and direct plays. A job on a small used bookstore that sold comics sidetracked that and I eventually figured out I really enjoyed the job more than the plays I was doing in the evening, and, possibly more significantly, was better at it.

The major motivating force behind my doing this every day boils down to the best effort to reward ratio of any job I’ve tried, including theater work. I work as hard at this job as anyone else does at whatever else they do, but retailing, or at least good retailing, means that a complete stranger walks into your place and leaves happier than when they walked in. It happens dozens or maybe even hundreds of times a day, and every time, it’s a reward for doing what I do, parceled out throughout the day. Whatever other petty hassles or daily grind I have to push through to get my work done is paid off by that particular dividend.

It’s also nice to see my cube-drone buddies sigh with wistful envy when they ask what I do for a living.

First and foremost, I want to run a store that looks and feels like a well-run independent bookstore you’d find in any relatively progressive college town or small city. We can write and speechify and blog until we’re blue in the face that comics are Ready for Prime Time, but if we don’t have places that women, kids, and new readers can feel comfortable and welcome, we’re not going to make much headway.

I spent several years working for the Borders mass-market bookstores, and after that it became pretty clear to me how a specialty store could succeed in their shadow by taking page from their own book, which was to look at what worked in independent bookstores and then replicate it on a mass scale using their size as an advantage. So we looked at mass-market bookstores and replicated what we could while using our size as an advantage. We offer everything they can that we’re able to: liberal return policies; no-obligation special orders; convenient operating hours; parking; clean public restrooms; racking by genre including a dedicated section for young readers; gift certificates; credit card acceptance; computerized inventory; and offset what we can’t with the advantages traditionally touted as the ways for comics shops to compete: a wide selection that includes used and O/P titles and a knowledgeable staff. Hopefully, the balance will appeal to both longtime fans and new readers, which is what we’re shooting for.

More generally, we’re an independent bookstore that happens to specialize in sequential storytelling, so we look to other successful independent bookstores for ideas about advertising, community outreach, and how to deal with competition from the chains, as well as cherry picking the best ideas from the Direct Market. It’s a genuinely mixed blessing when people walk in and remark that “I didn’t realize this was a comic shop… it looks like a regular bookstore.”

What is the biggest challenge facing you as a retailer?

In a nutshell, and not to be obtuse, it’s whatever I didn’t expect to be a challenge, because that means I won’t be prepared for it. The deck is stacked heavily in favor of large chain businesses in our economy, and every indication is that this situation is getting worse as opposed to better. There’s a reason that small businesses have such a high modern failure rate, and it’s that even the well-funded ones don’t have the capital to make too many mistakes or endure more than one or two unexpected sales-impacting events. Add on necessary but uncontrollable costs, particularly health care and weather-related stuff (our snow removal will cost a small fortune this year, for example), and that’s a lot of pressure that doesn’t have anything to do with actually selling comics.

The challenges inherent in the DM I deal with daily and they don’t frighten me because I can plan for them and have great resources (like the CBIA, Comics & Games Retailer Magazine, and private industry e-mail lists) to consult for help and bounce ideas off of. It’s the issues outside the purview of those discussions that cause the most trouble.

Or, with apologies, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

What do you believe the best method is to develop a growing customer base?

There are a number of ways to do this, and other retailers recommend many of them to me. I’m not nearly as good at guerilla marketing as I probably ought to be. We advertise less than we should.

Ultimately, my belief is that if I run the best store I can that word of mouth will go a long way to helping drive new customers to the store, because once they’re in the door, we’ll secure their business if they’re even remotely interested in what we’re selling, and that the viral nature of people with common interests will help without too much active intervention from us. When we ask how people heard about us, we get a majority answer of “a friend told me about you/I heard about you online/etc” over all the other responses. (My very favorite response is actually “I saw you when I drove by”, because it means someone stopped just because they saw “Comic Books” on the sign, without knowing anything else about us specifically, and they’re often the most pleasantly surprised.)

I am one of the people who believes that while we certainly need to expand the scope of our ambition beyond just our traditional fan base, chasing a mass audience like the kind enjoyed by, say, sports, or mainstream movies is not an efficient use of our time. We need to target the folks most likely to spend money in our store, as opposed to throwing ads at the wall to see what sticks.

That said, it’s my belief that the best effort that can be spent in ‘market development’ is in getting out of the store and into the Community to make your presence known in places where you’re likely to have an impact. One of the reasons we decided early on that we would have a staff is so that we could do just that. By attending conventions, especially ‘non-comics’ conventions like local SF and media Cons, we can actively go to potential customers rather than waiting for them to find us. Active participation in the local college events and various fandom groups means a potential pool of new customers every single semester, already predisposed to explore new stuff.

Separately, but related to this, is the fact that we sell graphic novels online. It’s a pretty simple site but it lists everything we carry new, and every sale we get through it helps support the larger mission of the store. Right now, it’s a very small portion of our sales, but it just about pays for all of our internet-related expenses, and is growing slowly. Internet outreach like our modest little proto-blog on LiveJournal and updates to our own website are particularly cool because they help keep in contact with both sets of customers at once and serve to reinforce the mission I mentioned above, but in a different context.

Tell me about the last great graphic novel you read.

The great GN I read most recently was Pedro & Me, which I reread in its entirety as a result of a contentious discussion regarding content advisories and warning labels on comics that’s going on in another forum. It holds up as one of the more human, affecting, and uncharacteristically emotionally vulnerable comics I can think of. Anyone who thinks that gays are somehow different than the rest of us should be tied to a chair and forced to read this book until they get it.

I read so much stuff that’s so different it’s really hard to nail down a single choice. Off the top of my head, I’ll say: LoEG 2 for collected GNs of genre stuff that’s appeared in periodical first, Planetes for manga, and Real Stuff for Literary/OGN.

I also just had a chance to really thoroughly read Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, the retrospective by Chip Kidd, and I have to say it was like an epiphany… I haven’t gone back and read Peanuts in over 15 years, and rereading them now in the artfully designed context this book places them in left me nearly speechless with how genuinely seminal that work was. I was certainly looking forward to Fantagraphics’ forthcoming Complete Peanuts, but now I’m actually hungry for it, which is a good thing, because I think it’s a project that has a real possibility of generating some renewed popular interest in the classic comic strips more generally.

You live and work in a community (Northampton) that welcomes and embraces diversity, and in a state (Massachusetts) that is about to grant equal marriage rights to all, gays and lesbians included. I'm wondering how you feel about this and what impact you think it will have on your store and your community.

The specific issue of Massachusetts affirming equal rights for all citizens will have a pretty significant impact on my store in particular. Northampton has the highest concentration of lesbian citizens outside of San Francisco. This and the presence of the "Five Colleges" in the area make for a pretty progressive viewpoint regarding literature and the arts, and offers our store a unique opportunity to get comics into the hands of readers who are ready for them but would probably never have cause to enter a "traditional" comics shop.

We currently have one employee who is a lesbian in a long-term relationship who plan to get officially married when the state has worked out all the details, and two of the major stakeholders in the store are also a lesbian couple (who just celebrated their tenth anniversary!) living in Vermont under the auspices of the Civil Unions there who also plan to wed in Massachusetts when the option becomes available in May of this year.

Modern Myths specifically includes sexual orientation and gender status as protected classes (along with race, religion, physical handicap, national origin, etc.) in our diversity policy for hiring as well as companies we do business with, and has a standing company policy of offering benefits to domestic partners. Obviously, we're personally interested in the advancement of equal rights for gays and lesbians, but from our perspective it also makes very good business sense. We don't wear our political affiliation on our sleeves, and we do our best to leave discussions of contentious subjects like politics, religion, or the Red Sox at the door when we enter the store, but the obvious presence of a lesbian working in the store and a good selection of GLBT-friendly comics make it reasonably clear what our position is, and the community notices.

I think it's not unreasonable to expect that this situation will also mean a further influx not only of GLBT people seeking to gather in a region that respects their rights, but will also help to further build the larger progrssive community that will grow up as a consequence of the influx, as the friends, family, and support networks of those folks move to Massachusetts along with them in some cases. That we're set up to welcome them is not a coincidence, and a strategy that is not only in keeping with the spirit of the community of which we're a part, but also a sound business decision likely to help us secure new readers in a generally affluent, literate, and progressive customer demographic willing to spend significant entertainement dollars with businesses who welcome them and offer them something that speaks to their issues.

Stop by the Modern Myths website, and thanks to Jim for taking the time to wrangle the Five Questions.

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