Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Pointing to the Future -- So, what comic book stores reflect the best future for the direct market?
To determine which shops are good, first we must determine what kind of shops are out there. What is the definition of "comic book store?" Diamond claims there are thousands of "comic book stores" in North America, but I would guess they really mean they have thousands of accounts, many of which may be much like the "hobby shop" near my house, which makes its bread and butter on radio controlled cars, accessories, snacks and soda, but has a small selection of comics delivered from Diamond weekly. They have a couple dozen subscribers, they carry comics, but in my view this is not a "comic book store." It is run more as a hobby than a business, and that is one of the key problems in the direct market as it exists today.
Too many shops are run by former fans who never bothered to learn how to be professional businessmen. As opposed to the hobby shop above, these are actual comic book stores, but they have profound problems (that the people running the store are either not aware of or don't see as problems). Maybe you've been in one of these stores -- perhaps the owner/cashier was eating lunch at the cash register, maybe annoyed that you had a question for him. Perhaps the back issues have no prices on them, or the prices are subject to change because they've gone up in value since the last time anyone bothered to price them. Perhaps you can feel the dust caking on your fingers as you browse the back issues -- or even the new stock (!). And let's not even get into the hours the store is open -- they may be posted, but how often does someone have the door open and the store ready to welcome customers before or at the posted opening time? If it's not 99 percent (allowing for family emergencies and genuine traffic tie-ups), then it's not a professional business; it's a hobby.
These are the very worst kind of "comic book stores," providing a negative impression for customers, potential customers, and the people they may bring along with them, such as their friends or family members, any or all of which, under the right retail circumstances, may be driven to spend their money in the shop as well. But it's extremely easy to lose interest in a dirty, dark pit that your comics-reading friend/boyfriend/husband/co-worker may have dragged you in to. It is almost needless to say that virtually all of the shops that fall under this criteria focus almost solely on corporate superhero comic books, and if there are other interests in evidence, they will be similarly off-putting. For example:
I've been in shops that had bad VHS tapes of professional wrestling playing on a small TV on the counter all the time. Superheroes and professional wrestling, we get it -- whatever your entertainment, it must involve men in tight clothing locked in dramatic conflict. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," to coin a phrase, but when a young mother comes in looking for Persepolis because she heard a wonderful interview with Marjane Satrape on NPR and looked up "graphic novels" in the phone book, don't be surprised when she sees this environment and rightly assumes she probably won't find what she's looking for. I'll go so far as to say that if she asked nicely and the owner was in a good mood, he might order it from Diamond for her, but she'll never get to that step in the process -- the amateurish retail hell she has entered into is something she wants to exit, and try to forget. She may find what she's looking for at Borders, she thinks -- how often has anyone turned and walked out of that or any mainstream bookstore because of the environment they were confronted with upon initial entry?
And while I'm at it, have you ever been able to guess the main interest of the owner or manager of a mainstream bookstore simply by how the books are racked, or by what videos are in stock? Now ask that question about the comic book stores you've been in. If any specific genre dominates, with everything else abandoned to the manga or artcomix ghetto in a dark, inconvenient corner of the store, again, this is not the comic shop of the future.
There are stores that are slightly or significantly better than this, but which are still flawed. The owner or manager may have a more expansive view of comics as an artform, and may even be open to stocking comics from other countries. Certainly he should be, since those comics are building new audiences across all ages, genders and interests, and presumably they want to not only stay in business, but experience growth from year to year. But the limiting factor I see in a store like this is the continuing emphasis on corporate superhero comics, from the window displays to the huge waterfall racks to the posters, action figures and other items on sale.
Certainly superhero comics have a place in even a good comic book store, but if they are obviously favoured over every other genre of storytelling within the comics artform, then the store is limiting its potential income and very likely turning people off, if they even walk through the door. I've actually seen a comic shop that carried a decent starter stock of manga, but there was no mention of manga whatsoever in the window display, yellow-pages ad, or anywhere else. If you browsed the shelves in the back for a while, though, you might stumble over them. I submit to you that you should not have to stumble over a comic book store's manga selection. Not that it should be emphasized any more than any other type of comics, but certainly it should be given equal prominence. Like in a real bookstore. All of this applies to artcomix/alternative comics/undergrounds, what-have-you, as well. It's fine -- preferable, perhaps -- to have different displays and areas for all the different flavours of the comics artform. But a new customer coming through the door should not be able to guess which one is the owner/manager's favourite, and certainly they should not be hit over the head by such poor management of the store's retail space.
So those are the shops I think we mostly have now -- non-comics hobby shops with a Diamond account for a few interested customers; shops fun by fans who are unwilling to create a welcoming, professional retail environment for a wide range of potential customers; well-meaning, more expansive shops that still have an over-emphasis on superheroes for one reason or another. Not as off-putting as the previous two types, but still cutting themselves out of the growing market for all kinds of comics aimed at all types of readers. The chances of these stores continuing to exist in another decade depends, in my opinion, largely on whether they can adapt to the emerging marketplace for comics. The ones that don't adapt may not go out of business --although I think a majority of them will -- but the ones that survive may find themselves doing merely that: Surviving. I think if I owned a retail business I would want to do better than that.
By now you may have a pretty good picture of what I think is the type of shop that will exist in the future, after the superhero convenience stores have mostly burned themselves out. I'll grant you there may always be stores that traffic primarily if not solely in superheroes, but for them to genuinely compete with full-service comic book stores in the same communities, they will have to either clean themselves up and learn better business practices, or they will go even further to seed, looking like nothing so much as that adult book store the town council keeps trying to kick out of town by changing the zoning laws every six months. Either way, those superhero-oriented stores will still be welcoming only one kind of customer, while that customer's family and friends gets its comic fix elsewhere.
The comic book stores that will thrive in the future will have a number of things in common.
- They will be clean.
- They will be well-lit.
- They will be well-organized.
- They will open on time.
- They will have prices clearly marked and up to date on all merchandise.
- They will operate their business in accordance with local, state and federal laws, including labour and employment laws.
- They will not favour one genre or sub-genre over another.
- They will recognize that all comics are comics, no matter what country they originate from, or what format they are published in.
- They will actively welcome all people interested in buying some kind of comics to shop at their store.
- They will recognize the transition from periodical pamphlet comics to more appealing and enduring graphic novels, and accommodate the readership's clear preference for comics with a spine and a complete story.
If the place you buy your comics at meets most or all of these criteria, be happy that you are supporting a professional comic shop that represents the best possible future for comics retailing.
If the place you buy your comics at fails to meet most (or all) of these criteria, you should probably start looking for a better shop. Not to punish your current shop, but because their days are very likely numbered. And more importantly, because you are probably missing out on a great many comics you would enjoy but have never seen. There's whole galaxy of worlds to be explored in the comics artform, and comic book stores that exist in the future will be your gateway to new experiences, new voices and new stories in comics. The great news is, some of them are out there right now, pushing comics forward every day.
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