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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

 

Retailer Interview: Jim Crocker of Modern Myths -- Jim Crocker is the owner/manager of Modern Myths, a comic and gaming shop in Northampton, Massachusetts that currently holds the title "The Best Comic Shop I Have Personally Visited In The United States." Many of my ideas of what makes a professional comic book store truly professional stem from my all-too-infrequent visits to Jim's store. I'm grateful to Jim for the time he took to answer my questions, and for his years of online and in-person friendship, and his willingness to help me understand the world of comics retailing.

Jim, I know we did this a few years ago, so thanks for allowing me to talk to you about retailing again. I'd imagine you've learned a lot in the years since we first discussed this subject. How has your philosophy of comics retailing changed in the past few years?

Jim Crocker: Well, it hasn't, all that much, really. The biggest changes are in terms of adjusting to the changing marketplace, most notably the increasing deluge of product. We've definitely gotten more picky in terms of new books we bring in, and in being okay with letting titles that haven't sold in more than a year simple go our of stock when they finally do move. Having to adjust our business model to deal with too many comics is a problem I don't mind having, though.

Tell me how you came to be a comic shop owner?

Like most of my peers, I started reading comics at a very young age. Unlike some of them, I stopped reading for a few years when I hit high school but eventually got back into them in college when I started working at a used book store in Connecticut. My career path led to the mass market retail book trade, eventually landing me in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the Borders Group corporate headquarters as a publisher liaison.

All along I maintained an interest in comics and gaming, if not necessarily an obsession. While living in Ann Arbor, my wife -- my fiancee at the time -- got a job at a local shop that I started regularly patronizing and chatting with the manager. When he decided to return to grad school, he asked if I'd be interested in managing the store...they agreed to match my Borders pay, so I went to do that, which eventually led me to my own shop after several years working for that company, including opening a satellite store.


How many other stores/outlets for comics are there in your immediate area? What is your relationship with them like?

Right now, there are two or three local stores that can reasonably be considered "competition." We all specialize in different areas and have a different feel, so as far as I can tell, there's no animosity and even little sense of real competition. I send folks to either on occasion if they're looking for stuff we don't have, and I know they will occasionally do the same. Some of the other shops in the area we will refer customers to include the local art supply store and the independent general-interest book shops here in town.

When we first opened, there was an "old school" comic shop of long-standing in the area that has since closed, along with another short-lived shop started by its former manager. It's our company policy not to speak ill of our competitors in any way, and I strongly believe we compete fairly and without malice, but it's impossible not to accumulate some resentment by your mere presence when someone's favorite shop closes down, whether you had anything to do with it or not. We try not to worry too much about it, and go about our business professionally as best we can.

What would you say distinguishes your store from others in the Northampton area?

I guess it's our emphasis on a "bookstore" model, that probably comes from my background in the book trade. Many customers have explicitly mentioned our section of used graphic novels and trades as a strong draw.

As you know, the issue of some publishers selling their wares at conventions before Diamond ships them to the direct market has been much-discussed among those of us that care about such things...have convention sales affected your business in any way?

Short answer is yes. New York Comic Con and MoCCA both mean that we have customers walking in apologizing for buying stuff there who would have made purchases at our store. For what it's worth, the effect is particularly pronounced in the games industry, which has a San Diego-style event every year in Indianapolis, and these same arguments have been going on for a decade or more. Without a clinically-controlled double-blind long-term experiment to verify results, we're only ever going to have anecdotal stories. My hunch after years of witnessing the back-and-forth is probably this: retailers do take a hit when product is released early at shows, but the effect is largely local, and not as bad to their bottom lines as they emotionally feel like it is. Early release at shows does help publishers with publicity, but it doesn't help nearly as much as they emotionally feel like it does.

If customers of yours buy something at a convention, but had previously pre-ordered it, what do you think is the best way to handle it?

Make a mental note and put the book out on the shelf for someone else to buy. If it happens very frequently, perhaps bring it up with the publisher. The product we sell is available pretty much everywhere, and while it does feel...disingenuous for publishers to sell product direct before we can get it, it's not a lot different than Barnes and Noble getting a new trade a couple days before us, or similar.

How much of a problem are convention sales for retailers overall?

I can't speak definitively for other retailers, only myself; but with that said, I suspect it varies very widely depending on their business model and proximity to the big cons. A friend of mine in Indianapolis says he basically doesn't sell any games in the two weeks on either side of that huge game convention. I imagine it can be a hassle to be in San Diego or right in New York City. Then again, we make a huge amount of money setting up at three or four local cons ourselves, both to sell merchandise and drive traffic to our store and web site. I understand that some folks don't want the hassle of what essentially amounts to setting up a second business model, but it is one way to make some lemonade with the local Cons that affect sales.

Do you think publishers need to change their convention policies? Is there any incentive retailers can offer in order to mediate a compromise?

A blanket policy of not offering to sell any book that is not also available to the retail channel to sell seems to be the most fair way to address the problem, but of course I have a bias. That said, even if I get the book the Wednesday before the show, many folks will probably wait to get it there anyway as they hold off on making purchases for budgetary reasons or want a copy for the author to sign. If nothing else, the books should be available the Wednesday following the show. A several-week gap is just not professional and makes retailers look like they're behind the curve, which is a disservice to the good stores that actually bother to stock the sorts of titles we're talking about here.

All that said, I really don't think there's anything that stores in general can offer as an incentive, other than a general sort of goodwill and commitment to consider projects from those publishers more carefully than they might others. In the bits of this discussion I've seen so far, I haven't really seen any publishers offer their own ideas or plans, and I think that's what's needed here.


What kinds of comics would you say your customers are looking for most often? How wide a variety are they looking for?

Well, all kinds, I guess. We sell more trades and collection, dollar-wise, than we do periodical comics, and that's always been the case since we opened, so there's that aspect. The weekly regulars are mostly looking for superhero stuff, while the "casual regulars" tend to be committed to particular ongoing series in trade, like Y, Hellboy, et cetera.

Non-superhero media ties-ins have been an increasingly potent force lately, as Buffy Season 8 has been our best-selling periodical comic since the first issue and continues that dominance through a dozen issues so far. We also see periodic short spike in interest based on coverage in places like the New York Times Book Review, and particularly NPR publicity, which is a reasonably potent cultural indicator here in New England.

What do you do to stay knowledgeable about the comics your customers are interested in? What publications do you read? Websites?

Publisher's Weekly and ICv2 fairly religiously, Newsarama and CBN occasionally, mainstream media wherever I notice comic-related topics or interviews -- Adrian Tomine was on Terry Gross a couple of weeks ago, for example. I also just try to strike up conversations in the store, and generally read through Previews pretty much cover-to-cover two or three times in a month to let it sink in and percolate. We also aggressively solicit publishers to send us previews, galleys, and other good advance publicity. I'm also involved in ComicsPRO, the comic retailer's trade organization, and that can be a good source of inside info sometimes.

How many employees do you have?

Myself, full time, plus one full-timer on salary and two part-timers.

Do you require your staff to stay knowledgeable about upcoming product? What tools are available to help them to answer customer questions?

Yes, within reason. Everyone is expected to read and familiarize themselves with the new issue of Previews each month and have a general working knowledge of the various sections and most important creators. We have always-on internet access at our register and encourage our staff to use Google and the distributor and publisher sites to get information. We also try very hard to maintain good, transparent records that everyone can access, so that all staff will know things like what we've got on order, when it might arrive, and the current status of any given customer's special order -- all systems typical of good mass-market bookstores, and well within the reach of serious independents.

What would you estimate is the ratio of male to female customers in your store?

We've never done a reliable survey. I'd guess twenty to thirty percent of our customers are women.

What is the ratio of male to female on your staff?

Three to one.

Do you use distributors other than Diamond? What strengths and weaknesses do you see in purchasing stock through other sources?

Yes. I think that it's important to understand that Diamond is actually two companies: a fulfillment source for the brokered publishers, and a more traditional "distributor" for everyone else. When it comes to the "Big Four," along with the major manga companies, Diamond is far and away the best source for independent retailers. When you get outside them into the smaller presses -- including the big mainstream publishers who are rapidly expanding their graphic novel offerings, then there is real competition from mainstream book distributors like Baker & Taylor and smaller regionals like Cold Cut. Many larger stores also have direct relationships with publishers, but our volume allows only infrequent orders for us, so we rarely go that route.

There's three important factors I consider in a decision to us any supplier, and that's cost, availability of inventory, and ship times. Diamond does a decent job on the first two and a poor job on the last, but the fact that I'm already ordering from them for all my Marvel and DC anyway means they'll likely get a good share of my "indie" comics dollars as well simply by virtue of the convenience of consolidation.

The first thing I always see when I come in your store is the kids' comics section. How many of your customers are kids or parents buying for kids? What are the best-selling kids’ titles at Modern Myths?

Again, we haven't surveyed. We're in a college town, and our store is on a road that's not easily accessible to kids, so it's a small percentage, probably less than five percent%, but they're a disproportionately important constituency, as is the case everywhere else in our society. In this case, I am assuming that you mean under-12s by "kids," which is primarily what that section is aimed at. Bone, The Simpsons, and Tintin and Asterix are probably our best movers from that section.

Do you offer subscriptions or a pull list to customers who pre-order through the Diamond Previews catalog? Do you offer them any sort of incentive for pre-ordering?

We do offer subscriptions. We do not discount from cover price, but we offer what we think of as "service incentives." We never require any sort of down payment or deposit for special orders, we give a free copy of PREVIEWS to interested subscribers -- thought at may go to an at-cost copy if the price goes up any further -- plus a twenty percent discount on collecting supplies like bags, boards, and boxes, and we have a couple of specific "satisfaction guarantees." If we ever miss a book on your list and you have to get it elsewhere, the following issue, or one comparable value, is free. We also offer a full return for credit with any book you're unhappy with -- this is basically a guarantee that covers our recommendations, and encourages folks to try new titles. We also like to think that the weekly reorders, email list maintenance, and having our books out promptly are all value-adds as well.

You don't offer discounts, although some retailers do. Why did you develop your approach to discounting, and how has it benefited your store?

Our approach to discounting is simply based on running the numbers. To run a professional general interest comic shop that pays its staff a fair wage requires a certain margin, and the prices that most publishers set their books at make that a workable proposition. We're not going to second-guess the people who make the books as to what they ought to be priced. That said, we do try to have options for price-sensitive customers, including used books, back issue sets, and a twice-annual dollar back-issue sale.

What is the best experience you've ever had with a customer?

I think that it's the cumulative effect of a parade of people who leave the store smiling that has the real impact, rather than any single anecdote I can recall.

What is the worst?

I've never really participated in those sorts of discussions with my peers...you get ups and downs in any situation where you're inviting other people into your space, so I try not to dwell too much on the problem customers. We've been very lucky in never having had anyone be violent or even verbally abusive much thus far. The worst experiences are when we catch a shoplifter, of course. Obviously, that's the textbook definition of "bad customer." It's also enough of a community that family tragedies do impact us. I've twice -- so far -- gone and bought large collections from the survivors of regular customers who died unexpectedly. That was rough, but also oddly gratifying that the families said words to the effect of "he would have wanted you to do this for us if anyone had to..."

Journalist Tom Spurgeon recent commented that retailers “should be selling the most comics in any format,” and yet when it comes to manga, for example, most of them are not. Your store seems exceptionally well-stocked when it comes to almost all sorts of comics, but do you think the majority of comic book stores, in your opinion, adjusted well to the development of the graphic novel market?

Majority? Probably not, but I do think it's instructive that how direct market shops adjusted to that development is one of those things that a lot of customers now use to figure out how "good" a store is. Such judgments are largely subjective, but a good selection of trades now seems to have become one of those "default settings" that most customers use to judge us by.

What advice would you give to your fellow retailers in terms of dealing with the graphic novel explosion?

Start with rigorous inventory control and a serious dedication to properly handling all special orders. You don't need to -- I'd say you can't -- stock every in-print title from every company, including Marvel and DC. Rotate old stock out, either by trading or liquidation, on some kind of semi-regular basis. Take advantage of alternative sources of supply, and start dealing in used graphic novels. That's a really condensed version of hours of conversation and boring inventory management discussions, but those are the basic principles.

It seems like most direct market comic shops attract mainly male superhero fans; how can direct market shops better attract readers of non-superhero comics? Do you feel the direct market as a whole has a responsibility to?

I think they do a better job of attracting a general audience by making themselves over to look and feel as much like a mainstream specialty retail boutique as they can manage with the resources available to them. Walk around a Barnes and Noble or a Waldenbooks -- even a cooking store or specialty shop like Hot Topic -- and see what they have that you don't, and try to either offer that or an alternative.

As far as "responsibility," I don't necessarily believe there's a moral imperative or anything; if people want to run professional, clean, well-lit superhero boutiques, that's fine, as long as they understand they're limiting their audience and work with that. My belief is that the shops that embrace the entire medium and not just one admittedly-lucrative section of it will be the best-equipped to grow and prosper, because they'll have the widest potential audience to go after. I do believe that Diamond gets a bad rap in this. They could certainly do more, but at the end of the day anyone, largely regardless of format or subject matter, who can make the cut gets in to Previews to have a shot at reaching the direct market, though there are legitimate arguments to be had as to what that cut ought to be.

What are the likely long-term consequences if the direct market doesn't grow out of its superhero-dominated paradigm?

I'm not as pessimistic as I know you are about this. The direct market has been "superhero-dominated" since its inception, and I'd argue that it's much less-so today than ever before, thanks largely to manga and the success of non-superhero properties at the big brokered publishers. We probably sell more Vertigo titles than any other single imprint, Image has spent the last couple of years developing some really interesting titles they never would have gone near in the '90s, back when they were Marvel wannabes. And Dark Horse doesn't even really do superheroes anymore, unless you count Hellboy. If a market that's 60 percent superheroes pays the bills so that I can stock Kochalka and Tezuka and Tomine and Wolverton, that's fine. That said, comic shops do need to realize that all that "other stuff" is what gets people looking at the graphic novel section at Barnes and Noble. If they can't offer it, they're running a real risk that the guy whose kid wants Death Note will grab Civil War since he's there already.

Your store seems to devote much more space to graphic novels and other sorts of books, with a minimal emphasis on floppy, monthly comics. Tell me why this is, and what effect it's had on your customers behaviour?

We still devote plenty of space to periodical comics -- 40 linear feet of wall space -- but we self-identify as a book store, and try to organize the store accordingly. I'm not sure what effect it's had on our customers' behavior, other than to maybe encourage them to explore other sections, and maybe to mellow them out a bit with regard to getting it now.

Do you think, as a whole, the direct market for comic books is functioning well? What's its long-term prognosis?

I think that it functions well as long as Diamond functions well, and that's the elephant in the living room. Right now, the system works pretty well, and Diamond has management right now that has a pretty good understanding of the symbiotic relationship the vast majority of direct market stores have with them. If Diamond goes down, most independent direct market shops go down with it, but the reverse is equally true, despite Diamond's efforts to push into mainstream book distribution. Long-term, as long as there are monthly comics, the single-store business model will survive. The format is too time-, labor-, and inventory-intensive for too low a margin to be really attractive to mass marketeers, so as long as we can add value with expertise and service, the good shops will be around as long as comics are.

What is the direct market doing right?

In addition to what I just mentioned, many publishers are venturing outside the superhero comfort zone and bringing great new ideas.

In what ways could it be improved?

An industry standard for titling and abbreviations would be nice, though highly unlikely. The usual complaints about interrupted series, long wait times, self-indulgent creators, etc. The entire industry, particularly retail, is grossly under-capitalized.

Do you believe the majority of comic book stores demonstrate professional business standards? Can they be competitive with mainstream bookstores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble?

Again, the "majority," no. But the best stores are right there, and there's more of them every year, which I think is a big leap from a decade ago. I think that they can compete with the right business model for the technical reasons I gave before. I guess we're proof that it's possible.

Do you feel a majority of direct market shops actively seek out customers of all ages, genders and interests? If so, how? If not, should they?

Majority? No. I think they're shortsighted not to, but again, I can't really get worked up over a moral or ethical imperative to do more than deal fairly and truthfully with customers and suppliers. Beyond that, people are free to run their businesses as they see fit. I want to note that despite my repeating this, I also don't think that means they get to exempt themselves from having the standards of mainstream retail applied to them. If you don't have a public restroom, you're being disingenuous if you cry foul when people would rather shop somewhere that does.

I'm not sucking up when I say Modern Myths is just about the perfect comic book store: A clean, welcoming environment with literally something for every member of my family and all ages, genders and interests. But I'd imagine you see things you'd like to change or improve. Where do you hope the store will be at in a year, five years, ten years down the line?

Okay, you are sucking, up, but I appreciate the kind words anyway. Trust me that for everyone who agrees with you there's someone else who really dislikes one of the very things you're praising. We do try to keep learning and making adjustments as the market demands and our customer base grows. To some extent, most retailers create the store they would want to shop in -- which is why it's so very hard for most of them, myself included, to take criticism constructively. That's what I do here.

It's always hard to say where we'll be down the line, but we're currently working on an e-commerce solution that'll let us do some selling over the internet. Expansion to additional locations is always there in the back of my mind, but there is considerable risk involved that the current economy discourages, and finding good management and the proper location are the biggest hurdles. I think just about all small businesses are holding their collective breath to see what happens in November, and we're not in that much a hurry that we can't wait until then to see what the next half-decade might look like.

See more pictures of Modern Myths on the store's LiveJournal.

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