My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.
I used to make the occasional trip to a particular stretch of music stores and used book stores in the Los Angeles area, a number of years ago (back when I had more time for that sort of behavior). In that immediate area, though this wasn't a destination I ever intended to visit on these trips, there was a small store with a big sign out front that read "COMIC SHOP."
I've mentioned before that I don't tend to do a lot of shopping at other comic book stores. I work in one, after all, and pretty much anything new that's released and I want, I'll most likely have acquired almost as soon as I've busted open the shipping boxes from our distributor. And older material...I don't buy as many back issues as I used to, and what I am looking for -- old fanzines -- are very few and far between at your average funnybook storefront. However, if I see the word "COMIC" and I happen to be strolling by, well, it's tough to resist strolling inside.
The first impression upon walking in the store is that...um, well, there weren't any comics. Funny, it said "COMIC SHOP" outside, but you wouldn't know it. There were glass counters, given over entirely to collectible card games such as Magic The Gathering. There were floor units and slatwall racks, filled with action figures. There were a couple stand-up arcade game units crammed against the back wall. The shelves behind the counter were filled with anime videos and video games.
And, in the back of the store, in one corner, opposite the arcade games, were the comics.
A shelf, about four rows tall, held all the comics this store had for sale. Comics that were new that week were mixed together with comics from previous weeks...and months. They were in no order, sometimes piled in front of each other, and a comic from three months ago obscuring a brand new issue was not unusual.
Did I say that was all the comics the shop had? My mistake...a nearby table also had a short comic box that held the store's stock of graphic novels and trade paperbacks.
Believe it or not, I'm not talking about this store to slam it. Clearly they'd found their niche, and that niche was selling collectible card games, videos, and toys. Comics were either an afterthought, or, more likely, it was eventually determined by the shop that the minimal profit brought in by the two or three dollar colored pamphlets didn't make it worth spending a whole lot of time maintaining their store presence.
And yet, the front of the store still advertised "COMIC SHOP."
It's a generic term, now, I suppose. One sees the words "COMIC SHOP" and is supposed to understand the range of items that could be expected to find inside, much in the same way "COFFEE SHOP" doesn't mean that one can only find coffee there. "COMIC SHOP" apparently means video games, or baseball cards, or Dungeons and Dragons dice, or action figures, or those little wizard statues you can burn your incense on, or, maybe, in a few cases at least, comic books. At the very least "COMIC SHOP" sounds better than "NERD SUPPLIES," which is possibly more to the point.
I've nothing against diversification. Stores should diversify, and, in our case, that certainly saved our bacon during the 1990s comic market crash. Many years prior, a gaming store local to us had closed down, and our customers started approaching us and asking for the role playing game materials they used to buy there. We started special ordering some items for them, then started carrying a few of the basic books for various systems, then what was once one rickety wooden shelf holding Dungeons and Dragons books and adventure modules suddenly ballooned into occupying nearly half of our available retail space. And, during the comic market depression, it was those games that kept us afloat.
But we didn't stop carrying comics. True, games were an easier sell, more money for less effort...you only had to sell one hardcover book to take in fifteen bucks, as opposed to the fifteen comics you had to sell to take in the same amount. (Yeah, I'm going off some period prices here, you may have noticed.) But, we still loved comics, "comic" was in the title of the store, and by God, we may have been depending on games to bring in the scratch, but we weren't gonna shove our comics aside simply because they were no longer primary breadwinners for the shop. Okay, maybe we were just being bullheaded about it...we didn't want to give up on comics, even though common sense would have told more reasonable people to scale back the comics side of the business in favor of the games side.
That bullheadedness did have a practical side, however. During the comics industry boom of the late '80s/early '90s, our status of being the only comic book store in the area changed as comic shops started to spring up all over the county, opened by folks looking to take advantage of the industry's faddish popularity. When the fad eventually crashed and burned, those stores for the most part went with it, leaving behind those few customers who remained interested in comics beyond their faddish aspect, but without a store from which to buy them.
Well, they would eventually find us...and they would see that as a comic shop, we meant business. A wide range of comics, a diverse supply of products, a deep stock and a knowledgeable staff...something these customers would not have found had we decided to cut back the comics portion of the shop in favor of the products that, at the time, were bringing in the majority of our business.
Okay, that's a tangent I wasn't intending to go on, but you can hopefully see my point...that if you're gonna call yourself a "comic shop," then by God, carry some comics. In our situation, it eventually paid off with a larger customer base for us once the industry began its (still proceeding) long, slow climb out of the pit into which it dug itself. If you want to carry comics, then put some effort into it. I'm not saying you have to carry every single comic and trade paperback by every publisher (though in an ideal world, you would)...just try not to make your comic stock look like an afterthought. Put 'em in order, make 'em look nice. Just throwing them onto the shelves willy-nilly, with no regard to any kind of order or date of release, gives whatever customer base you may have for them no confidence whatsoever that you're a dependable retailer.
Now, to get to the part of this column that was my original intent, before I went off on my slight historical digression: if you've put out a shingle in front of your store that reads "YE OLDE COMICK BOOKE SHOPPE," here is what I expect to find inside, in decreasing order of importance (and be sure to read my follow-up to the list at the end, before you decide to get angry about something):
1. NEW COMIC BOOKS - Yeah, I know, "no dur-hey." They should be reasonably organized, clearly displayed, and occasionally sorted through to rotate out old stock. (I'm not going to say what they should carry, or how much...if you only carry Marvels, some DCs, and the odd Image title, hey, if you think that's all you can sell, that's your business. We do pretty well as a "full-line" store, that carries purt'near everything, but I realize not all locations can manage the same.)
2. GRAPHIC NOVELS AND TRADE PAPERBACKS - Some of the older fans of the more traditional 32-page stapled funnybook format may not like it, but graphic novels and trades ain't going away, and they're only going to become more important to the long term health of the industry. I'm including manga in this category as well, in case you're wondering.
3. BACK ISSUE COMIC BOOKS - Now, our store has a good reputation for our large back issue supply, to the extent of having many customers who drive several hours just to come to our shop and peruse the backstock boxes. We boast "A Million Comics in Stock!" -- okay, about 200,000 of those are Deathmate, but you get the idea. I'm not expecting every store to have this many comics, but you should have at least some older comics available for sale, as that's part of the appeal of the hobby. I know that some folks would argue the importance of back issues, saying that new comics and trades should be enough for a reasonable store...but if you carry new comics, sure enough you're gonna have a few left over at the end of the month. I doubt you're gonna recycle them, so you're going to have back issues sooner or later, whether you like it or not. And when you do, like I said for the new comics above, at least try to put some effort into keeping them organized.
4. SUPPLIES - You know, the comic bags, comic boards, comic boxes...if folks are gonna spend the money on these things, they're probably going to want to keep them nice as well. So, you'd better have plenty of these supplies on hand.
5. EVERYTHING ELSE - Action figures, t-shirts, posters, statues, role playing games, collectible card games, rubber chickens, shot glasses, CDs, novelty ties, trading cards, MP3 players, or even, God help you, POGs...if you're calling yourself a comic shop, whatever else you carry is fine with me so long as you have plenty of 1 through 4. Well, okay, maybe not POGs.
Now that's just my personal vision of what a comic book store should have. I realize that there are stores out there that deal only in back issues, or carry only trade paperbacks and graphic novels. And that's fine...every business owner of course has the right to run the kind of store they wish. And, if the business model they chose works for them, even better.
But if you're calling yourself a "comic shop," whether it's a full-line shop or just handling the latest X-Men comics, all I ask is that you at least make it look like you care about what you're doing. It'll be good for your store, and, perhaps, good for the industry as a whole.
Because, believe me, the industry can use the help.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com.
-- Mike Sterling