Comic Book Galaxy: Pushing Comix Forward


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

Most of the time, everything goes swimmingly. Customers come in, they look for their comics, I answer their questions, they buy their items, no problem.

Once in a while, however, we have some major issues at the shop. The occasional shoplifter, the power outage, the urine and the vomit...thankfully, those instances are few and far between.

And then there are the minor issues...the things that happen that just sort of make me look at the customer and say, "Um, what?"


Please note that "browsing" is in quotes. We're a store that sells reading material. Browsing is a necessary function for a customer to find something new to read, and, honestly, I don't mind it.

But then there's "browsing," where it's just outright abusing the privilege. I can't let someone stand at the rack, read a comic cover to cover, put it back on the rack, move on to the next comic, read that one cover to cover, and so on, clearly with no intention of buying. To use a vastly overused cliche, "we're not a library." That's easy enough to deal with...after giving the customer the benefit of a doubt, after asking "Hey, anything you're trying to find," after watching the person read a dozen comics, clearly just killing time and not intending on spending any money whatsoever, I tell the person to either knock it off or move along. Don't like doing it, but sometimes it's necessary.

But then there's this one guy.

A long time ago, he used to be a paying customer. He'd come in, buy his weekly funnybooks, leave.

In recent years, however, he's developed a new habit. Now, when he comes in, he'll stand at the new comics rack, pick up a book seemingly at random, flip through it just long enough to be more than just plain 'ol browsing, but not long enough to actually be reading the whole book.

When folks do this to one, or two, or even half-a-dozen books, that doesn't really bother me. This guy, though, attempts to do this to darn near every book on the shelf. Also, when most folks flip through the books, there's a pretty good chance that some money is going to find its way from their pockets into my register. This guy...hasn't spent dime one in probably five or six years.

Sometimes he doesn't do it for long...he'll breeze in, flip through as many books as he can in five minutes (without lingering long enough on any one book to trigger my "this ain't a library" response), and split.

Because he has been a longtime customer (well, without the whole "buying anything" bit), I've resisted the temptation to ask him just what the heck he thinks he's doing. I have hinted to him, on occasion, that perhaps that what he's doing is on the annoying side. And sometimes, when I tell him this, he'll grab a book or two, carry it around like he's going to buy it, and either dump it back on the rack when he thinks I'm not looking, or he'll take it to the counter and ask whoever's working the register to please hold the books and he'll come back later in the day and buy them. Three guesses as to whether or not he comes back for 'em, first two don't count.

Another "browsing" that decide to lay down right in front of the new comics rack, or the register, or in one of the main store aisles, in order to read through the comic they've pulled off the shelf. It's not so much the kid that bothers me, since he or she is probably too young to know any better, but the parent(s) who see what the offspring is doing and don't think anything of it. "Sure, just lay there, Little Billy, I'm reasonably certain no one will trip on you or hurt you or anything."


I like that some people take an interest in the business side of comics sales. It's certainly preferable to the usual "a whole store just for comic books?" that we usually get. And I don't mind answering general questions about how the business works, how far in advance we have to order books, how reorders and reprints are handled, how we decide things are priced, and so on.

Some folks, though, want exact numbers. They want to know exactly what we pay for each book, what our distributor bill is each week, what our wholesale discount structure is, and so on. I'm sure a lot of this info is online for the general public to see, and anyone this interested can probably make some reasonably educated guesses as to what we're paying. But, you know, I don't think that's really any of their business, I ain't gonna share our expenditures, and I try to brush off the questions best I can.

For some people, though, the hint doesn't stick. They lean in, drop their voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and then proceed to make a whole lot of incorrect assumptions about how our business works. Usually it's in the form of drastically underestimating what we're spending on comics. "So, you get this $2.99 comic for twenty-five cents, right? With that much of a profit margin, you're making a killing!" Yeah, I wish, buddy.


Returns are a tricky prospect for people what sell the funnybooks. The problem is that, particularly for older comics, condition of the books is a big deal for the people who buy them. And comics are relatively easy to damage...I've watched comics go from "near mint" to "fair to good" almost as soon as I take the customer's money and the books are grabbed off the counter.

Graphic novels, toys, other items...usually, those are fine, so long as they're unopened and in new condition. But comics...well, it's hard to explain why we don't want to take back an old comic that we sold in VG+ shape and is now in VG- without sounding like the Anal-Retentive Comic Book Seller. Sometimes I can be on the lenient side, just for the sake of good customer relations, and take back a comic that may have been purchased on accident so long as not too much time has passed and the comic hasn't been run through the thresher. But, fortunately, for the most part, this kind of return hasn't been an issue.

Other circumstances where I'm not going to take back your item:

1. "Hey, I just bought this comic, and as I was walking home I dropped the comic and crunched the corner. Can I exchange it for a mint copy?"

"Wow, that's gonna be a 'no.'"

2. "Hi, I bought this comic about eighteen months ago, changed my mind, and I'd like to return it. I still have the receipt."

"You are kidding, right?"

3. "Hi, I bought this old comic yesterday, and decided that I didn't need it. Can I have a refund of the price as noted on price sticker?"

"You know, I remember the sale, and even if I didn't, I have a record of the old comics we've sold, and I could have looked up what I already knew, that the price on that sticker seems to be a lot more than I what I sold the comic to you for yesterday."


Look, I try to be straight with folks who come into the store. Is it too much to ask the same of the customers?

I got hit with this one just recently. A kid special ordered an item, and when it arrived a week later I called the customer right away to let him know. After about three weeks, no one had come by for the item, so I decided to put it out for sale.

A week or so after that, the kid finally showed up for his item. I let him know that I hadn't seen or heard from anyone, so we ended up selling it to someone else, and I'd be happy to get him another one. He said something to me about "you guys were never open when you were supposed to be," and left.

And when his dad came into the store to give me grief, he said more or less the same thing. "We were here during your store hours, but you were closed, so we couldn't pick up the item we ordered! What kind of business is this? I wouldn't run a business like that!"

As you may recall from a previous column of mine, if there's one thing I absolutely hate about certain other comic shops I've been too, it's when they don't keep to their posted hours. I hate, hate, hate it. I absolutely make sure our store is always open during our very clearly posted business hours which haven't been altered in over four years. I think maybe, on occasion, as we're rushing to get the store ready on new comics day, the door may open a minute or two later, but a +/-2 minute variance surely may be allowed.

So the guy was lying, and I told him as such. Well, okay, I didn't call him out as bluntly as that, though I would have been well within my rights. I did say that there was no way the store was closed when it was supposed to be open...didn't happen, don't use that as an excuse.

Well, he ended up stomping out of the store, exclaiming that he wasn't going to wait another month to get another copy of the item (um, took me a week to get you the book, took you a month to show up and make up an excuse why you weren't here sooner), never to darken our doorstep again.

I'm guessing what actually happened is that the kid nagged Pops into driving him to the store, only to show up before we were open, and somehow bamboozled his dad into believing that, no, Dad, I didn't get you here too's those guys, they didn't open on time.

And now we have a guy who's probably telling his friends and family that the jerks at the comic shop never open on time and are very rude...even though we didn't do anything wrong. Swell.

Most situations aren't quite that involved and, well, stupid. I get this a little too often:

Customer: "Hey, is [new, unreleased item] out yet?"

Me: "No, that hasn't shipped yet."

Customer: "Really? I saw it on the shelf at another comic book store."

Okay, I don't get this for items that may be out, where there's a staggered shipping schedule or some other circumstance where it's possible another store may have an item that we don't. It's always for something that 100% absolutely can not be out in stores by any, for example, Civil War #4, which, as of this writing, is still delayed for a number of weeks.

The exchange also leaves me with a couple questions:

1. If you saw it at another store, why didn't you buy it there?

2. If you saw it at another store, then you already know that it's out. Why are you asking me?


Now just what is up with this?

The comic rack before perusal by the customer:

The comic rack after:

I am used to finding books and comics all over the store. I've found them hidden behind action figures on the toy rack, I've found them tossed behind the graphic novel shelves...basically, the customer has put some effort into hiding/displacing the funnybook.

But this:

...this is just insulting. You're gonna act like you're putting things back where you got them, even to the point of getting it on the same shelf, but you're not going to move the comic one spot to the right to replace it exactly? That's just rubbing my face in it.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at)

-- Mike Sterling

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