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Alan David Doane on the Scarcity of Shops in Small-Town America
posted August 23, 2005
 

Alan David Doane
Via The Internet


I read with mixed feelings your description of the closing of the comics shop you frequented.

On the one hand, one must mourn the passing of any business, not just comics shops, that is clean and features lots of parking, and most importantly has a clerk that is "friendly and seemed comfortable dealing with people." Not just in comics, but in all retail environments, this store you describe sounds like a disappearing retail paradise.

That said, your statement that the shop "carried little more than the latest comics from big American mainstream superhero companies and a few big-name back issues, either in longboxes or on the wall," fills me with indifference bordering on contempt.

These are the sorts of comics shops that seem to be the backbone of the North American comics "industry," as it wants to be called, and they serve pretty much the same function as a network of stores dedicated solely to the sale of olive loaf does: Sure, a few people like olive loaf, but most sane people would prefer to buy their olive loaf in a store that serves their other needs -- and the needs of the various and diverse members of their family, as well.

From the description of the store, I can tell my wife and kids wouldn't object to coming in there with me, say, if I needed to pick up a new issue of Invincible or The Ultimates (to name drop a couple of the 5 or 6 superhero books I still buy regularly), but it doesn't sound like my daughter would be able to find a new issue of Electric Girl or Lenore, or perhaps talk me into buying her a volume of Love Hina. Perhaps my son could find an issue of Teen titans Go, but could he find his other favourites, Simpsons Comics and Bart Simpson? Would either of them be able to find Peanut Butter and Jeremy? For sure, it sounds like my non-comics reading wife would have no luck at all finding True Story, Swear to God or King Cat Comics, just to name two titles that she has actually read and enjoyed, cover to cover. And was there a female clerk there who she could commisserate with while I browse for a half-hour or more?

Thanksfully, the shop I buy from now, Earthworld Comics in Albany, New York, allows all those things to happen. The store is not perfect, but enough of an effort is made to satisfy a diverse readership that I would be sorry to see it go. Its retail policies are not always visionary and forward-looking, but at least there is an effort made to go beyond "little more than the latest comics from big American mainstream superhero companies and a few big-name back issues."

To truly run a professional business, viable comics shops recognize the translated definition of manga, for example, and try to grow that sector of their business. Yet most -- 90 percent or more, it seems, have literally abandoned one very strong part of the future of the industry, whether through racism, hostility, ignorance, stupidity, or fear. It's hard to see what else might account for such foolish, suicidal business practices. Imagine a supermarket not carrying sushi because it's name is foreign, even though they sell all other kinds of fish. I really do believe it's a form of racism. A hatred of something that is different, even though it is ABSOLUTELY PART OF THE INDUSTRY THEY CLAIM TO BE PROFESSIONALS IN.

Earthworld is literally the best comics shop in upstate New York. I don't know how much you know about my region, but north of New York City, I have been to almost every comics shop there is, from Kingston a couple hours north of NYC to Syracuse to Plattsburgh and everywhere in-between. Earthworld is the best-stocked and most well-intentioned of every store north of Jim Hanley, and they still can't sell manga. Why? Is it because there are no teenagers or gay men in Albany?

I've been told Albany has per capita one of the highest gay populations in the country. It's probably the gayest city in the state, other than NYC. Earthworld is smack dab in the most downtown, urban section of Albany, and you can't spit without hitting a teenager. But nobody buys manga at Earthworld. Why is that? It seems, and this is just a guess, that it's because there's no one currently on staff at the shop particularly interested in or knowledgable about manga. I green-lighted Rob Vollmar's new INTERNATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC column at Comic Book Galaxy in large part bevcause even though I live an hour from one of the four biggest cities in upstate New York, I have no reliable source of information about what is going on in manga.

One thing that genuinely disturbs me, and I say this as someone who really is not invested emotionally in any manga at the moment, is the fact that manga is not even considered comics by the "industry" as a whole at any level: From sales figures that falsely claim Marvel and DC have the best-selling "comics," to Paul O'Brien and John Byrne's apparent belief that if it's not Marvel and DC it "isn't" "really" comics, to comics shops like Earthworld that for all the good intentions and nearly-global ordering of stuff from Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphics and Slave Labor, fail to service in any significant way the fastest-growing segment of the comics-reading audience: Manga. It might be Japanese olive loaf, but God damn it, it's olive loaf.

Borders and Barnes and Noble have not created an enormous expansion of their manga aisles because they want to service non-buying browsers. That would be retail suicide. People are buying comics in huge numbers, but the "industry grits its teeth and closes its eyes and redefines "comics" so that Frank Miller and Jim Lee or Brian Bendis and whoever is drawing House of M can falsely claim their comics are best-sellers. Among consumers of American-made olive loaf packaged in spandex, yes, yours is selling pretty well, Frank, Jim, Brian and whoever -- but is it not absolutely absurd to ignore that imported olive loaf selling three times what you are? Five times what you are? Best sellers? Barely a blip on a vast cultural movement toward true mainstream acceptance of comics, and the best we can hope for at this point seems to be that new stores slowly emerge to service the new audience. We can also hope that at least some stores -- it seems definitely to be ten percent or less -- are canny and visionary enough to both explore new readership avenues and expand their product lives wisely, slowly, and in a professional, businesslike manner.

I am not suggesting anyone open a Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly Only boutique, but rather just wishing that the ignorant (and in many cases I mean "ignorant" in a non-perjorative sense, perhaps some of these guys really would like to stay in business but just don't understand the bueiness they are in) people running that 90 percent of superhero-only shops might just sit outside, say, The Beguiling in Toronto or Modern Myths in Northampton, Massachusetts for a day. Watch the women and children going in. Watch the college crowd and middle-aged superhero lovers. They're all shopping there, and they're all coming out with comics. Astonishing.

While I continue to question how many comics shops truly exist in the United States -- average the usual figure out between 50 states and something smells fishy to me, and it's not the sushi -- more and more I feel that the 90 percent of the comics industry that is curring it's own throat with clean stores and friendly clerks and nothing but superheroes -- CANNOT DIE FAST ENOUGH FOR ME. DIE, AND GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY OF THE FUTURE.

If there's not enough left of the industry that the only comics that are left are manga and homemade North American mini-comics, man, that's FINE. If the industry as it exists today can only maintain itself by being a network of olive loaf -- I mean, male-dominated superhero boutiques -- this shambling, undead monster I've watched kill itself now for 30 years that laughingly calls itself an "Industry" cannot die fast enough for me.

In my darkest moments, I must say that the comics industry cannot die fast enough for me.