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Some Thoughts Outside the Comics Shop, Waiting For It to Open
posted November 14, 2004

How comes this kind of thing only happens with my comics shopping?

Monday, November 8. It's an hour and a half past opening time. I keep swinging by every quarter-hour, hoping the door will open. The sign says, "open." The hours are clearly posted, and I keep looking at them to check, and yes, it should be open. Being from Indiana, one of two states that ignore daylight savings time in proud, diva-like fashion, I briefly allow that I might be an hour out of step and have been so for a week. I check the clock next door at one of these weird postal box, gift-wrapping and gargoyle shops and try not to look like some sort of feral, desperate nerd. I've got the right time. And yet, the door remains locked.

I hope the clerk isn't ill. Or dead. That would be awful. Although even with "ill" the store is part of a chain and one can imagine that by 90 minutes into the workday a sign could have been put up if not someone sent over to substitute. And death can't explain every time this has happened. I've pulled on door handles and checked the posted times against my watch and walked away irritated in New York, Chicago, Lancaster (PA), Seattle, Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Portland. In comparison, I think I remember being left outside a record store once, in 1983, which was probably God keeping me from buying another Jethro Tull album. Comic book stores break dates like they're the hottest girls in some dumbass late '90s Freddie Prinze movie. That makes me Breckin Meyer. I hate Breckin Meyer.

As I was driving home later that afternoon, it hit me that it would be nice if we could just 'fess up and admit to the spotty professionalism that exists throughout the retail end of the direct market as well as the professional. "My name is Comics Retail, and I have a problem." Isn't it about time we were honest about this?

Standing outside that comic shop was doubly irritating because I called the day before and got the times the shop was open and then told the clerk I was coming to spend some money. Those were my exact words: "I'm looking forward to spending some time spending money in a real comic shop."

And here's something interesting: I wouldn't have phoned at all if the hours had been available on the store's web site. I wouldn't have spoken to someone directly if, like most specialty shops I use, this store had an answering machine for off-hours that gave store hours and location. It's only with comic shops I notice these things. Hard to find. Weird hours. Hard to find the weird hours. Calls during business hours only. No receipts. No bags. Prices adjusted at the cash register (this happned most recently at a well-liked shop in Southern California, and I swear this person was expecting me to cave and buy the stuff anyway). I may be wrong that comic shops are behind the curve on these kinds of basic retail amenities and approaches, but it's hard to convince me after a lunch hour driving around the block looking for yet another meter.

Being honest isn't about blame. There are a lot of retail experiences I don't like, not just comics. I'm also sympathetic to a lot of things comic shops go through.

For one, the system's really screwy. Direct market retailing puts nearly all of its pressure to sell on the retail end. You mention non-returnable product to anyone not familiar with comic shops, and you get one of those dropped-jaw Little Rascals shock faces. I have a feeling the "Comics Hut" booth would be the quickest stop at the franchising show.

These inequities were originally conceived as things that would be alleviated by factors that are now, best as I can tell, almost totally irrelevant. The perceived comic shop retailer of yesteryear would benefit by the DM making possible a carry-everything model that would be more attractive than spinner racks; this was abused by publishers and eventually outstripped by the presence of the Internet. Yesterday's retailer was thought to be able to sell a significant amount of over-ordered copies as back issues; that market has changed radically since the 1970s, so even if this were once true it isn't now. Perhaps worst of all, yesterday's retailer was supposed to gain from a relationship with comics publishers based on mutual comics-savvy and know-how, but the companies have traditionally never obligated themselves to follow the best retailers' advice even on simple matters such as not scheduling books like a chimp on acid throwing darts at a calendar. It's a tough, tough gig.

And you know, a lot of specific complaints you hear about comic shops are kind of stupid. The one that gets on my nerves is the shock and dismay that indy and art-comics fans will sometimes express that the books they like might be sold alongside other comics they might not like or -- horror of horrors -- near the items of some related hobby industry. The thing is, retail establishments don't exist to reinforce anyone's self-image; a certain amount of realistic economic positioning is wholly understandable if not an outright necessity. If comics could be sold for years alongside candy, detergent and canned soup; if a big part of the future is them being sold near calendars, maps and expressso; they can certainly be sold right this moment in some places alongside playing cards, videogames or toys. What's worrisome isn't that someone chooses to stock their store a certain way or emphasize certain displays; it's that a percentage of retail establishments is openly hostile to entire segments of the market.

The truth is that the vast majority of the best comic shops get an economic lift from related items, too. The difference is that those stores tend to avoid turning away business by refusing to order material they don't naturally carry if someone wants it, ignoring potential markets within their retail area once they learn of them, or by making the shopping experience difficult, frustrating or more unpleasant than it has to be. Not every comic shop is a viable enough economic proposition to make for high ceilings and an airy, room that holds everything everyone desires and nothing else. And in my book, disaffected hipsters that play really loud music and name-drop snarkily among themselves even while ringing me up are just as bad as shuffling, musty-smelling aging fanboys watching a Red Dwarf video. But all stores can be reasonably clean, and attentive, music and gamer shouts at a reasonable or non-existent volume, with employees that sort of know the inventory and are honest about ordering material rather than claiming a sell-out or inability to procure, stores nimble enough to embrace new categories, and they can open their damn stores when they say they're going to, too.

I bought some of what I needed Monday at a big-box bookstore in a shopping mall near the highway. It's not the same; I wasn't able to ask questions about what people were buying, and the selection wasn't as wide within the genre I was seeking out. But the store was open. Advantage: bookstore.

The move to bookstores is important to the comics business because it offers a long-awaited market correction for genres and formats outside of superhero monthlies and a way to reach a very important casual fan market. It also forces many publishers into slightly better habits in terms of things like scheduling books so they don't all crash the market at the same time, and allowing for longer PR cycles. I would argue it's not an outright substitute for comics' own specialty market, which I feel clearly provides more cartoonists the ability to reach a market for their work, reach it for a much longer time, and reach it with potentially a wider variety of works.

The mainstream companies tend to respond to any perceived upswing in interest by pumping out as much crap as possible in as many saleable variations as possible in an effort to secure a better stock profile or position themselves better within a larger corporate scheme or to better orient themselves in an asinine battle over market share. But now that things are maybe going a little better for more facets of the industry in more markets, it's time that the rest of us are honest and unflinching about where the existing market mechanisms can be improved. Most people won't wait around for comic shops to grow up; fewer still will go back; and now, they can go elsewhere. Let's use the accumulated resources of our years in the comics industry and many more semi-stable bank accounts than usual to improve on all fronts, not just a few. Let's start by owning up to our shortcomings, the better to improve them. What do you see out there that can be fixed, and what can we do to fix them?