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February 15, 2011

Comic Relief, 1987-2011; New Store To Open In Its Wake

An interesting outcome to massive rumors over the weekend that iconic Berkeley comics store Comic Relief was about to close, less than three years after the passing of its founder, Rory Root and after weeks of news along the lines of new stock not being offered, shrinking patronage, last-ditch fund-raising efforts and some expected harping between various elements over what went wrong and when.

imageThe primary news is that Comic Relief is now closed, with a sign on the door on Valentine's Day making this clear to anyone that stops by. "As of today, Monday, February 14 (Valentine's Day), Comic Relief Bookstore is, for all intents and purposes, closed and no longer in business," the sign read in part. While this was not all of the news, the passing of one of the great retail establishments in the industry's history should be worth a few words.

Comic Relief was opened on April 15, 1987 by early comics and gaming retail veteran Rory Root and then-partner Michael Patchen. In a quick march to industry prominence including being awarded one of the first Will Eisner Spirit Of Retailing awards after just over five years in existence, Comic Relief prevailed over a heady combination of second-generation comic book shop virtues. The shop evinced thorough yet somehow still idiosyncratic-seeming stocking strategies: it was a store that took seriously the original comic shop call to have what at least seemed like "all the comics." This was a trick matter in an era when doing just that had driven many of the early comic book stores out of business in the black and white bust. Comic Relief's stock felt deeper and more significant than that held by many of those fallen stores. It was for this range alone it became a destination shop for those traveling to the area, and a place for people to phone looking for hard-to-find books. It's my understanding that in its long-time location that a huge chunk of its stock could not be displayed, such was the extent of its holdings. Comics Relief was a top 12 comics store in the world for the vast majority of its years in existence, a flagship in a region full of iconic retail establishments.

Comic Relief was more than a vast warehouse, however. It showed consistent support for local cartoonists, including those in the forefront of comics growing, literary-minded, alt-comics movement. This included Adrian Tomine, whose early mini-comics were displayed on its shelves, and Dan Clowes, whose art was in its promotion and who called the store "a national treasure." Comic Relief's owner and employees seemed to many of its customers more like general advocates for the medium rather than champions of any single genre within it; at the same time, they didn't promote the whole by pushing away any specific iteration of the medium within that whole. The store pursued important non-traditional markets such as libraries, passing along expertise as well as stock. The store was progressive in terms of stocking renewable trades and perennial sellers. Its owner became a presence at key Book Expo Americas in the early 2000s as comics developed a presence in several new markets and general push in terms of sales viability. Given the sheer number of books it carried, the physical presentation of the story in its primary locations (there was a move in early 2005) remained for many of its years professional and inviting. Comic Relief long enjoyed a sort of dramatic visual impact for its central location at Comic-Con International, basically functioning as the primary bookstore at the primary comics show. It had claim to pride of place in the comics-rich and comics history-rich Bay Area. It was the kind of bookstore that changed lives, shaped careers and gently altered the course of its industry, a place that could claim these things without needing to resort to excessive hyperbole in doing so. Comic Relief had a long and magnificent run.

Comic Relief also displayed the primary weaknesses of the great American comics shop in that its operations were deeply reflective of the strengths and weaknesses of its owner and driving force. When Root died in 2008, the last stages of which came quickly, the store lost his personal skill-set, elements of his network and the size of his presence in its everyday dealings. Root wasn't the entire store -- there were too many talented employees in and out of the place over the years, each with a compelling story and contributions of their own -- but like many of the great, idiosyncratic comics businesses, he was a key to its ongoing success. Many of the store's shortcomings were Root's as well. Comic Relief inherited elements of the sometimes-chaotic business affairs Root enjoyed with various suppliers, a general way of conducting business that may have been just held together by the late retailer's force of personality for longer than many realized. Just 50, Root perhaps hadn't fully prepared for a succession of the type now forced upon the store; this may have helped put a general faction of interested parties involving Root's family at odds with the employees and their supporters Root intended to directly carry on his life's work. As is the case with many small businesses that people love dearly from both sides of the service counter, the eventual outcome was painful to watch and seemed inevitable months and months before the final plug was pulled. In 2010, Comic Relief no longer displayed on the floor of Comic-Con International, a sign of ongoing trouble that registered with hundreds of fans and industry members for its obvious symbolic qualities. That Fall saw more rumors and the suspension of new comics delivery, the lifeblood of even those comics stores with a giant range of books and trades. In a sense, one could argue its final fate announced yesterday felt like it was in the cards from the moment Root's passing became public knowledge. I don't know anyone shocked by the news.

The positive word to rise out of yesterday's closure is that a new store will be opened by three friends of Root to service a Berkeley region now apparently bereft of viable comics-buying options. As soon as rumors hit over the weekend just past about the current landlord serving a 72-hour notice on the store, word that a group including Chris Juricich was negotiating some sort of potential buyout or deal for stock and employees quickly followed, at least in the hushed-whisper sense e-mail to e-mail. Those rumors also turned out to be true, and according to an e-mail sent by Jim Friel to Heidi MacDonald, this group included himself and longtime area bookstore owner Jack Rems. The store has pledged to hire remaining employees and even the store cats, but in a very smart, likely necessary (the debts incurred) but I'd suggest even slightly touching move, the Comic Relief name will be retired. If they can make a great comics store out of it, they'll be doing the same work Comic Relief did for most of its almost 24 years. If they can make the bookstore a spiritual successor to Comic Relief in terms of its general ambition and the joy it frequently brought to the process of getting comics into people's hands -- any comics, any people -- they'll have done an excellent thing.

the late, great Rory Root
posted 9:00 am PST | Permalink

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