Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 21, 2011

CR Holiday Interview #3—Peter Birkemoe

imagePeter Birkemoe is the owner and operator of The Beguiling, one of the dozen great comic book stores on planet Earth. His store is the primary sponsor of the wonderful and still-growing Toronto Comic Art Festival, a combination of the best of small press comics shows and the kind of bustle and excitement that comes with the big conventions. You may have seen Birkemoe at the Drawn and Quarterly table during Comic-Con International, facilitating his store's original arts sales program. That so many artists trust Birkemoe with that part of their living, and that so many of his store managers seem to have remained loyal to him and the store over the years, I think is a sign of how he's conducted himself since entering the field and buying the store. I've long been a fan of Peter's, and, having had the good fortune to visit his phenomenal store for the first time earlier this year, am now equally a fan of The Beguiling. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Peter, I never know quite how to start an interview with a prominent retailer, but the way your store is set up makes me think that how you read comics, what you find valuable in comics, might be a a place to begin. Can you describe what your comics reading was like, growing up and as an adult? Can you name a few comics that were maybe more important to you than others, just in terms of how you engaged the medium and what you thought about it?

PETER BIRKEMOE: Newspaper comics and pocket editions of Peanuts were key texts in my learning how to read. I very specifically remember a frustrating conversation with my mother trying to get her to explain the word "sigh," which I couldn't sound out or even really comprehend after it was explained.

As a child I had only three superhero comics which both fascinated and confused me in equal measure.


Childhood neuroses about getting only part of a story and not having any friends that read comics meant that I didn't end up getting hooked on superhero comics as young as most. I came to know super heroes mostly through the Super Friends cartoons and a sizeable gang of Mego action figures. MAD magazines and pocket books dominated my cartooning consumption for many years followed by a brief Marvel obsession in the mid-'80s. Again, a jumping on point is what I needed, and [John] Byrne's Alpha Flight fit the bill. His leaving the book also provided the first and very late dawning for me that I would some artists and writers better than others.

imageAround this time I started working for Harry Kremer's Now & Then Books in Kitchener. This was an hour away from where I lived, but my uncle had known him growing up and I ended up spending most holidays staying with my grandmother and working for Harry. The launch party there for High Society, the first of [Dave] Sim's Cerebus phonebooks in 1986 provided the perfect indy comics introduction for me and the first step to quitting the superheroes. While working there I bought many of the comics that would map out my future tastes in the medium, particularly a starter pack of Yummy Fur #1-3, my first Love & Rockets issues and the Frontline Combat box set.

Harvey Kurtzman ended up being the first and only figure from the past where I would end up being a collector as well as a reader/appreciator and was at the center of most of my comic hunting until I bought The Beguiling in 1998.

imageRunning a store meant I had to read a little more widely, but as our staff grew we have taken a divide-and-conquer approach. As the only one here who reads French, that area is most specifically my responsibility and one I enjoy immensely, particularly the more formalist authors like Francois Ayroles and Rupert & Mulot.

SPURGEON: You just kind of showed up on my radar one year, and I was never quite certain how you ended up with The Beguiling. 1998. I know that it might be a boring story to you at this point, or maybe even one where you wouldn't care to share certain details, but how did you end up with the store? At what point did that kind of major life decision, that commitment to The Beguiling, take final form in your plans?

BIRKEMOE: I was shopping at The Beguiling from soon after they opened in 1987 and dove in head first to the world of comics they presented at the two big comic shows they put on in 1989 and '90. In the mid-'90s I started picking up a shift every once in a while, just to feed the habit. I was just in the process of staring up a web venture to sell original artwork on-line, and was using my chemical engineering degree to help adapt some more esoteric paper conservation techniques to comic book restoration with a restorer who lived in Toronto. Both of previous owners of the Beguiling were having their first kids in 1998 and were finding more success outside comics retail than in it.

Before being offered the business, I had never really considered making comics retail a career even though I enjoyed working in shops, largely because The Beguiling already existed. I was then faced with the opportunity to buy it, but more importantly the fear that if I didn't, someone else would ruin it. I have now been running it longer than the previous owners did, and never considered at the time how all-consuming it would become. Although I have a large staff, I still work six long days a week. Running the shop revealed a workaholic in me that had never before been seen.

SPURGEON: How ambitious are you? I know that a lot of comics retailers -- a lot of comics people generally -- react to the day-in, day-out realities of the marketplace. But I wonder with how well the store has done if a) this is part of the plan that you've had all along, b) if this allows you the relative breathing room to act rather than simply react. How much of what you do is executing a plan, either generally or specifically? How far along are you in the plans you've had for the place over the years?

BIRKEMOE: I wish I could say that there was more long-term planning involved in what we do here. It is so easy to get distracted by the daily mini-crises of running a shop. We do try to think in terms of larger principles and attitudes as to why or how we do things and in any reaction to the marketplace try to step back and ask how it would fit with those.

Throwing our lot in with "graphic novels" as the focus of the store years ago as opposed to "pop culture," "superheroes" and associated merchandise seems to have been a winning strategy for this past decade. I don't know if it was motivated by market insight so much as the fact I am passionate about comics as a medium but have limited personal interest in contemporary pop culture or toys, etc. With an e-book future ahead, I'm not sure if this will continue to pay off.

SPURGEON: A couple of follow-ups. First, can you talk about making the decision to invest in the growing graphic novel movement, what the basic factors involved with your decision were and what that did to how you operate the store?

BIRKEMOE: The store had an art-comix focus before I took over, and I maintained the "look at what other comic shops do -- do the opposite" attitude that had worked well for them. In the store's present location, where it has been since the early '90s, the product was split over two floors with the second floor being clearly a more traditional comic shop and the main floor being an arty bookstore. When it opened, the main floor, in addition to key art comix, contained general art and photography books, fiction, poetry, cultural theory. One by one these sections were shrunk as graphic novel publishing expanded. The second floor operated exactly like a neighborhood comic shop, albeit with a little more artist/author rather than character-focused filing and a much heavier indy ordering. For example, we've had dedicated author sections for creators like [Neil] Gaiman and [Alan] Moore for more than 15 years now, whereas I feel other comic stores only really clued into that in the last four to five...

I had come around to the idea that comic collecting was not a growth area, but that comic reading was. While I love a new pamphlet as much as the next person who grew up with them, I still see many of the people coming to comics now for the first time as being just as ready to buy a $20 book as a $3 pamphlet.

Investing is a strong word here. Where you are dealing with such small unit costs, and relatively cheap fixtures, it is easy so shift your ordering and display focus from one to the other in the tiniest increments, and adapt as the product mix offered and your clientele changes.

SPURGEON: Second follow-up: what exactly is it that worries you about the e-book future? Do you think you're at significant risk of losing readers? Do you not think, as growing conventional wisdom seems to want to stress, that comics has enough of a following for the work in print to negotiate a digital-oriented future better than other forms of publishing?

BIRKEMOE: We are lucky in comics to have a couple years of grace period to be able to watch how things shake down in the rest of publishing before the effect of e-readers hits us substantially. The future doesn't bode well for any middlemen, be they booksellers, or perhaps even publishers. I'm reasonably confident with all that we do here in terms of events with authors, original art sales, foreign product and rare and out of print books that if there is any future in comics retail, we will find a place in it. The Beguiling now occupies an important role in the comics community in this part of the world, and I hope there is more to that than simply providing a physical location for that community to come together. Losing customers, be it to on-line discounters like Amazon or Thwipster, chain bookstores and downloading has always been a source of worry, but one that we have always been able to balance out by working hard and finding more readers. We pretty firmly believe that the burden of comics outreach -- actually building new fans -- has always been on comic book retailers, and I have seen little to change my mind from these other outlets on that front.

We have been able to thrive and grow even in very averse markets, but I can see a future where larger and larger parts of what constitute the vital comics community will pass retail by completely. I've already seen projects available in digital forms that I would be carrying if a print version existed, [Chris] Ware's Touch Sensitive and Taiyo Matsumoto's No.5, for example. I don't see any point in getting angry about advancing technology. I seem to be one of the very few people of my generation to have been glad to see vinyl LPs disappear and bewildered to see them come back. It just makes it harder to see what might be coming a few years down the road.

Of course, there is a place for antiquarian bookstores now, and I feel I'll be able to make a living selling books as long as I want to pursue it, I'm just not sure how engaging that will be.


SPURGEON: The physical set-up of your store is fascinating to me, for a couple of reasons. One is that like other great comic shops you seem to be in kind of a hip neighborhood, with natural access to potential readers or at least a kind of "I don't mind going to that part of town" appeal to people outside the area. How big a deal is it in terms of what you're able to do where the store is in the city, the kind of setting in which it exists? Are you a neighborhood institution as well as an internationally renowned comics shop?

BIRKEMOE: We definitely function as both a local comic shop and destination for comics fans nationally and internationally. It is amusing to have longtime customers come in after having gone on a trip and say, "I was just in 'X-large city' and there weren't any book shops like this." Obviously if you live in this neighbourhood, and don't shop anywhere else, you have no idea how low the bar can actually be.

I wish I could take credit for the selection of the neighborhood, but this is where the store was when I bought it. For a destination shop like ours the location is perfect in every aspect except room to grow. We are walking distance from the country's largest university, we are right by a subway stop and surrounded by great bars and restaurants for when we need to hold off-site events. The neighborhood is curated by The Mirvishes, an arts-interesed philanthropic family. Until recently they operated one of the world's most impressive art book stores down the street. Sadly it and an architecture book shop have both closed.


SPURGEON: Inside your store, it's not like a lot of elite, newer shops in that it's not classically lit, or a big, handsome space. It's more like an older shop, a Larry's Comics or a Village Comics, with material stuffed everywhere. Is that just what you've ended up doing, or does kind of hitting your customers over with the maze of great material part of the store's appeal, do you think? Would you ever want to move to a more classic "eight rows of comics in one giant well-lit room" set-up?

BIRKEMOE: I guess not being much of a shopper or consumer is one of my big weaknesses as a retailer. I always think that doing everything I can to have the book any customer will want whether they know what it is or not, at a reasonable price, is what will make this the best comic shop. I don't think in terms of lighting, aisle width, signage etc. What I look for when shopping, and what I try to provide, is knowledgable and helpful staff.

Soon after buying the shop I made trips to Europe and visited Lambiek and Un Regard Moderne which did inspire some of tendency toward exhaustive and overstuffed. Ideally we do try to keep our shelves organized for the customer that wants to help themselves.

SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit more about other stores from which you maybe found inspiration, or even stores whose owners you consider peers and contemporaries?

BIRKEMOE: It has been years since I have had the chance to visit other comic shops in North America and I have never been to any of the new and notable shops. A visit to Quimby's shortly after I took over was encouraging to see someone else with clearly a similar taste and philosophy yet still with a very unique feel in the shop. Any time I go into any book or comic shop, all I look for are books I've never seen that I might be able to sell; sadly in any other kind of store, I just look at their fixtures.

I always enjoy talking to other like-minded retailers, usually at Comic-Con or those that visit me here. If it weren't for the costs of cross-border shipping, these discussions would likely devolve into what-can-we-sell-each-other even faster than they do.

imageI should point out that my manager, Christopher Butcher, has been travelling the world for the past few years trying to steal as many of the best retail ideals as possible. It pains me that it makes more sense for me to send him shopping in Japan than to go myself, but being able to delegate an odious chore like reading the Previews catalog means that occasionally you have to give up a trip to Tokyo to balance that out.

SPURGEON: Tell me about 2011 from your perspective. Was the first half of the year as rough for you as it was for a lot of stores? What do you think led to that North American industry extended shudder and partial collapse we saw the first eight months of 2011?

BIRKEMOE: 2010/2011 saw several stores close in Toronto, but even beyond that we have strangely seen an influx of new single-issue mainstream comics buyers. I have never been a numbers-oriented businessman, so I don't have any real data to back up these assertions, but for us, things haven't been bad at all. I look around and all of my staff is busy, perhaps even too busy, and all of the bills area getting paid, so I don't worry beyond that. I could put my energy into my bookkeeping and sales-data analysis, but instead I put it all into buying and selling.

SPURGEON: How has a store like yours -- with a reputation that's not based on selling comics of this type, although you certainly do that side of the business well -- dealt with the surge in mainstream comics floppies that came with DC's initiative? Are you confident it will have a lasting effect? Is there anything about how that's developed that could work better for you or for you and your peers, do you think?

BIRKEMOE: We decided to go heavy on the DC52 and pursue it as a way to get new customers. If it hadn't been for local creators Jeff Lemire and Francis Manapul, doing two of the books, maybe I wouldn't even have bothered, but it turned out very well for us. I wish more of our superhero ordering wasn't based on wondering "what is everyone else in the city going to under-order and drive their customers to us" but that has worked well over the years, too.

In the larger sense, we did take a much more significant position than we might have otherwise because of the returnability and enhanced discounts. Continuing that through to the fourth and fifth issues, at least in part, seems like a smart business move on their part. We're strongly in favor of more publishers offering returnability, with a significant restocking fee to protect themselves.

SPURGEON: As a graphic novel-based store, do you expect to do well with DC's trade version of this initiative? What's the key to making that work for The Beguiling?

BIRKEMOE: We typically order everything DC produces, and with the sales of the pamphlets to judge from, we should be able to gauge our orders pretty closely. Some of those numbers will vary even more that with the launch of the issues. I think it will be a while before I go to any of these for a new customer that walks in with the "I've decided I want to start reading superheroes (again)" which oddly happens at least once a month. If I'm recommending something it is with the intention of having them come back for more, so I'm going to lead off with Batman: Year One, or DC: The New Frontier.


SPURGEON: I was kind of astounded by TCAF, having attended for the first time this year. I know that you're maybe not as directly involved with the details of organizing and running the show as Chris, but could you talk a bit about the decision to start and support that kind of show? What does your shop get out of having a close relationship to a growing festival?

BIRKEMOE: I'm still very involved with the show on a macro level, but I've been much more ready to delegate any of my responsibilities there than with the store. Christopher Butcher relates the genesis of the show very much in terms of a dare, him observing that Toronto could have at least as good a show as the SPX we were driving back from, and me challenging him to do it (with my money.) In many ways, the festival was an extension of the many author events we do each year, and worked to get a critical mass of attendees together for all of those creators at one time. Sure, we lose some sales, but we gain an enormous amount of publicity and good will. In terms of media, we not only get our name mentioned, but we also get to influence how comics are discussed. It's nice to have an alternative show experience to juxtapose with... well, you've been to contemporary comic book conventions, right?


SPURGEON: [laughs] Right. Another major move for you this year is the opening of your kids-oriented shop, Little Island Comics. I remember hearing that this was based on your success selling kids-oriented comics and visual books to libraries and schools, but why a physical location? You're in your first holiday shopping season -- how would you judge how the store's done so far? Where can you improve?

BIRKEMOE: The decision to open Little Island was not made by perceiving how badly the city (the world) needed a dedicated kids shop, though I'm very glad it has turned out that way. We needed more space for our library services division to work and this space that came available came with a store-front on a main thoroughfare. We could just have easily created a manga-annex, or dumping ground full of 50-cent bins, and I'm thankful that we didn't. The staff that works there is so well-versed in the comics that we have been selling to elementary schools that if made perfect sense to give our kids section a couple hundred square feet to breathe in and let these folks interact with actual kids instead of just the school librarians. Again, I haven't been checking the numbers, but every time I walk over there, people are buying books, so I'm very happy with how it has worked out.

At opening we had a huge surge of interest on the internet and within the Toronto comics community, but news is now slowly trickling out to parents and grandparents who are hearing about the store, many of whom have never been to The Beguiling.

Our events in this space so far have been very successful, but programming for and reaching an audience of 5-12 year olds is clearly different from what we have been doing all these years at The Beguiling. I definitely have had to reign in my own instincts because I would likely have already crammed in another thousand titles and dangerously unstable piles of books.

In terms of what the store can improve? It's perhaps a bit too early, at three months in, to call. I'm very proud of the store and the staff, and while they are still finding their feet to a degree they're also very aware of what's happening on a day-to-day basis, and have been making their own changes and improvements as well.

We still don't have a proper sign for the location, but that should be ready in the next few weeks. That would be an improvement.

imageSPURGEON: I wanted to jump back to something you said earlier. I wasn't aware retailers sold each other things anymore; I thought that was something that happened in the '80s. Can you describe what kind of things you buy and sell? What would a typical deal look like?

BIRKEMOE: Most of what I'm talking about is local -- we're lucky in Toronto to have pretty collegial relationships with some of the other comics retailers. This allows us to swap accidents in under- or over-ordering back and forth. Anyone in this business long enough knows that anything that they can do to level inventory... it's worth being friends with the competition.

Generally the material involved isn't the kind of stuff that we're known for -- the other stores don't generally order alt or art comix. It's mostly superheroes stock, and the major publishers, and we'll just offer it at our Diamond discount, give or take. This can be anywhere from a couple of issues needed for a customer to thousands of dollars worth of trade-paperbacks at time. We've done a little bit of trading online, but usually the shipping makes it prohibitive so we don't usually bother.

SPURGEON: How involved in more formal retailer-to-retailer work are you? Do you belong to any of the retailer organizations or participate in any retailer-focused on-line chat rooms? How much value does that kind of thing have to you?

BIRKEMOE: Generally our aims, goals, and geographic location do not at all dovetail with the American superhero retailing hivemind. Christopher follows some of those forums, but always seems angry after spending time on them so there isn't much to incline me to join. I'll acknowledge that there is a definite benefit to a retailer organization like ComicsPro comprised of some major accounts getting together to bitch at Marvel and DC on the behalf of the entire industry -- I know we see a benefit to that and I'm happy to see them continue. Beyond camaraderie, the tangible benefits of membership are very American-focused and therefore not of interest to us. Beyond all of that, though, to actually engage those issues myself where, Marvel, and DC are concerned, I'd need to more fully immerse myself in the goings-on of those companies and start reading their product, and I'm not about to do that.

SPURGEON: You're a younger retailer. Does the graying of the direct market concern you at all? I know that with a lot of the stores -- we saw this with Rory Root, actually -- the personality of the owner is so ingrained in the store that when the retailer goes the store goes.

BIRKEMOE: I was wondering if having recently turned 40 I was still one of the "younger retailers" -- my staff assures me this is the case. [Spurgeon laughs]

I think you're absolutely right that the personality of the owner is ingrained in the store -- but I think that's true of any good, interesting shop, not just in the world of comics or books. I do take your point, though, and I've always seen the benefit of incorporating the personalities and interests of my various employees into the store. Depending on what you buy and when you shop, you can come away with a very different idea of what personality imprints this store.

It's difficult for any retail store of size to pass along to new owners whether the owner passes away, retires, what have you... I'd like to think things would end up differently for us than they did at Comic Relief; the shop has already successfully changed hands once. The Beguiling as a business has value to me, but only because I put everything I have into it. I'm not sure I realized that would be the case when I bought in, or if I would have done it if I had, but I'm glad I did.

SPURGEON: How has Diamond's performance been for you over the last 12-36 months? I'm told there were some minor snafus in terms of resupplying New 52 books, but they've handled that whole initiative reasonably well. At the same time, I hear some scary stories from smaller publishers about mistreatment. How are things from your end? Where could they stand to improve?

BIRKEMOE: If you've been dealing with Diamond for a long time, you know what they're good at, and you can keep your sanity if you rely on them for what they're good at. If you try to build your entire business around that one supplier, though, any time you (or they) need to step out of a comfort zone, it all goes to hell.

This year has seen us go to mandatory two-week wait on replacements for shortages and damages, for example, unless we're willing to pay basically quintuple our shipping costs to get them quickly. This year has seen fulfillment rates on publishers that Diamond doesn't represent in the book trade (plus DC & Marvel) slip to 20 or 30 percent? Fulfillment times have also increased dramatically. We don't expect reorders for at least three weeks, we've stopped giving customers estimates altogether on that material. It's frustrating for everyone.

In 2011 we are working with more product distributors than we ever have before, and I want to remind you we don't really bother with toys, trading cards, gaming, or t-shirts like most comic book stores do.

To be succinct: Due to good discounts and exchange rate and brokerage issues, there is a significant impetus for us to order from Diamond, but we are relying on them less and less.

SPURGEON: Non-Diamond distribution was a general issue this year as one of those players left the field. There also seems to be a greater willingness from publishers to sell directly to stores, although I could be imagining that. Is direct buying from publishers a significant part of your business?

BIRKEMOE: Flat out, it makes sense for us to consolidate our orders into distributors rather than work with publishers directly. Less paperwork, fewer ordering systems to work with, less time required to put it altogether. It's only because adequate distribution channels don't exist for some very good material that we deal directly with publishers or small distro outfits.

For example, with Top Shelf and NBM -- particularly for their Papercutz line -- we can get the order volume up high enough to make it worthwhile in terms of shipping, brokerage, etc. We still love working with Last Gasp in California; they're an excellent distributor and it always mystifies me that more stores don't work with them. Last Gasp is particularly great at carrying a great array of material that never makes it into the Diamond catalog, or disappears right after initial orders, and they go out of their way to source great books and product.

On that note, initial orders, Diamond is still primarily a frontlist distributor. We know for a fact that a lot of their book distribution mechanisms are still locked to the comic distribution mechanisms, and again, unless a publisher is distributed by Diamond to the book market with Diamond warehousing their stock, books are disappearing from their warehouse within days of release and never restocked. The whole system is set for frontlist sales, the whole industry -- and particularly how new readers encounter comics -- is moving in the other direction. Availability of key backlist is absolutely what a shop should use to engage new and lapsed comics readers, and the system isn't set up for it. I feel like most retailers aren't set up for it -- they don't have the capital to invest or the product knowledge to keep key comics backlist on hand outside of what DC tells them is their "top 20" or whatever trade paperbacks Marvel has been allowed to keep in print this quarter.

A quick check at Diamond shows -- to us -- key Backlist titles like [Emmanuel] Guibert's The Photographer and [David] Mazzuchelli's City of Glass as unavailable at Diamond. [Hayao] Miyazaki's Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind series, which has been in print forever, is basically the Japanese The Lord Of The Rings, and Diamond hasn't had it in stock in maybe a half-dozen years? More? I know it's been Calum Johnston (Strange Adventures in Nova Scotia)'s personal mission to get Diamond to stock the Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli art books again, to literally no avail.


SPURGEON: You said you were involved with macro issues concerning TCAF, so let me get really macro. What do you feel the dangers are with developing TCAF? You seem to have gotten past that growth stage to where the show is a big, paid-attention-to hit, but where do you go from here? What does that show look like five years from now?

BIRKEMOE: Part of TCAF's recent success is having found a perfect venue -- the Toronto Reference Library -- but that success would also allow us to instantly outgrow that venue should we, for even a moment, loosen our grip on the reins. We are artificially keeping TCAF smaller, less-advertised, and as under the radar as possible, preferring to grow based on word of mouth and letting the right people know about it. It's our belief that we could double attendance next year, if we wanted. Our efforts are only going to buy us so much time, though, and the addition of more venues this year should hopefully ease some of the congestion this year.

One of the things I've joked about, with TCAF, is that it allows me not to have to travel to the shows I like. The creators come here. If it gets too much bigger it's going to be like the shows I have to travel to but don't like, coming here to Toronto.

I asked Chris. We don't know what the show is going to look like in five years. Given what he has accomplished so far, I'm pretty sure it'll look like whatever he wants it to look like, and I will have to learn to like it.

SPURGEON: How has your art sales business performed during this extended recession? What sells? For that matter, how big a business is that for you?

BIRKEMOE: Art sales is a very modest portion of our overall business, but a large portion of our presence online, at conventions that we attend, and interacting with the creative community. It's something that we are always looking at devoting more time and attention to, and have begun working with a number of new artists this year.

The recession was very noticeable at San Diego. The last two years of exhibition were still decent, but I have never discussed the economy more, all year, than I did those weekends.

SPURGEON: You mentioned above that you decided to turn DC's New 52 program into an outreach program for your store. Are there publishing initiatives you feel that are missing from the options set in front of you? For instance, could you make use of more aggressive alt-comic books? Could you make use of more aggressive book tours? Is there something you feel you could sell that you just don't see out there?

BIRKEMOE: As much as getting more people to read these comics is nice, and the DC 52 stuff was again very successful in that regard, I'm much more interested in better comics coming from the major publishers.

But, really, the DC 52 thing worked because people outside of our clientele and outside of our regular sphere of influence were aware of these books -- we worked to capitalize on that new market by actually having the books when they came out. DC made it easy for us to do that with aggressive discounts, returnability, and even variants. Our DC reps did everything they could to get us to stock deeply on this. Our sell-outs were quite unfortunately driven by other stores in our geographic area drastically underordering and unintentionally sending their customers our way. The sad thing is, we'll never really know how many gave up once we were finally out...

For the most part though, new readers are coming into our store through media coverage of comics and graphic novels. Reviews, interviews, and of course book tours. For the art-comix and graphic novels, of course we appreciate any and all publisher support but we will almost always make use of more. Times are tough, budgets are tight, we respect that, but we're willing to meet most publishers and projects at least half-way.

imageWe want more of everything as long as it's good. We're participating in Retrofit for new alt-comix monthlies, in two or three Kickstarter and indie distribution campaigns, all of the superhero and genre publisher initiatives and discounts, and we try to be a friendly face to all of the book pubs who manage to send their graphic novelists out on the road.

We've been around a very long time, and have built up great relationships with people throughout the industry. But if you look at our list of events for the past few years, you'll see that D&Q is easily the most-represented publisher, thanks to the efforts of Peggy Burns and her team. Part of that is that developed relationship and our proximity, but really Peggy has learned how to plan touring and promotion of the perfect scale for a given author and book, especially with a comparatively smaller budget and team than many much larger publishers.

But, yes, always more.

SPURGEON: You know, I probably should have asked this much earlier, but how big a ship do you run in terms of number of people on staff? What kind of manager of other people do you feel you are? Is there a culture to The Beguiling?

BIRKEMOE: We just sat down for our "Holiday" dinner last night, with everything from myself and the full-timers right down to the most casual of "specialty" helpers, and that topped out at 18 people. There's always been a "culture" at The Beguiling -- we've grown enough that there are now sub-cultures. Generally, the staff is friendly and hangs out together, the store is considerably more convivial than in the past... Little Island is downright warm and welcoming.

I'm pathologically even-keeled, and since I rarely get upset myself am not always the best at reading other people's emotions. Fortunately I have learned that people skills are something that you can delegate. I tend to hire people who are very good at individual things -- some numbers, some creative, some lifting -- and let them go. My managers are better multi-taskers. I provide general direction, and then ultra-specific direction when necessary.

I'm sometimes astonished when I walk into stores and see whatever staff or owner that is on-duty sitting around fully engaged in some role-playing game. There is a pretty constant hum of activity here and the mountain of work never seems to diminish. I have no objection to someone running a laconic workplace, I just don't see how you can stay in business doing it.

I'm child-free at 40, and I'll say that employees are much better child-substitutes than cats.


SPURGEON: What's the last book that crossed your desk that you really, really liked?

BIRKEMOE: We had a fantastic event with Marc-Antoine Mathieu this year. His works in English are Dead Memory from Dark Horse and The Museum Vaults from NBM -- he's a fantastic comics formalist, relentlessly inventive. He sent me a copy of his new book, 3" (3 Secondes), which he had tried to describe to me during his visit; "Imagine following a ray of light as it bounces around countless reflective surfaces over a three second span, and reveals a story as it does so." It's largely wordless so I look forward to hand-selling the fuck out of it when I get copies of it from France next month. It's nice to have something people haven't heard is coming, oops I guess I fucked that up.

It's also nice to have books that other people don't have, and can't get. Christopher just brought me an anthology of Tsuge (Screw-Style) stories from Japan, and despite owning several volumes of his work it's almost all new to me. I look forward to using what little Japanese reading ability I have left to struggle through this volume.


* The Beguiling
* Little Island Comics


* photo provided by Chris Butcher
* young Peter's three comic books; images assembled by Chris Butcher
* from Sim's High Society
* Francois Ayroles
* outside The Beguiling
* inside The Beguiling (from Chris Butcher)
* photo of Christopher Butcher by Charlie Chu
* Francis Manapul
* TCAF's main room in 2011
* from inside Little Island (from Chris Butcher)
* a little suite of books (from Chris Butcher)
* The Beguiling's set-up at TCAF
* a Retrofit comic
* from Marc-Antoine Mathieu's 3 Secondes
* one more of the storefront at The Beguiling (below)



posted 4:00 am PST | Permalink

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