A Primer For the Comic Book Store Owner
Like most comic fans, I have at one time or another entertained the notion of opening my own comics store. It's the dream, the one that sits there next to actually working in comics, for a lot of fans. In fact, I did work for some time at Fusion Comics in Fort Collins, Colorado during my college days, which is where my tastes broadened somewhat and I started to learn how much I didn't know about the comics industry for the first time.
The problem is, too many of these fans follow their dream, open the shop, but don't bother to learn the details of running a business at the same time. That's a big part of what makes so many comic shops fail, and what gives the shops such a bad name in general across the country. Despite the fact that there are a number of really good stores, for every good one, there's probably two or three that you wouldn't send your worst enemy into.
I've shopped at a few stores in my lifetime. In Denver, where I first developed my comic-book "habit", I shopped at Mile High Fantasy Works in the Buckingham Square Mall. It was filled with the kind of elitist fanboys behind the counter who look down on you for buying Marvel and DC titles, and in general, I recall it as the worst shop I've shopped at. But, in all fairness, my taste at that point could be a little dicey, and while the help wasn't always great, there were a few people there who were really good, and Mile High is a chain that has always known what the business was about.
In Austin, I shopped at what was probably my favorite store ever, Dragon's Lair. The owner was a businessman first, fan second, but you never could have guessed that, because it never came across that he was just trying to make money. Bottom line is important in business, but so is passion for what you're doing, and David Wheeler had both. He also had an eye for staff, and even though some of the new people started off a little rough, they all developed into people I was glad to see behind the register.
In New York, I've frequented several shops, chief among them Jim Hanley's Universe and Midtown Comics. Both of which are amazing for the sheer amount and variety of product they carry. And both of which have been incredibly nice to me in various ways.
But (and if you didn't sense a but coming, you haven't been reading my columns long enough), they're the exceptions. And it's not just about the size and layout of a store. For all we talk about something being well-lit and family friendly, how the space looks means nothing if your people don't obviously have a connection to the medium and the fans.
A comic store isn't like a music store or a grocery store. It's more like a neighborhood bar, except that instead of selling beer on tap, they sell what Rob Hahn here at Psylum likes to call "geek crack." In this case, comic books. But the selling is only part of what a good shop does. It's a place where you see people every week that have something in common with you, and when you're in a much-maligned hobby group like comics, that's important. It's a place to talk about the newest creative teams, who's the best writer, what's the best book, what's the worst book, all that kind of stuff. To have stupid fanboy arguments and intelligent comics theory discussions all at the same time. It's a community center, the place where a love of comics is born and nurtured. It's not just a place to sell stuff.
At the same time, it is a business. If you love comics and want to talk about them all day, visit a store, don't open one. Going to the comics store should be fun, running one should be work. And if you don't realize that from Day One, you're going to wind up hating your job, your customers and most likely comics by the time you're done. And you'll have taken a lot of fledgling fans down that path with you, because owning (or working in) a comics store gives you an important voice in many fans' lives.
If I knew everything about how to run a comic-book store, I'd open one. So I can't sit here and tell you I have the perfect idea. But I do have some suggestions:
1) Realize that your job, first and foremost, is to stay in business. That means carrying product lines you may think are awful, be they mainstream Marvel or small press indies. While you can certainly express your taste, don't let it dominate your ordering, and don't let it affect your customer relations. Looking down on someone buying X-Men or scoffing at their purchase of the Alley Cat Lingerie Special is to be done by the fans, not by someone the fans have to trust to get their comics. Your job is to guide them to the good stuff for their own good, not to mock them in order to increase your own self worth. And if they want to keep buying what you consider crap, maybe you're wrong. Or maybe their tastes are different. They're the customer, and the customer is always right, cliche as that phrase may be.
2) Know the industry, not just your instincts. I looked at Chase from DC Comics and, had I been a retailer, I would have bought a ton of them. The art looked great, the story concepts were solid, and although the writing talent was unproven, I would have trusted it. As it turns out, I would have been stuck with a lot of issues for the cheap bin. Whether you've been reading comics for five, fifteen or fifty years, nobody has instincts good enough to rely solely on them. There is not a lot of great market research out there, but there certainly is something if you take the time to look for it. Comics Retailer from Krause Publications has very good statistics and is a great resource for any retailer, as an example.
3) If you build it, they won't come. I know marketing is a dirty word to a lot of people, but you need it. Advertise in local venues, the local paper or at a convention in the area. Do cross-promotions with movie theatres, because giving away 100 comics with stickers that denote the address and phone number of your store is worth the cost of those issues if you get 20 new customers from it. Or 10. Or 5. Find local creators and have signings, create a comics club that meets in the store, do something to get yourself noticed, and do it regularly, because there will always be fans who haven't heard of you yet.
4) Love your customers. I don't care if you think every single one of them is an unwashed, bad-mannered deviant, they are the reason you are in business. Say hello when they come in, talk to them when they're at your counter, and when they ask you a question, make an honest attempt to answer it. Saying "I dunno," by the way, is not a good answer. In a department store, it's okay if you barely talk to the customers, because they're there for the low, low prices, not the service. At a comics store, they need to feel like, at least when they visit, you're their friend.
5) Love your job. Most importantly, although it is a business, and it should feel like work, if you don't realize how lucky you are to be working in an industry this fun, there's something wrong. I have plenty of stress and unpleasantness in my job, as with any job, but at the end of the day, all I have to do is think "I'm getting paid to work in comic books!" and it all doesn't seem quite so bad. It should be the same way with running a shop.
Randy W. Lander has been pleased by the positive response to his industry-related columns, and hopes that this one doesn't get him lynched by store owners.