Monday, November 20, 2017

The Comic Book Store Conundrum

I've been reading comics since the '60's.

Wait. Let me amend that statement. I learned to read from the comics in the '60's (and Dr. Seuss too but he's not the point of this post). In an issue of Spider-man, Peter had a friend who'd taken something called angel dust and gotten sick and was about to hurt himself. Peter as Spider-man saved his friend, and the cops said Spider-man was all right in their book. And a little boy asked his mom if Peter's friend would be okay. She said she didn't know.

Yeah, I was four at the time. I didn't quite understand everything that was going on. But for once, I couldn't quite glean the story from the colorful pictures like I could Superman or Batman. So I made the effort to figure out the words in the balloons.

Which led to the drugstore in town that had comics on the bottom rack of the magazine wall.

I didn't have money back then. I relied on my cousins. Especially my cousin Frank. He used his allowance to fill his comic addiction, and he'd let me read his books. In fact, he spent so much money the owner would let him and his friends have the stripped copies when the new books came in.

Then our little town's drugstore went out of business in the mid-'70's. The bookstores in the bigger towns closed soon after. Finally, comics disappeared from the big grocery stores as well. I didn't know this at the time, but this was one of the first distribution crises that would hit the publishing industry.

In the early '80's, my little brother's middle school was selling magazine subscriptions. Lo and behold, a few Marvel comics were available, including my favorite The Uncanny X-Men. So I coughed up the money for it and New Mutants.

Once a month, they arrived in our rural mail box. The trick became getting to the mail first. Otherwise, the younger siblings, and sometimes my dad (yeah, Dad, I know you were reading my X-Men), would read them and not necessarily return them right away. In Dad's case, I think he piled his farming magazines on top of them to keep Mom from knowing he was reading them.

(Mom was an English teacher and had some specific, and very negative views, of comics, and science fiction too. Mind you, she could go through a grocery bag of Harlequins in a month. I'm talking the big department store brown bag with handles. Pot meet kettle. *rolls eyes*)

By the time I was out of college in the late '80's, the independent comic store had sprung up. And since I had a job, I had this wonderful thing called discretionary income. I could buy more than just two books a month. And I lived and worked in a town that boasted two comics shops. You would have thought I was in heaven.

*sigh* Do you have any idea what it's like to walk into a store, money in hand to buy stuff, and have everyone stare at you?

(Yeah, I know some of you do, and I know why. You're not the ones I'm addressing.)

At the first store, I tried to check out some of the back issues of stuff I couldn't afford earlier in my life, like the '70's issues of the Legion of Superheroes, but the silence and the staring grew to be too much. I grabbed the current issue of Wonder Woman and went to the counter to pay for it. The owner sneered and said, "Figures that's what a chick would buy." I never went back to that store.

At the second store, the owner and other patrons weren't quite as weirded out by my presence. However, I made the mistake of discovering my first issue of Sandman. When I went to pay for it and the rest of my selections, the owner commented how a lot of "chicks" seemed to like that book.

I answered that I was glad Vertigo had resurrected Cain and Abel from DC's old horror lines. My statement seemed to shock the shit out of the owner. He blinked and asked what else I read. We actually had a civil discussion, which led me to dropping by his store once a month for my comic fix.

Unfortunately, the good times couldn't last. I took a new job in another state and had to suffer through the same crap as before. After a second job-related move and more uncomfortable staring and nasty comments, I went back to subscriptions, this time through comic store in Colorado called Mile High Comics.

Shortly afterward, the First Gulf War and its accompanying recession hit. I was laid off, and I thought I'd have to cancel my subscription. Then a miracle happened, and I don't just mean finding a new job.

I moved to small town in Ohio that had a little shop called the Book Nook. It was split into two sections. One was new and used romance books. The other side held new and used comics. The best part? The store was run by a little old lady who didn't give a flying flip about which side of the store you shopped. I was in heaven!

Until the husband I found in that little town and I moved to Houston. Then the bullshit at local comics shops started all over again.

Around this time, I had a niece whose tastes were as eclectic as mine. So for Christmas, I gave her the first trade paperback edition of Sandman. She loved it! The sad part was I didn't buy any of the books I gave her for subsequent Christmases from comics shops. Not wanting to deal with the bullshit, I went to Barnes & Noble instead, though one clerk in particular was as snotty as the comic shop people in the totally opposite way. *sigh*

Maybe my patronage didn't matter in the long run. By then, I was in law school, and I still had my Mile High subscription. But comics were stacking up faster than I could read them. A couple of years after Genius Kid was born, I gave up my subscription. Partly because I didn't have the time. Partly because I didn't like the creative turn the X-books were taking.

By the time I started homeschooling GK, the comics stores closest to our house with the nasty owners had gone out of business thanks to the combination of the economic downturns of 2001 and the house bubble bursting in 2008. One of my former secretaries recommended Bedrock City Comics near her apartment.

This store was worlds away from crap I'd experienced in my twenties. The staff were helpful and pleasant. My original mission to get GK hooked on Spider-man didn't succeed. He arrowed straight for the manga shelves. But I found I liked the new person writing Wonder Woman and picked up a bunch of new and back issues. And we went to pay, the manager asked if we found everything we wanted.

I laughed and told him I wanted to get my son hooked on Spider-man. The manager chuckled, but we had a nice conversation about the generational differences in reading material.

We couldn't afford monthly visits to Bedrock City at that point, but I tried to go quarterly as a reward for GK hitting a homeschool goal. Still couldn't get him to read Spider-man, though.

Then a new store opened closer to our place, but I didn't get the chance to check it out until a few days after we'd closed on the sale of our house. I had some time to kill because our Houston mechanic was doing some repair work on our car before I drove north. So I stopped at the shop on my way to pick up some lunch.

Holy crap! Women were working in this store! Not just one, but three! And they were fucking enthusiastic and engaging!

They wanted to know if I was looking for something specific. When I said I was just browsing, they cheerfully let me do so without trying to force a specific sale.

And I wanted to cry. Because this was the store I'd always wanted to go to, and now I may not ever visit it again. If you're in Houston, I strongly recommend The Pop Culture Company for its excellent selection.

At the time, I told myself, "It's okay. You're moving back to the place with the Book Nook."

However, when I pulled into the strip mall a few days later, the Book Nook sign was up, but the lights were out. I peered forlornly through the dirty windows at an empty store. Apparently, I'd missed their closing by a matter of months.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought my first comic since that visit to The Pop Culture Company three years ago. I bought the Wonder Woman '77 Meets The Bionic Woman trade paperback from Amazon. I fed my nostalgia bug and didn't have to deal with snooty clerks from either end of the spectrum.

So why am I telling this story? This morning, I read Ed Catto's column in the online magazine ComicMix. Ed's essay was an answer to Glenn Hauman's column from last week in the same magazine.

Some comic shop owners are blaming PC culture and/or SJWs for their downturn in business. Yet, from my experience over the last thirty years, a lot of these shop owners have gone out of their way to chase customers they don't approve of out of their stores. Customer who want to buy their products and have cash in their hands. And this was long before the issues of sexual harassment at publishers and representation in stories became publicly debated issues.

Nor is my gripe specifically about women versus men working in a comics shop. It's about attitude. I'm sad that only one male shop manager wanted to treat me as a customer from the moment I stepped into his shop instead of looking at me like I was a cockroach infestation. And that type of attitude difference can lead to long-term consequences for a retailer.

Retailers exist to fill a customer need or want. Customers don't exist to provide a living for the retailers. If the retailers are not fulfilling that want or need, then the customer will go elsewhere. It's that simple, and that difficult, at the same time.

I've seen a couple of different customer studies (most were proprietary which is why I can't quote them directly or provide links). If a customer has a good experience in your store, they will tell 1-2 people at most. If a customer has a bad experience, do you think it's the same ratio?

Nope, it increases exponentially. The customer will blast their bad experience to 10-20 other people. And the studies I've seen were commissioned well before the rise of social media. Now, bad experiences can lead to viral incidents where millions of people will see you acting like a shit to a ten-year-old girl who's dressed as her favorite superhero in your store.

So yeah, if you're a comics shop owner, times are a little tough. But don't make things tougher on yourself by driving away paying customers because they aren't 55+ white men. You know, like the cousins who first introduced me to comic books are now. Because they are retiring and dying, and by the time they finish, you won't have any customers at all.


  1. I never had that problem at comic shops, whether back in the 80s or later. Maybe the Bay Area was different, or maybe I was just lucky in the shops I went into.

    I did have that experience in a bookstore, though. A new, large, independent bookstore opened up near where I worked, and I stopped in one evening. My reading interests have always been eclectic, so I was there for over an hour, slowly examining almost all the shelves, picking books here and there. They had a lot of cool stuff, but their romance section was skimpy -- only one shelf section, and most of what was on there was Harlequins, which I had no interest in.

    I finally went to the register with a stack of ten or twelve books, totalling around a hundred dollars. The young man at the register asked me if I'd found everything I wanted.

    I said the store was great except for the romance section.

    He sneered and said, "Oh, you mean because it exists at all?"

    I said, "No, that's not what I meant," and said nothing more while he finished the transaction. I paid, took my books and left. And I never went back.

    This was before Amazon, before you could be pretty sure of easily finding whatever in-print book you wanted. A really good bookstore was a gem, but no matter how good their selection in other areas I was interested in, I really didn't need to subject myself to a store where a clerk would sneer at me while I made what was quite likely his largest sale of the day. If he couldn't be polite for a very good customer, what must he have been like to a woman who went up to the register with nothing but a couple of Harlequins?

    Yeah, no, I don't need to reward the assholes.

    That store went out of business about a decade later. No loss to the universe.


    1. I've never understood that mentality either, Angie, and I worked in a freaking bookstore. I'm pretty eclectic in my tastes too, but there's no way one person can know everything. If a customer had a question in an area outside of my knowledge, I'd grab a co-worker who did know, but I'd never sneer at someone else's tastes. I've had it done to me too many times.

      However, I am glad you were treated with respect in comic shops.