• Everything But Imaginary #432: What NOT To Do In Your Comic Shop

    As I mentioned in last week's brilliant, insightful and soon-to-be Nobel Prize-winning column, this weekend I took a road trip to Florida with some buddies of mine. As we are wont to do, while out there we looked up some local comic book stores, because I like to check out stores in distant locations and come back and talk about it on the internet. Typically speaking, I'm pretty forthcoming here – if I like a store, I praise it, if I have a problem with a store I'll tell you the name and what city I was in, and exactly what needs to be changed. This time, though, I just can't bring myself to do it. Because out of the two shops we visited, one of them was nice enough (TBS Comics II in Pensacola), although we didn't really explore it in depth because of the gaming going on at the time, the store was really crowded. But the other store... well...

    By the time I walked out of the other store, I'd never really felt quite so sorry for a shop or its owner.

    Allow me to explain, in nonspecific terms, because I really don't want to trash-talk this poor guy. But from the moment I walked into the store, I was slapped in the face with a massive checklist of things not to do if you want to run a successful comic shop. So for the sake of anyone who is opening their own store – or who has a store now that isn't performing like you want it to – listen up. If any of this applies to you it's time to fix a few things.

    When I first walked into this store – which, for the sake of discussion, I shall refer to as Generic Hoarder Comics, or GHC for short – I was immediately struck by... well... an avalanche of stuff. When you walk into this store, the merchandise isn't arranged neatly or orderly on shelves or countertops. Even card tables would be an improvement over what faced me. This shop, which at one point probably was very nice, was lined with bookshelves along all the walls. On the left side of the store were a few racks of recent comics, behind which was another bookshelf. On the right was the counter with the cash register, and several tables of longboxes, and on those walls were displays of toys.

    The fact that this exists is a crime against GeekdomCovering every conceivable surface was more merchandise. Statues. Hardcover books. Paperbacks. DVDs. Minifigs. Candy dispensers. Hot Wheels cars. And mountains and mountains of action figures. Some of them were decades old – I recognized several Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures I distinctly remember getting for my 11th birthday. You could actually trace the evolution of toy manufacturing through this store, with 20 years of Star Wars toys, an embarrassing number of figures from the Batman and Robin toy line (embarrassing because I am, in fact, talking about the George Clooney movie), several Babylon 5 figures I quite wanted while I was in college, toys from various Tick related toy lines, figures from pretty much every superhero action figure line you can imagine, and so many Japanese anime dolls that Kenny “The Fan Guy” Fanguy's eyes nearly rolled out of his head and bounced off a Han Solo in Carbonite Ice Tray.

    In many ways, this shop is a wealth of riches. But in a far more important way, it's a death trap that Indiana Jones himself would be wary of. (For some reason my metaphors are clinging to Harrison Ford today.) These figures, statues, and other items are piled on top of each other with no rhyme or reason, and any effort to sift through them could trigger a chain reaction that would send the entire store collapsing in upon itself and, in the process, reverse the Big Bang by its sheer gravitational pull. This was the sort of place where any careless gesture, any misplaced step, any instance of breathing too hard could be deadly. Some geeks have long dreamed of a death that included being crushed by Power Girl, She-Hulk, or Smurfette (I don't judge). This is the place where it could actually happen.

    Frank ChoThen there were the comics available. A typical comic shop will leave a book in the new release section for three, maybe four months tops, then bag it up and put it with the back issues. But not this store. No, there were loose comics on the racks that dated back over a decade. Along with this week's new releases, it was only a short walk to pick up comics like CrossGen's Route 666, dozens of Chaos! Comics' Lady Death issues, or issue #25 of Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows (May 2002 – this was before he moved to Image Comics, people). Cover price. Which actually sounds kind of cool, except for one fatal flaw: the condition of the books. Aside from sitting in a dusty room with poor circulation for many, many years (one of those years, I would later learn, included the destruction of the front of the store thanks to Hurricane Ivan), these books were bent and peered at the way comics are frequently treated in Big Box Bookstores. If you've ever checked out the comics section at a Books-A-Million you've seen it: dozens of innocent comics pulled down, cracking their spine so the potential customer can see behind it, damaging it irreparably in the process. It makes me hurt every time I look at a comic book in that condition. This was a whole store.

    All of that was bad enough, but the owner itself was what put it over the top. Talking to comic shop owners is fun. A lot of them have some really cool stories and great insights on the comic book artform that the average reader may not think about. And especially when they know you're from out of town, they like to trade stories with you. It's awesome.

    What did this guy want to talk about?

    His diabetes.

    Well, not just his diabetes. He also mentioned his heart condition, his angina, the news that his business was failing miserably, and the fact that he could only afford insurance on the store itself and not the merchandise, so when Hurricane Ivan ripped the front of his store away in 2005, it cost him upwards of $25,000. This is all terrible news. And it makes you feel genuinely sorry for the man. But I ask you, my fellow consumers... is any of this a selling point?

    Batton LashWell, let's look at the purchases we made. Of the four of us, Daniel and Mike bought nothing each. (This is no surprise – Daniel doesn't read comics and Mike goes through these temporary periods where he ruthlessly avoids anything that might bring him joy.) I bought exactly one comic – a $2.99 introductory issue to Batton Lash's Wolff and Byrd: Counselors of the Macabre from 1997... off the “recent” shelf. And I bought that simply because I felt sorry for the guy. Kenny, on the other hand, pulled out the cherry-colored miner's helmet he keeps in his car for just such an occasion and went spelunking in the burial mounds for a few action figures and statues that caught his fancy, including an old Power Girl figure he's sought for quite some time. I won't tell you exactly how much money he spent without his permission, but I'll tell you this: it was the most anybody had spent in this shop in years, judging by the owner's reaction. He thanked Kenny no less than five times for his purchases. If he had a daughter in the back room, I firmly believe he would have thrown her in free of charge.

    So back to the original question – was anything about this store a selling point? I made my purchase out of pity. Kenny made his because he found something he was genuinely looking for and he likes to freak his mother out when she goes over to his apartment and sees statues of Japanese cartoon characters in various states of undress. But repeat business? Not from me. Even if I lived in Pensacola, even if I liked next door to GHC, I'd drive across town to go to TBS Comics (because, as Daniel noted, they're “Very Funny”... also, I can look through their dollar bin without worrying about a Boba Fett Mighty Mugg falling and crushing my skull) rather than return to this place.

    So if you've got a shop of your own that isn't doing very well, friends, think about what I've just said. Does your comic book store suffer from any of these symptoms? Is it possible to find what the customer is looking for without lapsing into a manhunt that would foil every US Marshall on the heels of Richard Kimball? (Last Harrison Ford reference, I swear.) I'm no businessman, but I know that every moment a piece of unsold merchandise sits on your shelf it's costing you money in storage, and at some point that cost is going to far outweigh any potential sale you could possibly make on that item. For most of the stuff in GHC, that moment came at about the time Ivan kicked in the front window and opened a pull folder. Clear the junk out. Have a massive sale. Sell it on eBay. Give it to Social Concerns or, next Christmas, Toys for Tots. Sure, it'll cost you money, but it will at least empty out the store of stuff that is never going to move anyway, making the atmosphere much more inviting to potential customers, who may be more likely to buy that tin replica of Supergirl in her rocket ship if they don't think removing it from the shelf will result in cracking open a Ghostbusters Containment Unit and releasing Viggo the Carpathian.

    And whatever personal issues you have, keep them to yourself. I know, your regular customers get to be close. They get to be more than just faces you see on Wednesday afternoons. Hell, I've often said one of the main reasons I could never imagine going strictly digital with my comics is because I would miss the socialization aspect of the comic shop too much, and that I consider the guys at my own local shop to be personal friends (what up, Jason and Monty?). But nobody walking into your store wants to hear how many injections you got in your ass last year. Will it make you closer? Sure. Right up until the point that your customer gets so uncomfortable that he logs on to the Comic Store Locator website and looks for the nearest alternative.

    I love comic book stores, and I want them all to thrive. So it pains me when I see a shop doing so much that's wrong. If you or someone you love is making the same mistakes please, stop them. Before it's too late.

    Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page.
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. ErinPatricia's Avatar
      ErinPatricia -
    1. Terry Verticchio's Avatar
      Terry Verticchio -
      OMG, in that picture of the Supergirl figure your friend bought there are...one...two...three...Ghost Rider figures that probably date from the days when the character was popular in the early 90's.

      Oh yeah this guy needs a fire.
    1. Blake Petit's Avatar
      Blake Petit -
      You're telling me. This was almost Kenny's last known photograph.
    1. Terry Verticchio's Avatar
      Terry Verticchio -
      I always cry a little when I see comics on those spinner racks at the big book stores, pretty much outside any LCS. Those poor comics.

      TBH some of those figures could be worth a lot of money if he dumped them on Ebay. You know how Nerds are about these things.
    1. Craig Reade's Avatar
      Craig Reade -
      At least you got a good book - I love Wolff and Byrd books.

      It sounds to me like that shop owner is similar to the vast majority of used bookstores I find these days - people that have a hobby - and decide to open a shop to continue their hobby (instead of running a business). Which is fine - if you don't really need to live off your income.

      I love going in stores like that when I am treasure hunting... but to regularly shop at a place like that would be difficult.