Robot 6

The perfect comic book store

On top of everything else, a giant lizard might crush your store

On top of everything else, a giant lizard might crush your store

For years I’ve imagined running my own comic book store. I’ve dreamed of it, even planned; sometimes I scope out locations while driving around town. I’m sure lots of fans have similar fantasies, but unlike everyone else, I would run the best comic shop ever. Not only would it be the best, it would be the most unique shopping experience. It would be perfect.

Of course, reality would be significantly different, and probably far less impressive. I mean, I’m fairly confident  I could make a better store than the guy from The Simpsons. But how would I really make it stand out? When I sit down and think about it, I don’t understand how anyone would think it’s a good idea to open up a store.

Here in Los Angeles, like in a lot of major cities, we’re pretty spoiled. There’s no shortage of truly exceptional stores, whether you’re in the Valley, in Hollywood or on the Westside. And if you want that old, crummy comic dungeon of yore, there are a few of those as well. The Westside might not be quite as saturated, but L.A. is generally well-covered, which means there might not be room for a new store. Invariably, I would be stepping on someone’s territory. A store here would either create bad blood with the nearest specialty shops and their patrons, or it would really have to go in a different direction and appeal to a neglected or untapped demographic. That’s certainly possible. On the other hand, L.A .rent is notoriously high.

So the alternative would be to move out of L.A. for less competition and lower rent. Maybe head north a little. Maybe Santa Barbara, or even up the central coast. They seem pretty neglected, according to CBR’s handy-dandy FindAComicShop.com. The risk there, though, is it might require more educating and advertising for people who might not be used to buying comics. There are still people who don’t realize comic books are even still being made. Those that do might already get their books delivered from an online mail order-service like DCBS, or through Amazon, or might have switched to a digital comics provider like comiXology.

Hm. OK, I’ll figure out the location later. What kind of store would I have? General comic book stores are a dime a dozen. If it’s going to be the greatest ever, it needs to really stand out. It could be like Bergen Street Comics and focus more on smaller publishers and indie books. I really like this idea, but starting out new, do I really want to turn away money from people looking for comics with some of the most recognizable characters on the planet? It could be like Little Island Comics and be just for kids. This idea really makes me happy, but then I think of dealing with crazy parents dumping their kids off as if the store were a daycare, or an angry parent screaming at me because little Billy dipped himself in purple paint after reading a Smurfs comic. It could be more like an indie bookstore and focus on graphic novels, just like … uh … some store that surely must be out there somewhere. But then there’s a month like January, where graphic-novel sales drop more that 14 percent in the direct market, and it sounds like an absolutely terrifying strategy.

From what I’ve heard, most comic book stores survive on a thin profit margin (if things are going well). So if I’m going to go the specialized niche-within-a-niche strategy, maybe the store should have something else “comics adjacent” to help with income, something to bring in potential customers who are apt to like comics but just don’t know it yet. Toys, T-shirts and other merchandise are probably smart, but would that be enough to supplement actual comic sales? I could rent or sell video games. They’re big money-makers, right? Except I haven’t really kept up with them since I couldn’t beat Marble Madness. I could rent and/or sell DVDs and Blu-ray, with a focus on movies and TV shows based on comics. When I was in high school, I worked at Blockbuster, so I’m totally qualified. What could go wrong there? Yeah, bad idea. I might as well sell CDs. If I go with the graphic novel/indie bookstore angle, I could sell books. Like, non-comic books. Then I’d have competition from two different types of stores. Hrm. An ice cream bar?

If I ever figure that part out, how will the comics be organized ? The layout can make or break a store. I’ve seen people swear off stores because they disagreed with how their new releases section was organized. My preference would be by genre, very similar to a book store: fiction and nonfiction, then split up from there. None of this nonsense of sorting by publisher. I’d even be tempted to sort by authors and creators. I know some stores do that, but it’s usually halfhearted with a Grant Morrison section and an Alan Moore section, and then the rest of the store alphabetical by publisher or alphabetical by everything.

The design of the store is also crucial. I would absolutely love something like Tokyo’s Tokyo, which has shelving custom-made to resemble comic book pages and panels. I also love how open and bright that store feels. It’s too easy for stores to get cluttered from filling every square inch with something that can be sold. But where’s the balance? A store isn’t supposed to be a complete representation of every Diamond Comic Distributors catalog.

And that gets to perhaps the hardest part: ordering. I know what I like. I know what’s popular. I know what I’d like to be popular. In the end, the stores customers define what the store orders and sells. That takes listening and time. But what if I hate my customers’ taste? Shouldn’t the store’s personality also define what is sold, and present itself as a taste-maker?

Oh, forget it! This is too hard. I’m going to go back to re-sorting my bookshelves.

Comic book retailers have hard jobs. From a comic fan’s perspective, it feels like all they do is sell their comic book collection, but the real retailers do so much more. They’re part mathematician, part interior decorator, part statistician, part pop culture expert, part psychic. I might be qualified to do half of one of those things.

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Comments

6 Comments

I’ve always had in the back of my mind that when I win the lottery (see? I am glass half-full, I said “WHEN I win”) I will open a 2-story building.

The first floor is a comic shop with a coffee & pastry shop inside, with couches and ‘reading copies’ of certain titles each month in a designated area, open until around 7 pm.

The second floor is a bar with a small stage for local music, which opens around 5 pm.

Lots of cross-pollination potential between the two floors, and the reading are of the comic/coffee shop allows people to try comics (and at least leaving with a coffee) without having to dive in with both feet.

I’d suggest making your store a ‘cornucopia’ of the types of comics and audiences you mentioned. Maybe take the approach of dividing your store into sections based on cities and streets: ‘The Indie City’ (Wind City), Main Street (mainstream/Big Two), Kid Court (the kids section), and a fourth section of your choice.

Another thing to note: if you hire a staff, you should make sure they are as helpful to the customers as possible.

Having shopped at many, many different stores in my lifetime, here’s some of my pet peeves:

1) Clutter. I remember one particular store which was ceiling to floor with merchandise. I couldn’t walk through that store without bumping into something (and feeling guilty about it). I tried taking my daughter’s stroller in there once, which just didn’t happen. I appreciate that the owner had a wide selection of everything available, but a casual fan who wasn’t used to comic shops could have been easily turned off by the place.

2) Limited selection. Realizing that this is the opposite of “clutter,” I get turned off by stores that have a short supply of back issues or trades for me to peruse. If what’s on your shelf is limited to this month’s books, I won’t have an incentive to look around for stuff.

3) Unfriendly staff. I’ve had salespeople do anything from ignore me (which is weird, because as the customer, I should be their lifeblood) to screw with me (I get that you’re trying to be funny, but if I’m sensitive, it’s not going to draw me back). Two of my favorite shop owners went out of their way to be very friendly. One always made an effort to track down stuff for me if he was sold out of it. The other always very enthusiastically greets me by name whenever I walk in (even though I’m one of hundreds of his customers and don’t shop there every week). I don’t expect anybody to give me that kind of personal attention, but it sure helps bring me back and recommend the store to others.

I agree with Adam’s third point. The people who work there are CRUCIAL!

My LCS is more of a used record/video/game store that happens to sell comics, so it’s not a comics only shop, and doesn’t really need to have that feel.

But if you’re a traditional comics shop, you need people who want to talk about comics. I’ve tried a few comic shops around town, and not one had employees who went out of their way to greet me. No “anything you’re looking for,” no “what have you been reading,” no “here’s what I recommend right now” … just a bland “hey, welcome.”

My original LCS, back where I grew up, is still one of my favorites around. It’s in Dallas, which has no shortage of good shops. Some of my favorite comics are ones that the owner recommended to me.

Make me feel welcome in your store, and I’ll come back. Otherwise, I just go to the place that happens to be closest.

Stores that focus mostly on graphic novels are places like Atomic Books in Baltimore or the bottom floor of The Beguiling in Toronto (sister store to Little Island). Both are doing pretty good, although Atomic is mostly a bookstore that happens to carry graphic novels. Ironically, the easiest way to get non-comics readers to come into a comic book store is to remove any mention of the word “comics” from the title or advertising.

To the point about making the shop convenient for regulars but welcoming to those who “might not be used to buying comics” altogether… I think local promotions/advertising is really important.

There’s a comics shop in my town, but essentially nobody knows where it is or how to get there. They know it exists. But they don’t go. It’s located in a faraway corner of “downtown” that’s near the railroad tracks and the old newspaper warehouse, and nobody wants to go wandering around these giant red brick buildings for an hour, trying to find a comic book store with zero signage.

How are they supposed to build a community if they don’t express an interest in interacting with it? In the summer, if it hasn’t rained, you’ll see a sign made of tape and marker with an arrow on the window of an abandoned building across the street. Way to go.

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