The Dragon was opened in 1998 by Jenn Haines, and over the last twenty years has won a slew of awards in recognition of the store's forward thinking positive approach to comics retail. Jenn stopped by to talk about what it's like running two (with a third on the way!) of the best comic stores in North America. For hours and location, check out their website here, and give them a visit next time you're in Guelph, Ontario...and starting in June, you'll also be able to visit their third location in Milton, Ontario!
How long have you been in comics retail?
I opened The Dragon in September of 1998, and worked for 3 years in a comic store before that.
What's changed the most for your business in the last ten years?
This is hard to answer, because we're constantly changing! To look at the store as I opened it (although 20 years ago by now) vs today, I would say the biggest growth has happened in graphic novels and board games. We also used to rent Anime DVDs when we opened, and had to drop that line about 8 years ago, due to the development of streaming options. For me personally, the biggest change within the last ten years, was having kids. My girls are 4 and 6 now, and it's definitely been a challenge to do things like relocate while 8 months pregnant, to do a 4 day convention with a 4 month old, to run the store with two little kids running around having cat parties, and just on a daily basis, to make sure their emotional needs are being met, while juggling all the things I have to do to make sure their financial safety is also guaranteed.
How do you decide what titles you are going to carry in the shop?
We have a very specific mandate: exceptional products and service for everyone. This means we are very family-focused, and welcoming of people of all ages, genders, and abilities. As a result, there are publishers, such as Zenescope and Avatar, that are special order only. We have a huge commitment to kids books, and I'll pretty much try any graphic novel that's intended for kids. And we are focused on providing a wide range of books to meet the tastes of our very diverse customer base.
Beyond that, we really just look at our customers' buying habits and see where their interests lie. For example, we don't carry collections of older material or any new hardcovers, as they've traditionally gathered dust. Instead, we want to give customers the chance to find things they won't usually find elsewhere. We order a lot from smaller publishers and self-published material direct from creators, as a result. Sometimes, a popular creator, or a really great publishing mandate, like that of Lion Forge, will get us to take risks on new series. And sometimes, it's just that I like the look of something. However, I've learned the hard way over the years that what I like is not what sells!
Do you keep up with the comics news--and what does the term "comics news" mean to you?
I honestly don't. I wish I had more time in the day to find out what is going on. But, there's also so much clutter out there. That is, there's a lot of negativity and sensationalized media about comics, that I'm not interested in engaging with. So, mostly I get my news from what I "overhear" on social media, or from attending summits and trade shows. I focus only on things that will help me make informed ordering decisions, as everything else is just noise. Just recently, I've spearheaded an initiative with ComicsPRO to create a comics blog, but the focus of that won't be breaking news but shining a positive and educated light on new releases, creators, and companies. It's currently in its infancy, but you can find it at comicsprogress.com
Oh my goodness, so much harder!! I do everything myself: scheduling, payroll, accounting, marketing, ordering, HR and more. It's a wonder I actually have time to sleep! I have a breakdown of what I need to get done every day, with the weekends and evenings reserved for longer processes. So, Mondays, I do FOC, update the webstore, update our upcoming comics flip-book, and answer emails from the weekend. Tuesdays, we receive the order, and I generate games orders. Wednesdays, I work on events management, and complete payroll and scheduling. Thursdays, I do comics reorders. Fridays, I catch up on accounting. Interspersed with that, I fight fires (not literally), write articles, pay bills, communicate necessary information to staff, develop processes, update manuals, and more.
I totally love it though! I'm someone who needs challenges and lots of work, and I really thrive on the day to day troubleshooting I have to do. I started this business knowing very little about what I was doing, and I've had to learn a lot over the years to adapt to the changing environment, and to develop the skills necessary to run what is a very complicated business. As a store that does comics and games equally, there are a lot of moving parts.
I also started a programme working with schools several years ago, to marry my teaching degree and love of comics. I provide library consultations to help schools bring in the best selection of graphic novels. I provide workshops for students, in which we look at Bone and discuss various storytelling techniques. It usually results in a pretty big light bulb moment for their teachers, when they discover that comics are more than they imagined. I also go into schools and set up book fairs for them, with 10% of the sales going back to the school. I've even worked with teachers on graphic novel curriculum, and provided workshops for teachers on how they can use comics in the classroom. So, this keeps me pretty busy on top of everything else!
You may well ask: when do I sleep?
What do you wish more publishers knew about comics retail?
I wish all publishers would spend a little time in a store to really understand how complicated the selling of comics can be. The publishers put out a lot of material and then leave it to us to sort through, pick the items we want to sell, and then order accordingly, but they don't necessarily really understand what it's like once the books reach stores. The variation among collectors is massive, from people who view comics as disposable to people who want pristine copies and all the variants. Recently, we did a survey of our customers to figure out what condition they liked for their books. This has allowed us to tailor our subscription pulls a little more, and has reduced the amount of damages we have to claim with Diamond. It also means our customers get more books on time (as there's no direct reorders in Canada, so we have to wait 2 weeks for damage replacements). Plus, we retailers basically need a crystal ball to figure out what comics are going to hit or not. With so much product to choose from, and such a vast array of tastes, it's nigh impossible to order correctly. There literally is no formula to figure out which book will hit, because they often don't generate buzz until after FOC. And books that used to be guaranteed hits, like major events, are failing to ignite interest, resulting in a glut of excess product sitting in long boxes in storage.
What do you wish more customers knew about comics retail?
That's an easy one to answer - that we don't have the aforementioned crystal ball, and if customers try to reserve a copy of a title the day or week before it's out, we might not have any copies left to sell to them. This is actually heart-breaking for me. I legitimately want every customer to get what they want. It's frustrating for me when they get upset with us for "just not ordering enough copies", when of course I would have had enough copies, if I had known so many people would want it. We actually developed an upcoming comics flip-book, to try to address this issue. It lists upcoming #1s, crossovers, and special events, in an attempt to generate subscriptions. It also indicates when the order cut-off is. Each week, we put the items about to expire at the front of the flip-book, so customers can be reminded to get their orders in. We've only been doing this for about 2 months now, but it feels like our numbers are more accurate than ever!
It's the same as it's always been: comic stores that are fostering and maintaining the terrible stereotypical comic store environment. These are spaces that don't believe in comics for kids, that are non-inclusive spaces, that have no signage or dim lighting or dusty shelves (or all of the above). I honestly would like comics to become a normalized shopping experience. Anyone should be able to walk into a comic store and see it not as a strange place they don't understand, but as a welcoming place to shop. It should be like walking into Chapters or Barnes & Noble, except the shelves are filled with wonderful, wonderful comics!
What has you most excited about comics right now?
The ongoing growth and development of kids graphic novels and comics. The major publishers are all getting into the game now and seeing the growth potential in this market. It wasn't so long ago that I pretty much had to order everything put out for kids so that I could have a robust selection. The result was ending up with quite a bit of sub-par material. Now, there's so much being put out there and the quality is so high, that we can pick and choose, and offer the absolute best graphic novels and comics to our customers. And it's exciting to see more and more stores realize how much this can grow their business and customer base, and taking the time to curate their own kids graphic novel sections. I really look forward to seeing this trend continue to grow as more retailers decide to buy in.
Lastly, Barrier by Brian K Vaughn. I know a lot of retailers are upset about the landscape format and the weekly shipping, but first off, Image has done a great job to put together a program that mitigates the risk to retailers. I'm a big fan of seeing artists push the medium of comics to new levels, and that's what's happening here with the landscape format. Will it be harder to put on the shelf? Sure. Does that mean we should ask the artist to sacrifice their vision for the sake of commerce? Absolutely not. So far, I've loved all Vaughn's creator-owned work, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does with this new series!