A Seasonal Snapshot of Retail Funny Business

During this holiday shopping season, as the big box retail chains plead with us to meet our patriotic obligations by buying shiny new stuff from our Asian creditors, comic book shops rely on different strategies to ride out the recession. Some embrace niche marketing. Others hedge their bets by incorporating atypical merchandise along with their comic offerings. Some dare to ignore established retail models and rely on the quirkiness or intelligence of their customers to keep their heads above water. Most of them, however, will just keep selling superhero tales to adolescents of all ages until they go the way of blacksmiths and smoke shops.

Power fantasies are still way more popular than reality based books or graphic freeform experiments. The superhero-based companies still control the vast majority of the comic market, but today they find themselves making scads more money in multi-media outlets – feature films, video games, digital applications – so much that comic book divisions have become the poor relations of the biz. Nevertheless you first need to publish Spider-Man comics if you want Sam Raimi to make three blockbusters movies based on them. Scott Pilgrim didn’t have to wait as long for big screen success as Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne, but he also began his career in the funny papers. For Marvel and DC, comic books are a means toward that end. For most comic shops, it’s their bread and butter.

It’s not easy to succeed as a comics/graphic novel retailer in the era of digital communications. Comic shop owners are up against Amazon and other online discounters, and, unable to compete, are forced to watch people in their stores scan ISBN codes with their smart phones, then hurry out empty-handed so they can order the same books at a discount from Amazon. On top of that, shop owners now also have to contend with the deep discounts offered directly to consumers from the same publishers who wholesale stock to stores.

This practice especially annoys Hollywood’s Meltdown Comics owner Gaston Dominguez. “Most manufacturers, like Marvel from the top to the smallest micro-press, will sell directly to customers for cheap. The idea of the SRP (suggested retail price) has been shot out of the water when the manufacturers themselves are selling it at a discount. Every time I have to put a $3.99 comic book two months later for a quarter in my quarter bin, that’s hard cash, like two bucks gone, literally hard dollars. That keeps happening more and more.”

Meltdown operates in 14,000 square feet of retail space at a high rent address. Its carries all the latest comics, games, and graphic novels, along with a wide range of children and adult apparel, two display galleries, a comedy theater and after school classes in making comics. “We hope to be a nerd hub,” said Dominguez. All we need is a super hero knitting circle. I’ll do it. I’m down. We’re the Death Star of this shit, man. People have to come to us. We’re a destination store. We’re deeply embedded into our neighborhood, our community.”

Meltdown concentrates on its core customers and does what it can to encourage a continuing crop of comic consumers, said Dominguez. “If someone thinks that they’re going to make a buck as a hobbyist in consumer society, then they might as well close down now. It’s retail. We’re dollars and cents. The goal is to sell, not to show off your collection. It’s crazy – the wanting to create your own way of making a buck. I could go work for someone else, but I would die in a week. That will never happen. So I have to maintain and make sure by all means necessary that we continue to grow, adapt and cater with our core product, which is comic books.”

Comic shops like Brooklyn’s Desert Island avoid the mainstream market and concentrate on a more discerning customer base, said proprietor Gabriel Fowler. “My gambit from the beginning – I’ve only been here four years – but I started out specializing in more oddball types of publications, things that are more on the fringe of the mainstream comic world. I don’t carry a lot of Marvel or DC for example. The mainstream stores are hurting because people are pursuing other ways to access that media. We’ve got Amazon on one side and digital on the other side and that’s beating the hell out of us. It’s pretty hard to survive that. If you can get comics digitally or if you can get them on Amazon people will go to those places. That is the story of mainstream comics in a nutshell in 2011.”

Survival lies in stepping apart from the herd, he believes. “It’s similar to what’s already happened with music becoming digital. In New York, the record stores that are still afloat are the ones that really specialize either in oddball stuff or hard-to-find stuff. I’m adapting that model for my comic store.”

“I have a very artsy macro view of what comics are, so a lot of the books I have in here are abstract visual books that are not necessarily story telling. I attempt to dig pretty deep and get stuff from other countries, or more esoteric stuff from the art world. I import a lot of stuff, like French books from publishers like Dernier Cri, who makes silk-screened books and United Dead Artists. They’re a similar company making visual books. My store is tiny and I specialize in this stuff, so people find me when they’re into that.”

Book release parties and signings are his lifeblood, he said. He works with visiting artists to create original signed and numbered silkscreened posters for each event. “If I hear that an artist I like has a book coming out, if they’re anywhere near New York, I’ll try to find a way to rope them in. I want to be the one who hosts the artists that I like, so I’m very proactive about pursuing that. And if they agree, I try to get them to do a print. I really push that.”

Fowler also publishes a quarterly all-comic tabloid newspaper called Smoke Signal. “It’s a money loser but it’s very good at building good will. That gives me another reason to reach out to artists constantly. I don’t pay anyone to be in this newspaper but artists who are interested in getting their work on newsprint love it.” He also co-organizes the just-finished Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival.

His storefront in the Williamsburg neighborhood, which once housed a bakery, features a curved glass window display space. “I use that as a place to do art installations. Every month or two I have a different artist make something totally unrelated to comics or books. Most bookstores put books in their windows, which to me is the most boring thing of all time. People come to the store to check that out if nothing else. It’s like a year round art gallery within a window.” The signage above the window still advertises Sparacino’s Italian French Sicilian Bread, but he added the panel “And Comic Booklets” at the bottom. “As a lover of old hand-lettered signs, and as a lover of the absurd, I had to keep the wordy old sign and add on to it. We have a Desert Island sign painted on the door.” People frequently come in looking for bread, and he directs them to the active Italian bakery a block down the street.

Fowler may not feel much of a kinship to the mainstream comic outlets that cater to kids, but believes he’s on the wave of a new business model that reflects the changing nature of the comic medium, where graphic design and free association as are significant as character development and narrative forms. He’s not alone in this thinking, he said. “This one store that I know in Portland is Floating World Comics. That guy seems pretty important to me. I met him once, Jason Leivian, and it’s like we share the same brain. We’re doing some pretty similar things. We started our businesses around the same time. My store is called Desert Island and his is called Floating World. It’s just strange. He seems to be doing well. He moved into a new space recently and has an art gallery going.”

On one hand it’s easy to find alternative publications to supplant superhero comics, said Liz Mason, manager of Quimby’s Books in Chicago, but the hard part is selling print products aimed at the intelligent reader in the same quantities. Maybe consumers can be educated to evolve more sophisticated tastes, she suggested.

“We get a lot of teachers in here who want to teach comics to grade school and secondary school and even college,” said Mason. “I see that both the study of and the making of comics has become a very popular part of school curriculum. That makes me think we’re creating more comic enthusiasts and comic artists at a younger age, so maybe as time goes on and people learn about comics as an especially cool alternative at a younger age, that’s like a trickle up, you know? We’re merely talking about the popularity of comics. We’re not talking about the sale of comics, but if we’re talking about it from a level of social engagement, that’s a different story.”

Quimby’s sister store in the Windy City, Chicago Comics, carries more comic books, while Quimby’s is primarily a bookstore, although there is some crossover, Mason added. “We sell a little bit of everything. We do sell a lot of graphic novels, and we sell comics and mini comics and underground comics, but we also have some fiction and some art books and design books and music books, street art, and zine related anthologies, Graphic novels and comics are a big part of our inventory but by no means all of it, and by no means a majority of it.”

They actually encourage up and coming cartoonists to consign their comics and include a submissions form on their website. “A lot of people talk about print being dead and I laugh when I hear that because a lot of the zines and comics we sell are totally unsolicited, so it’s like Christmas every day because we never know what’s going to come in the mail. People just print out the form and send their comics and zines. Every day we have a lot of envelopes to open, which is really fun. I’m constantly lamenting the fact that we have so much wonderful stuff to look at and we don’t have room to display everything face out. We’re constantly rearranging and trying to be effective and smart about how we stock our items.”

To reach a larger customer base, some comic shops tailor their selection to attract the same people who buy literate books. For instance, at Portland’s CounterMedia bookstore, comics represent only a third of the inventory, and they are more often than not autobiographies, histories or literary graphic novels. Another third of the inventory is comprised of books: weird, bizarre, alternative and underground books. The final third is smut: books, magazines, comics and photographs - straight, gay, lesbian, new, used and vintage. Their cache is almost certainly the largest selection of high-end erotica in the country, with more than a thousand items at any given time.

“You would think that smut would far outsell comics,” said owner Charles Boucher.

“Comix, Smut & Weirdness” boasts the slogan on his store window, along with a logo designed by Dutch cartoonist Peter Pontiac, showing a smiling pig in a shop apron happily taking cash from a furtive little man and a pimply youth.

CounterMedia benefits from the fact that Oregon has virtually no obscenity laws. In 1987 the Oregon Supreme Court, in State v. Henry, abolished the offense of obscenity in its state law and declared “no law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever.”

Which means that no fetish goes unexploited at CounterMedia. One of management’s employee training documents, "Pricing Straight Porn Paperbacks," contains these guidelines:

Starting from a base price of $2.50, you add to that price based on the following criteria:

Add $1 for the word “Satan” or “Devil” in the title.

Add $2 for rubber clothing, corsets and/or other fetish clothing, pregnant, lactating, fat, twins, nurses, preponderantly anal-oriented.

Add $5 for Nazis, Commies and other military villains, amputees, dwarves, and circus freaks.

Add $7 for medical equipment, enemas, pee, and scat.

Add $15 for bestiality, necrophilia, murder and spitting (just kidding about spitting).

“Because Oregon is so liberal, I never feared being busted for what I sell,” said Boucher of his stock of erotica. What does concern him are the gawkers who camp out in the smut room with no intention of buying. As a result all of the shelves are signed, "20 minute Browsing Limit."

Other signs warn readers to handle his merchandise with care.

If you so much as crease a page in this book, I will hurt you, I swear I will. Please do not underestimate my seriousness in this matter. I am currently on probation, and assaulting you (with a pair of scissors, a screwdriver – whatever’s handy) will probably get me 15 to 20 years, and yet – and YET – I’d do it in a heartbeat if only for the pleasure of watching you bleed. Thanks for shopping at CounterMedia! Tell your friends about us. The owner.

CounterMedia received a Best of Portland award in 2000 for “Best promise of bodily harm by a bookstore.” Today his in-store signage also includes a much milder directive, addressing the migration of buyers from brick-and-mortar local shops. It's a sign Boucher borrowed from the Chelsea Bookstore in New York, which borrowed it from the Harvard Bookstore. "See it here. Buy it here. Keep us here.”

The biggest change Boucher has seen in 15 years is the rise of the graphic novel and the waning of the traditional pamphlet format. “When I first opened the store in 1996, there were way more comic books than there were graphic novels. That's probably still the case in traditional comics shops that sell mostly super hero titles. But at CounterMedia, the situation has now reversed itself. I think you can attribute it to several things. Graphic novelists and graphic cartoonists have begun to see the benefits of producing a whole book as opposed to installments. From the publisher’s point of view, the rewards are immense. They get to sell in regular bookstores where they were not able to place comics before. This legitimizes the form, and it's became more like the literate novels, memoirs, and biographies that people have read for years. Comics in the graphic novel format have joined the mainstream of book publishing while the old pamphlets are fading away except in the very mainstream market.”

Another unfortunate development is that most traditional hideaways of collectable goods have been emptied, Boucher lamented. “All these things that used to be squirreled away in people’s attics or some bookstore’s backroom have been flushed out. People know these things have value now.”

Gaston Dominguez agrees. “We used to do massive business in comic book back issues, but in 2001 or whenever eBay became the shit, people stopped coming to us. It just went from collector to collector, skipping the stores. We had to start going to antique shows and starting our own network of feeders for vintage items instead of a guy cleaning out his closet, or a mom throwing away an Action Comics #1. That just doesn’t happen anymore. They’ll go find an auction house because it’s big news, or they will put it themselves on Craigslist or eBay or even Amazon. That’s all stuff that would end up in local stores. One click shopping has taken away the mystery of the comic book store.”

Gabe Fowler doesn’t like to sell merchandise at online auction sites, but sometimes he has to, he said. “I recently got an entire box of Captain Beefheart’s books of paintings. These books are hard to find and I happened to stumble onto this box. Well I can’t sell that entire box out of the store but I put them on eBay and sold them for a good price right away. People don’t come to my store looking for a book of Captain Beefheart’s paintings.” That particular lot was an exception, he said. “I honestly try not to do too much of that. If I have something that’s interesting or rare I want to make it a reward for coming to my physical store. Otherwise why bother paying this New York rent? I want people when they walk into the store to find something they could never find elsewhere.”

“We put a few things up on Amazon,” admitted Liz Mason. “We have this Chris Ware print he let us reprint, the blueprint of the Quimby’s sign that he drew. We sold it at the Buy It Now option on eBay.” Online sales only represent a small portion of their business, she said.

These four retail outlets may be exceptions rather than the norm in the comic trade and their experiences might not relate directly to the majority of comic shop owners around the country. I provide no statistics, sales figures, pie charts, or fiscal analyses to support an economic theory or project into the future. It’s a cursory examination at best but it taps into some of the more imaginative minds in the business of selling funny books. I could end with the suggestion to go buy lots of holiday gifts and bring the troops home, but instead, I’ll talk about nostalgia. Some readers can remember candy stores where pennies and nickels used to buy a generous assortment of goodies. Or reading at the revolving comic rack while your Mom shopped at the grocery store. Or free clinics where toy shops brought in yoyo experts to demonstrate and teach. Those were the days, huh?

The truth is these are now the good old days. Get out there and enjoy things while they last. We live in a golden age of comics, with more new titles and collections of classic reprints appearing every month. Make regular visits to a comic store near you and one day you can tell your grandkids all about it.