Desert Island Comics is a modestly sized shop packed with visual books and art from top to bottom. Regular serial and indie comics, illustrated kid's books, art books, graphic novels, handmade artists books, vintage Mad magazines and comics, and copious prints and posters. The decor includes an enormous handmade chandelier of swirling blue arrows, novelty bumper stickers, elaborate paisley wallpaper, sculptiral remnants of former window displays, and piles of Smoke Signal, the free comics anthology regularly published by the store. For hours and info, check out their about page. We spoke with Gabe Fowler, owner and operator about the shop!
How long have you been in comics retail?
Desert Island opened in February 2008, so a little over 10 years.
What's changed the most for your business in the last ten years?
The rent has gone up 160%.
How do you decide what titles you are going to carry in the shop?
I guess the most unique thing about our store is anyone can sell an illustrated book here, comics or not, with no editorial input or decision making from us. I want everyone to be able to participate. People often refer to Desert Island as a "curated" store, but if every item was chosen by me that would be boring as hell. I choose items and artists choose me. It's a mixture. It's also a service. When somebody walks in looking for an item we don't stock, whether it's a mainstream comic, a children's book, or hair-raising experimental work, I immediately attempt to order it. That's how I learn about the cool shit! Give the people what they want.
Do you keep up with the comics news--and what does the term "comics news" mean to you?
Comics news generally means somebody in comics has done something horrible or died, and I usually learn about it on twitter. If I want real content, I'll read my old Comics Journal magazines. You guys need to bring that back! The website is okay, but I'm never going to reread it. I've reread certain interviews from the old Journal countless times, and it's worthwhile. I can't even find that shit on your website. Is it even there? Interviews and reviews, printed on newsprint, magazine sized, sold at a break-even price point. Comics needs this!
Thanks for the support Gabe! What's your weekly routine with your store like? Has it gotten easier or harder since you started?
I have some outstanding people working for me on the weekends, so my week starts in the shop on Monday but trying to figure out what isn't there anymore. I make lists of what I need to reorder and gauge the urgency of the need. If I have an artist event during the week I make sure we'll have event books. Beyond that I try to be a good citizen of my own store, talk to people, meet visitors, learn about projects customers are working on, and stay engaged. I meet a lot of people and generally get a lot of input, so when I learn about a cool artist or project, I try to immediately send and email to get involved before I forget what I'm doing.
What do you wish more publishers knew about comics retail?
Simply this: the world does not need more objects, so yours need to be the greatest things that have ever been made. Get out of here with that laser-printed print-on-demand garbage.
What do you wish more customers knew about comics retail?
Retail stores are not a photo opportunity to improve your Instagram feed. If you like a store, if they offer you anything in the way of discovery or entertainment, even if it's just a cute place to meet up with your tinder date, lay down your hard-earned cash and contribute to their existence.
What gets you most annoyed about comics right now?
I try not to sustain annoyance. There's a lot of regrettable beating-of-dead-horses in comics, and the horse-beaters need to grow a brain or get out of the way. Let me say this: if you look at comics history or comics present and are troubled by problematic material or problematic creators, THAT'S GOOD. When you spot a problem, that's the world telling you it's your turn to correct it. This is literally why I run a store. All the other stores were full of stale garbage, run by assholes, had no sense of style, and were always playing shitty music. I realized it was my duty to address these problems and try to find a better way.
What has you most excited about comics right now?
A ten year old neighborhood kid just came in here and showed me his hand-drawn 50-page epic comic, and read the entire thing out loud with sound effects. He didn't do this for money, he did it to participate in the culture and express himself. I'm right there. That's all I want. Everybody gets to do that, and there's no barrier to entry.
Something specifically happening this week: I'm neck-deep in organizing the Comic Arts Brooklyn show for November 11th, with 248 exhibiting artists and publishers, a day's worth of talks, lectures, and demos, and lots of other fun stuff. It's free to the public, so everybody should come check it out! The details are at http://comicartsbrooklyn.