Set amongst Barcelona’s vibrant Raval neighborhood, Fatbottom’s thin shopfront belies the treasure trove of comix, art comics, Spanish language classics, translated graphic novels and merchandise courtesy of local cartoonists that can be found within. Catalonia and Spain are not lacking in the talented comics authors department, and Fatbottom provides the visitor and resident alike countless opportunities to come across work by new and established artists which would be nearly impossible to track down by oneself.
Spain’s center left government, headed up by Pedro Sanchez, can be credited for delivering one of the most humanitarian responses to the COVID-19 crisis in Europe. The Madrid region was publicly acknowledged as a hotbed for the virus back in April, and from then on for a period of two months the entire country entered a tightly controlled quarantine. Catalonia is widely recognized as the second region most under threat (perhaps not surprising given its population density). As of mid May, the country entered a four stage phase out of quarantine measures, though these phases will be introduced at different times to different areas, and Barcelona is one of the cities which will be taking things very slowly.
As part of this site’s continued efforts to get the lay of the land in regards to comics retail, I decided to get in touch with Nico Rodríguez at Fatbottom to find out more about this wonderful store, as well as his thoughts and activities in these trying times.
This interview was translated by Isabel Palomar.
We opened Fatbottom in 2010 in Barcelona’s Poble Sec neighborhood. At that time, my partner and I were unemployed and we were doing some freelance work (she’s a computational linguist and I’m a photographer). In the beginning we just wanted somewhere we could work from, but as our first work space had some extra room we decided to use it as a small book store. There we offered books and comics that at that time were very difficult to find. There were just a few small self-publishing festivals back then, so we used to order fanzines by post, but by doing this we ended up spending more on postal fees than on comics. Our idea was to reduce the postal costs by putting in bulk orders and selling them at the store, this way we avoided the situation where a five euro fanzine ended up costing us fifteen. Nowadays post is still expensive, even more than before, but there’s also a great scene of self-published books and comics festivals as well as other meetings that really help with the distribution of small press and self-published books. Slowly, the original small space that we had used as a bookstore ended up occupying all of our space, and in 2013 we decided to move to another place in the Raval neighborhood, where we still are.
For people who haven't visited, could you give an outline of the sort of stuff you stock - what can people expect when they visit Fatbottom?
It’s basically a comic book store with graphic works, posters, some t-shirts, and a small space dedicated to exhibitions where we’ve had works by local and foreign artists. Self-published works have always been an important part of Fatbottom. We were lucky to open the store at a time when a lot of authors were becoming interested in self-publishing. We knew some of them and had also been following others for a while already, but we got to know many others when they walked in the store with their wonderful material. As I've mentioned before, at that time there weren’t many festivals in Barcelona (Valencia had only just hosted the first edition of Tenderete, I think), so there wasn’t really a common place to meet. On Fridays we used to organize and host events like presentations, exhibitions and colloquiums, and a lot of people started to come regularly. They started to connect with one another, collaborate, plan… They would have probably ended up meeting each other in some way or another, as the scene in Barcelona is quite small, but Fatbottom was lucky in the sense that we were at the right place and the right time. Being there allowed us to create connections with great people, not only on a professional level, but, inevitably, we also ended up creating friendships.
You have a huge amount of self published work in the store, how do you find all of it?
Finding new material is probably my favorite part of this job. I dedicate a lot of time to it, although I can sometimes feel overwhelmed because of the mandatory routines which come with running any store. Nowadays, many more people know about us, and a lot of the time it’s the authors who come directly to us to show us their works. There’s also a lot of people and tourists in this city, so that helps in terms of people passing by and entering the store. Sometimes, even foreign authors send us their work through relatives and friends of theirs that come to visit or are on holiday here.
What's been the situation in Spain, and with retail, over the past two months?
In Catalonia we have a celebratory book day on April 23, Sant Jordi [St George’s day]. It’s a very rooted tradition that has a very important impact on the annual sales of anyone involved in book sales: publishers, distributors, stores, businesses and, of course, authors, who in a certain way depend a lot on Sant Jordi sales. For obvious reasons, this year Sant Jordi went by with us being able to do barely anything. Online sales have generally increased, but it feels like this has only benefited businesses that exclusively sell online. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m sure that some businesses have seen their sales increase, while small stores have decreased. Small neighborhood stores hold on to the things that big business can’t offer, such as letting clients touch and look at the books in person, as well as providing a close, personalized customer experience; these stores have currently lost the little advantages they have due to peoples’ confinement and the fear of infection.
Have you still been able to do online orders, is this going to become more important to you, or was it already?
While being in confinement, we’ve had our webstore available as always, although we’ve decided not to post any orders for now as the safety of delivery people and other people working for the postal service hasn’t been guaranteed. We think it’s sensible that if social distancing is the best way to avoid the spread of the virus, it doesn’t make sense to have home delivery services. Despite this, responses have been incredible. Despite clients knowing they won’t receive their parcels any time soon, we’ve still had orders and have also received many cheerful and supportive messages from them. I think that the support we’ve received has given us more strength to go on than any economic benefit has.
I’d like to make clear that online sales will never be an option for a small business. I’m sick of hearing people in the media and politicians talk about the need for businesses to stay up to date and adapt to what is apparently a new reality. We created our online service before we had our physical store ready, we knew that we needed an online store to survive, and this has proved to be the case. Starting a business from scratch in a sector that is already very well served in Barcelona would have been impossible without the help of the internet. Not only because it’s useful for clients that can’t come to the physical store in person, but it also works as a window display where people can stay up to date with our new arrivals. I spend most of my day updating our website, which I manage myself. The books, comics and fanzines that we have at the store are up on the website before they’re put on the shelves.
However, and though this seems contradictory, the reality is that online orders, for us, entail an extra cost, as they need more time and money spent on their management, packaging, transportation, etc. Costs are higher and the competition doesn’t play fair. Big online companies don’t even need to get a direct benefit from their sales, their business is based on beating their competition, which is small businesses that depend on minimum revenue, to whom a difference of 5% in sales can mean not earning a month salary. Besides, the link between online sales and work precarity grows ever more clear. Big retail companies and online distributors, and their need to cut expenses, are the root of problems such as delivery peoples’ wages being reduced, and the fact that they increasingly often work in deplorable conditions. I’m shocked by how online orders are increasing in Barcelona. I can see ordering online being useful in some circumstances, there will always be a situation that necessitates having something delivered, but I don’t understand it being considered something normal. We’ve had orders from people in the neighborhood sometimes, this is inexplicable to me. I have ended up delivering them myself. Just to be clear, I’m not talking just about this period of time.
How do you think the current crisis is going to affect your local comics scene? Have you been in touch with artists during this period?
It’s obvious that things aren’t going to be better than they were before, that’s the only thing we are sure of. We still need to see if the publishing scene will survive in a good condition after this. Self-publishing will, though, at least, as long as there are generations that understand what printed paper is… although that is a different issue.
I don’t think anyone knows what is ahead of us right now. Sometimes I wake up feeling very positive about it and I make lots of future plans, other times I see everything darker and I can’t seem to figure out how we are going to keep on going. But I’d say that the general feeling is the uncertainty of it all. I don’t think anyone in this world can tell for sure that things are going to be one way or another right now. I think for now we’re all just functioning by inertia and improvisation. As I’ve said before, I don’t think that, for instance, online sales are going to be the answer for us. At most, they can support us, a bit like how advertisements in the press used to.
Outside of the context of COVID-19, what's your assessment of the Barcelona - or Catalan or Spanish - comics scene at the moment, are there lots of artists and publishers which are producing work you really like?
As far as published content and material is concerned, I’d say we’re living in some kind of golden age, at least in the eyes of readers. The amount of work that has been published in Spain in the last few years is unprecedented. Publishers such as Apa·Apa in Barcelona, Autsaider in Mallorca and Fulgencio Pimentel in Logroño are competing to print works that some years ago would have been impossible to see outside the self-publishing scene. They are giving opportunities to authors that wouldn’t have made it to a wider audience in the past. We’ve been following many authors from when they published their first fanzine to the moment they sold their recent comics’ rights to an international publishing house.
Irkus M. Zberio, Jorge Parras, Gabriel Corbera, Roberta Vázquez, Marc Torices, Gabri Molist, Iván McGill, Marta Cartú, María Medem, Sergi Puyol... these are only some of the authors we’re looking closer at the moment, but there are many more.
Anything you want to add that I haven't asked?
Support your local businesses, pleeeease.