As comic shops go, Philadelphia’s Partners and Son is something of a chimera in the strictly mythical sense: two beasts merged, improbably but powerfully, into one. When partners Gina Dawson and Tom Marquet relocated from Brooklyn in 2019, they hit upon the idea of merging their twin interests of contemporary art and independent comics.
The result was a hybrid art gallery and comic shop that rapidly found itself becoming a fixture in the Philly comics scene - not only as a haven for local readers, cartoonists, and fine artists alike, but as the organizer of the now two-year old Philly Comics Expo.
Gina and Tom took time to sit down with us to discuss their venture into this new world of art, comics, and commerce. You can explore what Partners and Son is doing now on their website.
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The Comics Journal: So, let’s go back to the beginning. How long have the two of you been in comics retail? What got you into this game?
Gina Dawson: September of 2019.
Tom Marquet: We had done sort of gallery-oriented things back in Brooklyn, and I was always more comics-oriented, and trying to shoehorn that into a gallery space - which is not always a great fit. So when we came here, we had this idea that we wanted to open a space of some sort, and to make it both a comic space and a gallery.
Gina: We’d talked about doing it for years in Brooklyn, it just was never financially feasible.
Tom: So when we came here, there wasn’t another shop doing what we were doing. So we were running the gallery space in the comic shop, and sort of doing both at the same time. And I think the comics part came to predominate, partly because we could get a storefront, so we could be on the street and people could actually just walk in.
Gina: And then we closed six months later for COVID.
Right, yeah, that was some timing.
Tom: Yeah, we’re good at that. But the shop evolved from that basic idea. When we first opened, the gallery was in the front, and then we slowly realized that if the gallery part’s in the front, people don’t know what the hell it is - like, it’s a little harder to understand. So we sort of shifted the bookshop part up front.
So at this point, do you think of yourself as a comic shop that also dabbles in art, or an art gallery that also dabbles in comics?
Gina: I’d say we think of ourselves as a comic shop / art gallery, but with the comic shop first.
Tom: I think we are very much of two minds on this. It’s funny, because comics and contemporary art are in a lot of ways very, very close together, but also very much parallel worlds, in that one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing a lot of the time. And so it’s always interesting to bring art people who don’t usually read comics or vice versa-- you know, for comic people to see sculpture or painting that they wouldn’t normally see.
That actually raises the question: how would you describe the clientele that comes in? Is it mostly art people that you're sort of exposing to the comics that you sell, or the other way around?
Gina: I would say it’s a pretty good mix. It’s probably more of a comics crowd for sure. But there’s definitely crossover. Not, like, introducing people to comics, but in the sense that there are people who are already kind of there with these sorts of dual interests.
You mentioned that you started up basically right before the COVID shutdowns hit, so how did you weather that storm?
Gina: One of the positive things that happened out of it was, when we opened, our website was just a standard-issue gallery website. And then I started putting books up on our Instagram, and being like, “do you want to buy this?” And people did. So then I thought, okay, we should probably try to get some products up online. And I had all this time because, you know, we weren’t open. So I went and photographed and put everything we have online, which never would have happened without COVID.
Tom: Because, especially when we first started out, neither of us bad a background in book retail or comics retail. And it’s so indie - a lot of [titles] you’re getting really small quantities. And we were still relatively new to Philly at that time: you’re still feeling out who’s here, who’s reading comics, who your audience is, and learning from them. So we have a few copies of a thing in some cases, and you’re just like, “I don’t know, do I want to go through the trouble of putting this online?” And it turns out the answer is kind of yes.
So all things considered, you haven’t been around that long. And I’m wondering what other lessons you’ve learned that have changed the way you’ve gone about your business over the last three years?
Gina: When we started, the books on the shelves were sort of what we liked. But people would come in and ask for a thing, and it’s like, “oh, I actually like this thing too, I just didn’t know about it.” And I think that we don’t pretend to know everything - we like for people to come in and ask for things that we don’t have, and learn with our audience in that way.
Tom: And obviously comics readers come up on different comics, so they have different lines of interest. Not everyone’s as psyched about, I don’t know, Max Huffman as I am. But I’ll still throw myself into their general direction.
So how do you decide what to stock in the store? How do you keep your ear to the ground of what’s happening in the comics scene?
Tom: At the core, it’s our interests. Even if it’s not exactly our cup of tea, you kind of find in the work something that’s interesting. You’re like, “I don’t know if I even want to read this, but I do want it to be available to be read,” in a sense.
Gina: And we try to go to all the shows. And our Instagram is so lovely, and we have great audience on there. People are always reaching out, telling us about the things they're making, asking if we have things like certain other publishers or artists - that's how we find a lot of stuff and new people. Now that people are starting to know we exist, you know, they reach out to us too.
Tom: Definitely earlier on it was harder. Because obviously there’s the larger comics publishers that we’re interested in: Fanta[graphics], and [Drawn and Quarterly], and so forth. But then you get down to things like Reptile House, for example. Like, Nick [Bunch] just came in, and Nate Garcia just came in the shop with his first comic. And that starts happening more: people start sending people to you, because you’re just trying to be straightforward in how you’re dealing with everybody. And it seems: so far, so good.
And you’ve been able to deal with the complexity of buying from so many small publishers, or even just individual creators?
Gina: Yeah, it’s a lot of moving parts, but it's just, like, checking your email all the time and bothering people if they haven't responded. Most people, especially the small publishers, they want you to get their stuff in the shop, so they’re very communicative. But there’s only so much time, and it’s literally just the two of us, and Tom has a full-time job outside it. It used to be a lot harder, though, before everybody had access to each other through public platforms.
Tom: Just old, fancy-days type stuff, like you have to find the mailing address of an artist, and then you write to them - you know, all that stuff. But it was also a smaller world [back then].
Gina: I guess you probably wouldn’t have made a whole business out of it. [Laughs] Maybe it’s not the smartest move. It still feels TBD, I guess.
Do you keep up with the comic news? And what does the term “comic news” mean to you at this point?
Tom: I don’t keep up with much of the Comics Beat side of the street, let’s say. Like the Big Two plus Image - I don’t keep up with that side of it, the Funko POP! side of the world. But otherwise, we keep up with, obviously, The Comics Journal, with what people are talking about on Instagram, and to a lesser extent on Twitter.
Gina: I think I do more than you, but you actually keep up with publishers in a more pragmatic sense. So there’s publishing news, which is maybe different, because publishing news is just schedules. And so you try to keep up with that, because you want to know what’s coming, and you want to be aware from a sort of mercenary standpoint of, you know, “the collection of this is coming out, maybe we don’t need so many copies of the last issue.” And then the other [aspect] of comics news we’re trying to keep up with is what artists are doing, what are they making. Where are they going, and what are they interested in? And the internet has really been the best aid for that - the internet and the shop itself. The most heartwarming thing about reopening the shop post-initial lockdown was just people coming back in, and getting to talk comics in a room with someone.
Tom: I remember I read all of Usagi Yojimbo during the lockdown, and Nate comes in, and I was just yammering at him about that for, like, a half hour. And that’s fun to subject someone to your impulses, and then just hearing from him about what he was reading at the time. And so I think the shop itself, the physical space, does a lot of that work too.
You’ve been active over the past couple of years in sponsoring and participating in the Philly Comics Expo. What made you decide to do that, and how has that been working out for you?
Gina: When we sort of devised a plan for the shop, that was always part of it - that we would host some kind of expo. The first one we threw together in maybe five weeks. It was really short, and it was mostly Philly artists. But it just felt really good, because a lot of people hadn’t tabled in two years, and they had been making stuff. And it was all outside, and the weather was perfect, so it went really well. This year the weather wasn't as perfect, but it still went really well: it was about double the size this year. I think that people have been really happy with it.
What's the weekly routine with your store like? Has it gotten easier or harder since you started up?
Gina: I mean, it's more work than when we started. When we started, we were only open on the weekends, because we both had other jobs. I don’t know if it’s easier, but there’s definitely more of a routine to it. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I check on new books, do email, outreach, and things like that. And then, also, just Monday and Tuesday-- it's my weekend, basically. And then the rest of the time, we kind of divide where Tom works one day of the week, and I work one day.
Tom: Right now, we just came back from being away, and it seems like the real increase is just shipping. Especially because we just did the Charles Burns show, so there was the shipping from that. But that’s not a complaint: I mean, that’s great.
So what do you wish more customers–or for that matter, more publishers–knew about comics retail?
Tom: The one thing I wish more publishers knew–and I know it’s hard, because with small publishers, there’s only so many people at the office, or the office is a bedroom or whatever–is that we’re really trying to keep track of everything, but if they reached out to us with new releases, we'd probably be buying them.
Gina: There are some publishers like Floating World where people send email, and it’s like, oh yeah, I definitely want that. And then there are [comics] where you’ll see it [already for sale] somewhere else and you’re like, “wait, what, when did that happen? I thought we were friends?” But I get it, they’re super-small operations, and it’s hard to keep track. So it’s not a complaint, it’s just-- yeah, that’s the one thing. And self-published books, too–which, again, this is really hard–if you have a book coming out and you’re selling it on your website, it would be great if retailers had it at the same time, you know what I mean? Like, if you’re selling something, a lot of the time we don’t have it until it's already been on their website a long time. So someone who's coming into the shop to buy a bunch of things and also wants that has to place a separate order. But I get it, in that they also obviously make more money if they sell it directly. So, yeah, it's tricky.
Maybe the general sense is that if the relationship between the artist and the retailer could be a little bit more of an active partnership, as opposed to one being an afterthought to the other, maybe that would make life easier for everyone?
Tom: It’s like this weird Goldilocks thing where you want just enough communication until it’s too much, and then you just stop looking at your email.
Gina: But when an artist-- I would say 9 times out of 10, if an artist reaches out to us with a new thing that they have, we buy it.
So what has you most excited about comics right now?
Tom: A thing I’m excited about is a lot artists who are revisiting the one-person anthology as a format. Which I think is weird, and it’s an interesting move right now. We’re still sort of riding the wave of reaction to literary comics, let’s say. I think that’s interesting, and both good and bad. Adding to that is people reaching back to earlier points of reference, both in terms of style and formatting, and that sort of grab bag-y approach where they’re finding out what’s interesting to them as cartoonists. So I think that’s exciting, and I think there’s also lots of interesting horror stuff happening.
What do you think the next five years of local small-press comics retail are going to look like, for you or for anyone else?
Tom: I think the one thing that is potentially quite interesting and good for comics retail is the growing up of a generation of kids who were encouraged to read comics by their parents. And their parents were normal parents, if you will. Like, my brother is a regular, normal person. And he's married to a regular, normal person. And they have a daughter who they encourage to read comics. Like, she reads them, and it's just like a normative hobby. And a thing that’s already in the mix is people who are both making and reading comics for whom it’s not a shame-based experience about adolescence, let’s say.
And that’s good, and also makes for a more interesting range of comics. Part of the reason we have a kids section is that people would come in with kids. And, like, one of our biggest sellers in kids’ comics is by these two kids called Turtle Boy. It’s like an eight-year old and an eleven-year old, and their dad helped them put together comics and get it out to shops. And other kids coming in love it - they love the fact that these other kids made a comic. And it’s great to see that sort of roll forward. That, I think, is obviously good for us.
Anything exciting that’s coming up that you want to mention before we go?
Gina: We have a couple of events scheduled so far in January. We are doing a calendar release on January 7th with Pet Riso, a Philly-based Riso printer who has organized and printed a calendar featuring 12 local Philly artists. On Jan 21st, we’ll host a conversation between Tommi Parrish and Sally Madden in conjunction with an exhibition of Tommi's work and a book signing. Plus, we have a late January event with Josh Pettinger (date TBD depending on the printer).