The Copacetic Comics Company

The Copacetic Comics Company, located in Pittsburgh and captained by Bill Boichel is one of the most beloved shops in the country--and while "comics" is right there in the name, and has been since they opened twenty years ago, that isn't where their interests end. If you're interested in visiting the shop, you can check out their website for location and hours. But first: Boichel speaks!

Photo by Juan Fernandez

How long have you been in comics retail?

Since 1976. My comics retailing career had three distinct phases.

First, as Asgard Books, from 1977 to 1982, during which time I did not have a storefront, and I instead sold at conventions (which I also organized, most notably “Cosmic Con” of which there were several between 1979 and 1981 here in Pittsburgh) and through the mail, advertising in The Buyer’s Guide for Comics Fandom (which later became The Comics Buyer’s Guide). I primarily dealt in back issues, but I also carried new comics – Marvel and DC, as well as creator-owned “ground level” and (a few) undergrounds – portfolios and posters, book collections, related publications like The Comics Journal, Mediascene, Starlog, etc., and, although to a substantially lesser degree, science fiction and fantasy books and even Star Trek stuff.

Second, as BEM, from 1984 to 1995, which comprised a monthly convention (Transfer, which only lasted one year, 1985), a shop (The Store), and a small publishing arm (Transformer, No Comics [notable for containing Frank Santoro’s first published comics], and later my own comics). The shop was structured along the lines of most comics shops of the era, with new comics every week, subscribers, and back issues, but it always had a very strong focus on independent, creator-owned work, particularly that published by Fantagraphics, followed by Drawn & Quarterly, and also Pacific, First, Eclipse, etc., and, of course, as the ’80s progressed, many other small publishers. BEM also carried a sizable stock of books, at first mostly SF but then later growing to include hardboiled crime (mostly Black Lizard Press, primarily the works of Jim Thompson), beat literature (especially Jack Black’s You Can’t Win and Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues), and African-American writers, with our best sellers being Malcolm X and Zora Neale Hurston (and this was when her works were still being published by Indiana University Press), along with related periodicals of interest and counter-culture publishers like Re/Search.

Third, as The Copacetic Comics Company from 2000 to the present, which in addition to comics carries prose works (mostly in book form, but also zines), music (on CD) and cinema (on DVD), with the primary focus being on creator-owned comics, and this runs the gamut from self-published B & W minicomics through small press and mid- to large- independent comics publishers all the way to deluxe hardcovers from Pantheon Books. I was not actively engaged in comics retail from 1982 to 1984, during which time I directed the exhibition program at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and then only peripherally engaged from 1995 to 2000, during which time I was primarily involved in being a stay- at-home dad, but during which period I also continued to make my own comics.

What's changed the most for your business in the last 10 years?

It is important to note at the outset that The Copacetic Comics Company, while having “comics” as it’s middle name, is actually a specialty bookstore that, in addition to comics, also sells: a large selection of books encompassing literature, poetry, drama, art books, museum exhibition catalogues, and all sorts of non-fiction including history, biography, science, culture studies, and much else; films on DVD, focusing on classic American, International, Cult and Experimental films along the lines of those generally associated with Criterion; and music on CD, ranging from pop to classical, with an emphatic focus on Jazz. I formulated this model "to present Comics in its proper context amidst the Arts in America today, both traditional and popular” (as stated in the Copacetic Mission Statement), seeing this cross-pollinating model as the way forward for comics, which I feared risked being trapped in the death spiral of the direct market (which I had been involved with since not long after its inception).

So, that said, the single biggest change in the last 10 years for us was the total collapse of the DVD market as everyone adapted to streaming. During the course of the last decade, our sales of DVDs have dropped by over 90 percent (I just checked the numbers), to the point where we now sell less in a year than we did every month, on average, in 2009. But the good news is that drop has been more than made up for by an increase in comics sales. This is notable for revealing that, in the context of small, owner-operated, independent retail businesses, comics sales are growing, while sales of cinema, music, and, although to a much lesser degree, prose works are declining as they lose out to electronic streaming, which is a much more concentrated and centralized business sector largely controlled by large corporations; a point worth pondering …

As far as comics go, I would say what’s changed the most in the last 10 years is the dramatic increase in the percentage of our sales of comics created and/or published here in Pittsburgh. That has really taken off. Prior to that, Frank Santoro was the only Pittsburgh creator whose works we sold in large numbers. Now, many others have joined that list, most notably, of course, Ed Piskor, but an amazing number of comics by Jim Rugg have gone out the door here at Copacetic over the last 10 years, as well. We have also sold quite a bit of Tom Scioli’s self-published works in addition to his work for major publishers. Sophie Goldstein’s last two books from AdHouse and Fantagraphics did very well, also. And then there is a large and ever-growing number of small press / self-published creators here in town whose works, when taken together, really come to quite a significant amount.

We literally have hundreds of publications in our Made-in- Pittsburgh section. Top selling creators in this category include Bill Wehmann, Nate McDonough, Lizzie Solomon, Asia Bey, and many, many others. I should also mention Andy Scott’s Andromeda (later Andromeda Quarterly) anthology series, which, while no longer being published, was a steady seller for quite a while, and it really helped to boost the local comics making scene. And, during the last 10 years, in addition to Frank remaining our top-selling creator, we sold quite a lot of Comics Workbook publications, especially the flagship title, Comics Workbook Magazine, of which we sold hundreds of copies in total.

Another big change – changes, more accurately – has been the roller coaster ride(s) of employing and engaging with social media to promote comics and manage the shop’s Internet presence.

Ten years ago, Copacetic had zero social media presence. Being older and clueless, I had no interest in it and didn’t see the point, and so I needed to be more or less dragged into the social media space. I signed Copacetic up for Facebook in 2010-ish, around the time the shop moved to its current location. I have primarily used Facebook to keep our local, Pittsburgh customers informed of what’s going on at the shop, posting new arrivals, etc., but as time went on, I also started linking to articles, primarily comics related, but also the occasional (sometimes politically-tinged) news article. We posted fairly regularly for a good stretch, but I have found my inclination to do so lessening over the last couple years, after gradually waking up to the reality of Facebook’s dark side (or should I say, Darkseid?).

Currently, while Copacetic still maintains a Facebook page, posting is occurring significantly less frequently, and those posts are primarily announcements related to hours and events or occasionally shared posts – mostly for local events of interest to our customers and peers. At some point (I honestly can’t remember when), I followed Frank Santoro’s advice to get onto Tumblr, and, while it lasted, that was great for business, particularly for showcasing and promoting special sales, as we could embed links straight to the offer. We also used it simply to showcase and preview new comics and to occasionally share cool comics imagery – panels, pages, covers, etc. Its format allowed for large, high-resolution image files to be loaded and displayed, which was another plus. We had a significant and engaged following for a while, but then it died out in a major way (was it a natural death, or was it slain by Instagram?) – at least for Copacetic. I once again followed Frank’s lead and started posting to Instagram, probably three to four years ago, which we have primarily used to announce and share previews of new arrivals at the shop. It is currently our main social media space, and we also use it for events announcements (our own and others of interest to our customers), hours changes, and to share the occasional photograph of the natural world.

I have an unusually long perspective on social media, in that I ran a comics business for two decades prior to the Internet, one decade on the Internet (but before social media), and then one decade with social media. While, obviously, this is a huge topic that could be parsed ad infinitum, a simple metaphor that sums up my feelings is that the creation of the Internet was like the discovery of a “New World” (like the Europeans' “discovery” of the Americas) that, once its potential was grasped, has been seen as ripe for exploitation, and gradually colonized, especially by social media, who have managed to “silo and exploit” rather like the “divide and conquer” of old.

While, of course, there are some obvious and immediate benefits that accrue to businesses operating within a silo composed of customers and potential customers, the degree to which maximizing algorithms are involved in determining who these potential customers are degrades the character of transactions, and ultimately dehumanizes the interactions by reducing people to profit points (and also, of course, data points, which is where the major profits are being made in the layers below the surface of these transactions, which are, again, flowing to the corporations that have designed these algorithms for that very purpose). A byproduct of this “colonization” of the Internet by Big Tech, in general, and social media, in particular, is the eroding of long-standing social bonds of society. This will only be a good thing if new, constructive, progressive social bonds take their place. While there is certainly reason to hope that these new bonds can be forged, the current state of affairs leads me to believe these new bonds will not be fostered by social media as it is currently constituted – by self-interested, globe-spanning, for-profit corporations – but rather will only come about in opposition to it.

Furthermore – and this is more difficult to see without a long term perspective – this algorithmic basis for customer acquisition has the potential, in the long term, to gradually but ineluctably lead to the same downward-spiral of new customers (which, in any society based on consumer capitalism, means everyone) becoming eventually limited to only people who already interested. This has been eroding the "direct market" in comics for the last 20 years, only this time, it will be not only for all businesses, but for any societies that allow themselves to be underpinned by these algorithms. So, as the 1995 implosion of the direct market presaged the bursting of the tech bubble in 1999, once again the direct market here offers a microcosm of the larger business – and social – environment in which the consequences can be (for)seen more readily. Just throwing that out there …

How do you decide what titles you are going to carry in the shop?

Well, that’s gone through many stages during the course of the business. Copacetic has always had a special focus on small press and self-published comics. It has also always made it a priority to support local (and regional) creators. When it comes to work published by larger and more established publishers, then it comes down to choosing those works that meet the Copacetic Criteria™, the primary – but certainly not sole – criterion being whether I like it and/or think it is good/worthwhile. I tend to trust the editorial judgement of some publishers – notably Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, the late, lamented PictureBox, and Koyama Press – more than others, and I am generally willing to accept their imprimatur, but, even then, the final decision generally rests with my editorial judgement.

The term that has been most often applied to Copacetic is that it is a “curated shop” or that it has a “curated collection.” That makes sense to me, and I haven’t been able to come up with anything better. It would in some ways be more accurate to say that Copacetic has an “edited" collection, and that more accurately describes my process, as I look at everything and decide what to include and what to exclude from what’s in the shop, but that sounds clunky. I suppose it must be some combination of the two terms, in that curating is largely associated with the visual arts as editing is associated with the literary arts, and comics are a combination of the two.

Initially, I had to work much harder to discover new small press and self-published work. I would search online and reach out to creators whose work I found to be of exceptional quality and/or interesting and engaging. I would also attend shows like the Small Press Expo and buy directly from the creators, as well as from those distros that used to set up. Gradually, over the years, a more and more robust ecosystem and infrastructure have developed as this market has grown, enabling me to have access to more work with less effort.

As far as the book form of comics – that in terms of dollars is the economic mainstay of the shop – goes, we continue to deal directly with publishers whenever that option makes sense for both parties. This, too, has diminished somewhat over the years, as, on the one hand, there has been some consolidation within the comics publishing industry, and on the other, larger book distributors have taken an ever-increasing interest in comics and/or the "graphic novel” (which, as we all know, is more of a one-size-fits-all marketing terms than a factual descriptor). The main instance of this being Ingram’s acquisition of Perseus Distribution, which includes Consortium, which distributes many mid-size comics publishers, such as Koyama Press, Secret Acres, Uncivilized Books, Floating Worlds, etc.

And, despite all my efforts, I inevitably fall short of discovering, locating, and sourcing all worthy new work – there’s just so much new work being published! Throughout the history of the shop, Copacetic customers themselves have been a constant source of information, regularly bringing to my attention new works and/or creators that I was previously unaware of. Just as teachers can constantly learn from their students, shop owners can likewise learn from their customers – it’s just a matter of paying attention.

Do you keep up with the comics news? What does the term "comics news" mean to you?

There’s no way I could actually “keep up” with the comics news. There’s way too much coming in from so many different directions and sources. Most of what constitutes "comics news" is not germane to Copacetic, in any case, as we are not part of the Diamond ecosystem. Comics news, for me, is primarily what I hear directly from the creators themselves as well as from their distributors and publishers; and, of course, as stated above, from our customers, who are often eager to share their discoveries and enthusiasms. These come in the form of updates to web pages, social media posts – mostly via Instagram these days – emails, phone calls, and in-store visits, all of which are fairly regular. I make a point of spending a few minutes at Comics Workbook, TCJ, The Comics Reporter, and a few others whenever I get the chance. I receive a steady flow of articles and news about new and interesting work forwarded to me through the same avenues.

What's your weekly routine with your store like? Has it grown easier or harder since you started?

It’s certainly much harder than it was when I first started back in the 1970s, before I had a shop. Back then, selling comics was fun and easy (although more physically demanding, in that it involved carrying lots of boxes and driving long distances to and from conventions) – and, believe it or not, more profitable.

Having a (more or less) standard model comics shop during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, with weekly subscribers and lots of back issues sales, was a little bit harder, but it was still much simpler job than running a comics shop today, as there was a regular weekly routine for new comics, year after year, punctuated by the purchasing and processing of collections.

The introduction of the Internet made for a lot more work. At the outset, the building of an online “virtual presence” was an engaging challenge that had its own rewards.

Speaking only for myself, I found that the added workload brought about by the advent of social media and their subsequent colonization of the Internet, to be less rewarding, both intellectually and financially. As more and more of people’s time is spent within their social media silos, less and less is spent wandering the Internet. As a result, the traffic to the Copacetic site has been steadily falling for years now. So, in order to maintain our public profile, I have been required to maintain our social media presence in addition to our own site, just to stay even. And, I have to admit to feeling a growing resentment that the extra work I’m creating to do so is – to a large, and I suspect ever- growing degree – in the service of building up the presence (and value) of the corporations that own the social media sites and those increasingly controlling and governing the flow of the Internet.

The extra work I have to put in to maintain a social media presence sometimes feels like tribute demanded by the new lords of the Internet. I might sound like a crank here, but all those billions of dollars flowing to the shareholders of Facebook, Google, et al are coming from somewhere, and I feel a good chunk of it is coming from the labor that millions (billions!) of people like myself are putting into their platforms. I feel that the current challenge for small business owners such as myself is to come up with new ways to maintain our public profiles – our contact and engagement with our customers – that is less – or, preferably, not at all – dependent on social media. Maybe something along the lines of not-for-profit organizations that serve affinity groups, like comics readers and makers, could be set up? Like, something along the line of a hybrid wiki/social media platform that does not accept any advertising and does not employ any maximizing algorithms, but instead is maintained via membership dues and/or subscribing to specific services or packages of services?  But then again, maybe not.

Being as old as I am, my ideas of possible futures are likely too rooted in the past to be workable or successful. I will nevertheless maintain that our labor as shop managers and/or business owners shouldn’t always – or ever, really – be about leveraging market position for maximum profit. It can instead be about making enough to survive while building the community (or, increasing community capacity and community resiliency, if you prefer) that our businesses are based on/in and still being able to have time to enjoy, appreciate and improve whatever it was/is that got you into the business in the first place – in this case, comics.

What do you wish more publishers knew about comics retail?

That comics are a form of communication, constituted by a language that, while it could be considered as having roots that go to the very dawn of written human communication, at the very least have well over a century of consistent applied and studied development here in North America, and arguably longer elsewhere. As with any language, it requires at least some degree of literacy to apprehend, and the greater the literacy, the greater the appreciation. Thus, improving comics literacy is good for business.

Publishers should consider proactively creating and/or nurturing and/or promoting works and programs that improve comics literacy in the general population, and among younger and beginning readers, in particular. This is, of course, already happening at the editorial level, but there is a paucity of efforts to coordinate with the retail side of things in this area. At present, the vast majority of Americans are only barely comics literate, and there are more than a few comics shop habitués that have only a narrow appreciation of the inherent communicative properties and capacities of the language of comics.

I further think that publishers should explore partnerships with universities to study the potential cognitive benefits of comics reading as well as comics making. Lynda Barry is already leading the way here, and she may take us further should she successfully realize her stated intent to use her MacArthur Genius Grant to enable her to study four-year-olds at the cusp of the symbolic realm. There have been numerous neuroscience studies of reading in the brain, but not, to my knowledge, of reading comics. There is almost everything still to learn here.

What do you wish more customers knew about comics retail?

Again, that comics is a form of human communication, a medium that is constituted by a particular language, NOT a genre. Super hero is a genre – that, while very closely associated with the history of the comic book, is one that is currently most successfully embodied in film and video, rather than in comics; action, adventure, horror, science fiction, romance, western, detective, and crime are all genres which have flourished at various times in comics form.  Funny animal is a genre that has practically the entirety of its history recorded in the pages of comic books and the cels (and now pixels) of cartoons (although television shows like Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, and the Babe films could be seen as live action equivalents). Also, manga is NOT a genre of comics. While one can appreciate that there is a fairly large segment of manga that is homogenous enough to appear, from a North American and/or European point of view, to be generic, this is primarily due to manga's stylistic differences from the equally homogenous super hero comics of North America. This is yet another case of a part being mistaken for the whole as there are, of course, a spectacularly large variety of approaches to manga outside of its mainstream that rivals – if not surpasses – that of American and European comics.

What excites you most about comics right now?

The increased acceptance across all levels of American society of comics as a legitimate form of art and/or literature, as a diverse and robust and valuable medium of communication, as a vital language.

This growing embrace of comics is taking place in bookstores and libraries, schools and institutes of higher learning, and galleries and museums, as well as within the critical community, but, most importantly, within homes across the country. This acceptance is, of course, taking place piecemeal and in patchwork fashion, and it’s not necessarily going hand-in-hand with an equally increased level of understanding of the inherent qualities of the form, but that is to be expected.

These increased levels of acceptance have led directly to the phenomenal diversity of material being currently produced under the banner of Comics, which is unprecedented.

All in all, looking at Comics today in the context of its history, its current state, as well as its trajectory, is, by and large, quite positive, and leads me to believe that the form will continue to grow, developing new tools and new approaches, and attracting new talent, which in turn will lead to the creation of an ever-growing variety of work designed to aid us in confronting the challenges that surely await us all.