Saturday, September 22, 2012

What's the point of a Comic Book Shop?

I took my daughter to one of my local comic shops today. We have a few, but it’s my favorite for a few of reasons: • They have a really good selection of comics in general, but they have a big strip reprint section, which is usually a good indicator of the variety a store will have • They have a pretty impressive kids’ comic section, and it’s right in the front of the store. I consider this hugely important in a comic shop. There’s another shop in my area with a great selection, but the very first thing you pass walking in is a dvd rental area with lots of superhero and anime porn. Hardly a setup that invites any but the most dedicated readers, and a real turn-off to parents. I know I wouldn’t bring MY daughter into that one, though I’ll shop there myself. • The staff has always been AMAZING. Well-informed, extremely polite and friendly, and eager to recommend new titles based on what you like. Whenever I take my daughter to this shop, it’s a big event for us. I get her excited about it in the morning, and we talk about it all day. We go over the behavior that’s expected of her (not picking anything up without permission or help from an adult, being quiet, that sort of thing) and the things that we can expect to see. She’s not yet three years old, and going to the comic shop is one of her favorite things that we do together. Generally, we go about once a month. I was behind on my purchases, so I had (for me) a pretty big stack of floppies – The Creep #0 and #1, the most recent five issues of Lobster Johnson, and Rocketeer #2. I told Penny that she could pick out a toy and a book. She chose a plush of Smiley Bone (she already has a Fone Bone, and really liked Smiley’s vest) and the first volume of the new Fantagraphics Carl Barks collection, which I’d been meaning to pick up myself. One of the store’s staff helped me find a couple of the floppies, and was as helpful and friendly as he always is. We weren’t yet finished shopping, but Penny asked if we could look at her Donald Duck book. We squatted down in the kids’ section and she rested on my knee, and I started reading her the first few pages of Bombie the Zombie. She was captivated. She loves being read to, and this was another part of the comic shop experience with her that I always love. That the store itself and reading are so intertwined. That she'll remember the first time she was introduced to a character or a story, and associate it with a shop. What could foster a love of comic shops more than that? We were interrupted by an employee whom I’d not ever met before. “Excuse me,” she said. “Are you planning on buying that? Because we don’t want people reading the stories if they’re not going to buy them.” I was taken aback. “Yes, I’m planning on buying it,” I said. She turned and walked off. I took a moment to reflect on what had just happened. I was clearly upset by the experience, and it must have shown on my face or in my body language, because my daughter hugged me and said “it’s okay, Daddy, don’t be sad.” We walked around the store and put back our (thus far) seventy-something dollars worth of merchandise, and before leaving I told the employee that I would henceforth be taking my business elsewhere, as I strongly disagreed with the policy, as I considered it antithetic to the whole experience of going to a comic shop. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said, “but we’ve had people read whole issues before and not buy them.” OF COURSE YOU HAVE. YOU’RE A COMIC BOOK SHOP. It’s far cheaper to buy trades and graphic novels on Amazon, and to get floppies through companies like DCBS. So why even go to a comic shop, if doing so is not the cheapest option? One of the reasons that people go to bookstores of any stripe – and I include comic shops in this equation – is that they have the opportunity to peruse the books that they might buy before doing so. I often read the first chapter of a book or GN before picking it up, especially if I’m unfamiliar with it. And, in the past (especially when I was in college) I would read entire books at Borders and not buy them. But you know what? Despite those occurrences, Borders ended up with hundreds of my dollars each year. The kids that would sit and read manga in the aisles? They also BOUGHT manga. Part of the joy of going to a store that sells reading material is the freedom to consume the goods, provided that you are careful to keep the book/comic in the same shape as when you pulled it from the shelf. Take that away, and you take away the ONLY tangible benefit that a shop offers over mail-order service (one COULD argue the social considerations, but the shop counter’s monopoly on comic book discussions is one that, like its former monopoly on the products that it sells, died with the internet). This shop doesn’t offer me a discount (I’ve never asked), as do others in town. A truly wonderful store in another city gives me a discount of fifty percent (or cost, if cost is more, as is the case with IDW) and mails things my way. I can get books on Amazon for much cheaper than I can find at this store. And yet I still come to this shop. I get floppies there. I get books there. I get toys for my daughter, and I even pick up the odd big-ticket item (an IDW artist edition, for example). Why? Because I like to support my local shop, and this one is the closest one to my house, and therefore the most “local.” I love comic shops, and I want them to succeed, and so whenever possible I make sure that they’re the ones who get my business. But being made to feel guilty over reading books in the store? That drives away readers. A kid dropped off by his mom while she’s running errands is probably much more likely to catch ire than an adult customer with a stack of books waiting at the counter, so if I get that sort of individual attention then I can be SURE that the kid does. If that kid is made to feel unwelcome, then he or she will be far less likely to grow into a habitual customer. That kid may leave off comics entirely. It’s poor business and extremely poor stewardship of the industry, and so I'm going to be making my purchases at other shops. Luckily, I'm in a city, and have that option. But unluckily for any comic shop proprietors, EVERYONE has that option now. The internet, the discount comic services, they've killed the monopoly. Make your customers feel unwelcome, and they'll leave. I’d like to think that this was just the (I assume) new employee acting on her own inclinations, but in truth I’d actually heard of it happening there before: another dad who’d decided to take his business elsewhere for the exact same reason (though in his case, they’d confronted the kid directly). Every employee I'd ever dealt with there had been a dream, so wrote it off as a fluke, or a mistake, but I guess it’s store policy. That’s a shame, because otherwise it’s the best comic shop our city has got. But I guess it doesn’t offer anything that I can’t get from Amazon.