Ode to my local comic book store
Submitted for your consideration, a glowing assessment of my local comic store of choice, The Comic Book Shoppe in downtown Ottawa.
Imagine if you will, an uncluttered, well-lit store. No stacks of books or boxes to trip over or otherwise have to navigate around. Clear lines of sight across the store at all times. The long boxes filled with back issues are easily accessible, not obscured by piles of toys, figurines, and action figures. They have an anime rental section, but it's kept in a side room, along with the ubiquitous RPG games-playing. Let me rephrase this in bold type: the video rentals and the role-playing games are off to the side, and not front and center where they might intimidate and/or puzzle mainstream consumers and casual foot traffic.
Yes, that may sound callous and dismissive, but I don't intend it to be critical of fans of those two areas of pop culture. It's simply that, if you're trying to expand your consumer base, you want to make sure that people feel at ease the first the time they walk into your store. Many of the product lines that complement comics - anime, RPGs, model-building, and so on - can be off-putting at first, and you don't want them to have an in-your-face negative impact on your new customers.
That's the key, of course: a positive experience. People have to feel welcome and comfortable in your store, assuming that you want to keep them coming back and signing over their savings in exchange for stacks of four-color extravaganzas. If people feel awkward and unwelcome, you can forget about them opening their wallets to you.
Another way that Rob's team shines: his staff is friendly and extroverted, and makes people feel welcome in the store. It seems like such a simple thing, doesn't it? Then why do other stores have employees who treat customers like unwelcome parasites? Who regard surliness as an asset or lurk behind people while doing their best impressions of overzealous (and under-socialized) middle-school hall monitors?
There's a group calling themselves 'Friends of Lulu' whose goal is to encourage the participation of women in the comic book industry, both as contributors and readers. Stated purpose aside, they've got a lot of great ideas that have a much larger reach than that. In fact, much of their advice is compatible with a mandate to encourage participation from all demographic groups, not just women, not currently targeted by a lot of comic stores. Bluntly, there's no reason for the comic book industry (publishers and retailers alike) to cater solely to the relatively small portion of the young male demographic who read comics.
Back to Rob's store.
Frequent acquisitions of people's collections, coupled with frequent back issue sales. Stuff acquired relatively cheaply goes right into the dollar bins, do not pass go, do not collect dust and otherwise tie up operating capital. When I lived in the Boston area, I frequently visited a store called The Outer Limits in Waltham, that seemed to buy collections by the truckloads, cherry-pick the really sweet stuff, and relegate the rest to the quarter bins. Turnover (and hence cash flows) could be measured in days, and from the customer perspective, it doesn't get any better than picking up near-complete runs of Nexus, Moon Knight, New Teen Titans, 1970s Action Comics, etc. for two bits apiece.
Horror of horrors, Rob actively encourages people to open the taped-shut polyethylene bags and let people actually look at the comics they're considering buying. Crazy, huh? Many retailers throw hissy-fits if you so much as flip through a comic for longer than thirty seconds. Imagine if book stores started following this example, allowing customers to look only at the front and back covers prior to making a purchase decision. Might as well just rip those listening posts out of the music stores while we're at it too. "But we can't let them sample it to see if it's worth buying!!! They might not buy it then!!!" Rob is only the second comics retailer I've ever met to encourage people - loudly and regularly - to take books out of the books and look through them... and the sales numbers just keep climbing.
In his introduction to Deni Loubert's book 'How To Get Girls (Into Your Store)' (available via the aforementioned 'Friends of Lulu' site), Neil Gaiman included an excerpt from one of his Sandman scripts that describes a typical 'bad' store: "This is not a nice comic store - it's the kind of place that makes you feel oily and greasy, and makes you wish you were somewhere else." It might be an extreme example, but unfortunately, it's not an uncommon one either.
The point is this: comic stores don't have to be this way. They can be as friendly and inviting as any other kind of retail store, but it's going to take concerted effort from retailers and publishers to make it happen. What does it take? Content that appeals to multiple audiences. Friendly, pleasant staff. Clean, well laid-out floor plans. Decent lighting. A mindset that treats customers with dignity and respect.
Customers, your role is comparatively easy. Just patronize the stores that get it right. Reward the good retailers with your business, and tell the bad ones why you'd rather shop elsewhere. Maybe they'll get the hint.