What do comic retailers offer in the 21st century?

There’s was an almighty kerfuffle online regarding Chuck Rozanski of Hile High Comics, comments in relation to San Diego Comic Con and in particular, comics retailing. The main point of Rozanski’s jib is this: dealers at the mega-conventions that are established in the US are suffering because dealers are being shafted by publishers selling exclusive material, and this cuts out the retailer. Now considering that Rozanski was one of the prime movers responsible for creating the direct market, there’s some sense of irony on display here, but Rozanski does have a point as after all the reasons the publishers have so much power is that the direct market have sustained them for so long after the end of newsstand sales in the US.

But as this well thought out piece at The Beat argues, it’s down to dealers to keep up with the times and to face up to the responsibility of selling comics. In the article, the author Brandon Schatz (who runs a shop in Canada) says:

As a retailer, I have a certain amount of power. For many people, I’m the face of the comic book industry. I am the person in control of the environment they walk into when they first decide to get comics. I’m the person who has hand picked what sits on the shelves, and in what quantity. That’s a lot of power to have, and it needs to be wielded responsibly. If I’ve created an unwelcoming environment, or if I have a poor selection on the shelves, I run the risk of having a new customer walk in, only to walk right out again. That would be irresponsible of me as a business, and as a representative of this industry.

 

I’ve worked in three shops over the years; AKA in Glasgow, Comic Showcase in London and Comics and CD’s in Bristol. All three are no longer with us, but all of them tried to create a welcoming environment for new customers, even if in the latter case in Bristol I did have to be told off for playing very loud Punk and Dance music far too loudly….

The problem comic retailers have is that many are stuck in the past and haven’t adapted, or are stuck in their own little rut so they think the way to expand business is to sell Warhammer and that ilk rather than focus on a good quality comic shop that sells comics of all genres at a reasonable price to a healthy cross section of people. To quote from The Beat article again as it makes a great point a lot of younger retailers seem to miss.

A good comics retailer should always be thinking about what their store and selection is saying to people about the comic book industry. Are you upset that people think of comics as “just superheroes”? Does your store happen to feature a majority of those books on the shelves? That might be part of the problem. While it’s easy to shrug and say “superheroes sell”, that’s not the entire truth. Superhero books often sell themselves, whereas other titles need you to be a little proactive. If you want to reflect certain ideals in the comic industry and if you want to build it up, you absolutely have the power to do so at your finger tips.

 

When we were running the shop in Bristol, we didn’t do trading cards. Partly because nobody involved with the shop had a bloody clue about them but it wouldn’t have taken much to brush up on them. No, it was because we sold CD’s, vinyl and comics. I managed to expand the comic range from just superheroes to include other titles, and that’s the point. If you’re running a shop complaining that it’s just blokes coming in then perhaps look at the walls of superhero comics,  role-playing games and pictures of unfeasibly breasted women on the walls and take a step back from the breach.

Retailers do have the power to do what they want as long as they’ve researched their market but I’ve seen far too many shops open up who don’t have a clue about anything but their core market. Bristol for example, has examples of that in two of their shops which aren’t part of the Forbidden Planet chain. You can’t after all educate your customers or appeal to your potential customers if your knowledge of comics goes as far as last month’s Deadpool and knowing who Brian Bendis is. It is remarkably easy to say ‘superheroes sell’ and point to the current popularity of the superhero genre as an excuse to focus on them but you’ll be cutting off a huge market because the truth is superheroes are a niche market. They’ll get the same punters in the shop every week but you need to expand your horizons and you’ll have a successful shop like Page 45 in Nottingham or Gosh! in London.

This sadly is what Rozanski appears to have missed, in that the customers at San Diego have changed but he’s not. It’s a pity he’s no longer going as if I ever get my arse over there I’d love to have a chat with him about the creation of the direct market and his time in comics, but the sad fact is that some of the people coming to conventions aren’t there to buy comics. They’re there to dress up, be seen or buy toys, or gawp. Retailers have to adapt their pitches to that crowd and adapt, because otherwise they’ll miss getting new customers.

Of course the idea of a bricks and mortar comic shop in the 21st century seems outdated, but they’re essential places, because even though the internet is wonderful and social media is a fantastic thing, they can end up being echo chambers. A shop can be a hub for people who like comics as a medium, so you get creativity growing out of that and this makes new writers, artists, or anything to do with comics. I’ve seen that at AKA, at Showcase and to a lesser extent at Comic’s and CD’s. It can happen but you can’t be an echo chamber of ideas and the only way to introduce new ideas is by getting out of your comfort zone. Ordering material that doesn’t feature superheroes, or is something that you don’t like might scare you is going to expand your customer base if you’ve read your market properly.

Schatz sums up in The Beat article that nobody is owed anything, and he’s right. You have to work to make a retail business work. Shops can offer so very much but realising that potential is down to the owners. Right now things are in flux and the entire medium of comics has been opened up like never before with a potential market constantly increasing, so there’s no excuses but you’ve got to work hard to make a shop work. Complaining you’re not selling the dozens of variant copies you’ve got on the wall at full guide price is your fault, not the fault of the punter.

So shops are essential. They’ll always be shops but make them unique places and adapt them to the times we’re in which are exciting for the medium of comics. Take advantage of new technologies but always remember that if your shop doesn’t have a clear ethos outside of making a functional business then you won’t stand out.

Now if someone would give me ten grand I’ll show you how to do a shop in the 21st century…….

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