Five years ago, when I was in the midst of a move across the continent, I wrote about my experiences looking for a new comic book store. I eventually found one that suited my needs. It happens to be on the other side of town- I live in an eastern suburb and my regular shop is just north of downtown- but it has a good selection of comic books, great customer service and a pull list with a decent discount.
The other stores that I discovered at the time are still part of my occasional rounds. I’ll stop by if my regular shop has run out of a hot new issue or if the other store is having a sale. Sometimes, I’ll simply drop by if I’m in the right neighborhood. What can I say? I’m a comic book fan and I like to visit comic book stores.
Recently, however, somebody at work let me know about a new comic book store that had opened in their suburb, a couple of ‘burbs over from mine. They thought I would be interested and they were right. I think I already mentioned I’m a comic book fan and I like to visit comic book stores. While I was looking up the address online, I noticed that another comic book store had opened in the city in the past two years. Plus, I found out that there was a third comic book store in another town nearby where I was already planning to vacation that weekend. So, wish list in hand, I set out an all-new all-different journey of discovery.
The first thing that I noticed about the new stores is that they were generally well lit and easy to navigate. There was plenty of room in the aisles. An online review summed it up best: “You don’t feel like you’re rummaging through someone’s basement.” As much as I appreciate the selection at some of the older stores, their inventory can be overwhelming. The aisles are narrow and crowded. Comics are piled up in every corner and you have to be careful that you don’t knock them over. On one of my more recent trips, I even had to step over long-boxes that were laying on the floor in order to reach a shelve of trade paperbacks. But I didn’t have the same problems at the new stores. Sure, I had to figure out how the new comics were displayed (one was alphabetical, one was by publisher). Yet I could find the new comics easily and reach them without obstacles.
The second thing I noticed was that the newer stores are child-friendly. That goes hand in hand with the first item. One of the new stores had a specific children’s section, complete with child-size chairs and a table of toys so that kids could keep themselves entertained while the parents shopped. One of the older stores also has a good kids’ section at the front of the store and I’ve brought my daughters there from time to time (my regular store isn’t particularly kid-friendly but they enjoy petting the cat when they come with me). However, I won’t take my children to a couple of the older ones. There isn’t much there for them and I’d be too concerned about them bumping over a precarious stack of something or other.
I quickly noticed that the new stores were also more customer-friendly. That stands to reason. The older stores already have a significant customer base. They don’t have to work as hard to get new customers. But those older stores can sometimes be rude and unfriendly. I haven’t always had bad experiences. Some clerks are quicker to offer assistance than others and I’ve had some fun conversations at one store about ‘80s cartoons or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But I’ve also overheard clerks complain about new customers to each other and had one owner actually gripe when I asked him to come out to the cash register from the backroom so that I could pay.
The new stores, on the other hand, put in a concerted effort to engage me as a potential customer. They were eager to help me find what I was looking for. They offered me subscriptions with discounts on new comics. They talked to me. In one store, a few customers were hanging around having an informal round table. The owner invited me to stay and join in the conversation. He even said to me, “Everyone has an opinion worth sharing.” Then he invited me back for a special Avengers vs. X-Men opening. I felt welcomed and appreciated.
I also noticed something surprising. Something I didn’t expect. The new stores had a different composition. The older stores had been around since the 1990s or earlier. They viewed comic book fans as collectors and they carried other collectibles such as baseball cards. That view isn’t unwarranted. The kids of my generation grew up collecting baseball cards and comic books, foolishly thinking we might make tons of money on our “investments.” But that collectible market fell apart. I’m always amused to see unopened boxes of baseball cards still sitting on a shelf two decades later at one of the older stores. As purveyors of collectibles, those older stores heavily invest in comics with variant covers. They buy extra issues and mark up variants for two, three, four times the cover price.
However, the new stores tend to view comic book fans as members of geek culture. They have comic books. But they also carry manga or anime. They display lots of T-shirts and hats. One store even carries unusual board games- not the ones that you would find at a Toys R Us store but the ones that you’d discover at a gamers’ convention. It’s a very different view of the customer. We’re not collectors. We’re part of a subculture. They see the overlap between comic book fans and science fiction fans and they offer Dr. Who sonic screwdrivers accordingly.
I’m overstating the difference a little bit. I can find Magic the Gathering tables and Dungeons & Dragons player’s guides at an old store and a new one. But not by much. I was frankly astonished at the difference in philosophy between those stores that had been around for 15-20 years and those that had opened in the last year or two.
The final thing or, more accurately, the real first thing I noticed is that several stores opened in the last couple of years. As comic book fans, we hear a lot about how the industry is in trouble yet the future might not be as bleak as we make it out to be. New stores are still opening and finding customers. I find that encouraging.
That being said, I probably won’t change my habits that much. My complaints were mostly about the other older stores, not my regular shop. I still get great customer service. He keeps a pull list for me, gives me a solid discount and is good about placing reorders. And, for all their faults, those older stores have one thing I’m looking for: a deep selection of new comics if something sells out and I don’t want to wait. The new stores simply don’t have the margin for error to order dozens of copies. However, I was able to find a few scarce comics on my trek- like Daredevil #4 and 5. And it’s nice to know there are a few new cool stores in town. If I’m in the neighborhood, I’m liable to drop by and throw a bit of business their way.