This Saturday, Local Comic Shop Day celebrates its fourth year, shining a much-needed spotlight on the comic book store experience and its place in a rapidly changing retail culture. The official website for the event characterizes comic shops as “the primary fire-starters for pop culture,” a bold statement that certainly does capture the potential reach of a place specialized in story exchange, art, and comic creator meetups.
Comic book stores are faced with an aggressive and insistent cluster of market changes that threaten the relevancy and even existence of physical spaces dedicated to periodicals that are more readily accessible in digital format. The debate between physical products and their digital versions have carried over the last few years with little ground given to either side, especially in terms of market dominance. Comixology and its new culture of digital discounts offer a welcoming hand to those running on a tight comics budget, but the tradeoff seems to be too much for some. In other words, digital does not translate into collectible.
A digital comics collection is not the same as a physical comics collection that can branch out into books sales at conventions, book exchanges between readers, and creator signings. Local Comic Shop Day not only aims at reminding comics buyers of the benefits of print, but it also reinforces the idea that comic book shops are meeting places that strengthen the comics community more than online services that are not necessarily focused on fostering social gatherings.
One great example of a locally owned comic shop fighting the good fight in keeping the comics store experience from fading, and adapting to new audiences, movements, politics, and trends can be found in Philadelphia, under the name Brave New Worlds.
Brave New Worlds is located in 55 N. 2nd Street, in the Old City section, a minute’s walk away from Christ Church, which included amongst its congregation 15 signers of the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Franklin amongst them). Upon entering the store, one is immediately struck by a general sense of balance, of superhero comics and indie comics coexisting on an equal playing field amongst collectible figures, board games, trading cards, and Japanese model kits. And yet, comics take center stage. They are clearly displayed as the reason why the store exists.
The store boasts a large selection of discounted trades, one-dollar single issues, and features a small section more comic book stores should invest in: an used comics section. This approach to sales and discounts allows for newcomers to ease their way into deep reading with top-tier titles available at half-price or lower. This is one of the reasons why Brave New Worlds became the store that converted me to comics. I remember buying Marvel’s initial Ultimates run along with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing at discount price and knowing I would come back the following week for more. The next story I picked up thanks to the staff recommendation on top of the discounted price was Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier. This, coupled with those one-dollar comics, became the beginning of my comics education, my origin story within that universe.
I talked to Robert Lefevre, the manager of Brave New Worlds, about the store’s identity and how it looks to adapt to stay relevant in the era of digital sales. Robert started by immediately recognizing that comic stores should offer as complete a pop culture experience as possible. The more diverse the items on the shelves the better the conversations that are struck in-store.
While each area offers different avenues of discussion, especially when it comes to board games and collectibles, Robert was quick to point out that in order to develop a strong comics community the goal should be to keep people in the store for longer, talking about comics. “We need to find a way to make people come into the store and talk comics beyond new comics Wednesday,” Robert said, noting that the industry has decided to make one day of the week the star of the show. “There is an eagerness to talk comics, and comic shops should move towards making that space available, especially if it gives different comics more exposure.”
Robert spoke to the idea of midnight releases as an idea some companies came up with to try and build up excitement for comics while also boosting traffic in comic shops. “The problem with midnight releases was it asked people to visit a store late at night on a Tuesday, which was a hard sell for people with tight work schedules, especially if a particular comic was the only offering.” Robert added, “after a while, and many midnight releases later, the novelty wore off and stopped being a profitable strategy.” The midnight release, in a sense, required more than just the comic. It had to be a party itself, a different experience, in order to attract more visitors into the store. Instead, it was seen more as a gimmick than a sustainable model for bringing more people into the store.
What the midnight release idea did do was sell people on the concept of comic shops as ‘meetup’ spots that, with careful planning, could extend the time people spend in the store, interacting within it in various forms and with fans with different backgrounds. Robert mentions how the store pivoted to other ideas to help make it more of a hangout spot in certain occasions. One of these ideas was ‘Ladies Night,’ where women or anyone that identifies as a woman is invited to the store to talk all things comics with the store’s own Cacey Crawford, who is also featured in the store’s social media videos showcasing the store’s merchandise while also offering book recommendations and short talks on collectibles.
Ladies Night included female creator spotlight sections, which are carefully curated reading selections that promote different kinds of storytelling from leading and emerging female voices. “This event really allowed us to build a diverse community of readers that felt the store was there for them. It gave us a chance to connect with other people and help extend comics talk beyond Wednesdays,” Robert stated.
This event is a strong example of how comic shops can evolve into more complex and even challenging spaces that can spark conversations amongst groups that have felt like they’ve had to carve or reclaim their own space in a community that better reflects the diversity of its readership. This turns the shop into a cultural space where different experiences converge, with comics serving as aids in navigating and making sense of the various debates and ideas floating around the comics shop.
When asked if the growing Philadelphia comics convention scene resulted in more store visits, Robert provided a cautiously optimistic answer. Brave New Worlds worked with Keystone Comic Con in both selling tickets and promoting the event. Keystone itself wasn’t the New York Comic Con-type of success some hoped it would be, but it showed enough promise to merit another show in 2019. “Working with the convention showed us that interest in comic shops is there and is growing, just not in an accelerated rate.” Robert added, “conventions are still their own thing and have yet to make large numbers of people flock to specific comic stores. I do think it can happen, though. The smaller conventions that focus on comics can sometimes get people asking about store locations and planning visits.”
As conventions move towards the multimedia aspect of pop culture, comic books seem to be pushed further out into the convention floor’s tighter spaces, quite a distance away from the movie trailer screening rooms, which exist thanks to the raw material these conventions celebrated more directly in the first place. Robert suggested that more collaboration between conventions and shops could produce a more balanced business relationship that could give comics the presence they once had in bigger cons. In other words, conventions could and should contribute further into the development of the comics community, making sure comic shops get the support they need.
Brave New Worlds will be celebrating Local Comic Shop Day this coming Saturday, November 17, 2018. If you are in Philadelphia and are looking for a welcoming comic book store with an extensive book selection that also does its part in challenging the status quo in favor of community building, Brave New Worlds should be one of your top destinations. Just be ready to talk comics with people who know and love comics.
Ricardo Serrano has a Master’s Degree in Comic Books from the University of Dundee in Scotland. His dissertation was on Ultron and Frankenstein’s Monster and how they dream of a world made in their image. He’s also the co-creator of Se Habla Comics, a Puerto Rican podcast geared towards Spanish-speaking comic book readers. He believes that robots have started taking over and that Dawn of the Dead is a documentary.