By Steve Morris
We’re returning to Leeds for a second time this week (Leeds Week!), as the award winning store OK Comics celebrates ten years in business today. The store was set up by Jared Myland in 2002 as a way of introducing readers to new and unexpected graphic novels, alongside some of the more usual suspects – and to celebrate ten years, Jared was kind enough to talk to me about why he first founded OK, and how he feels the retail industry has shifted over the past decade.
Steve: What made you decide to start up OK Comics ten years ago? Were you always a fan of comics?
Jared Myland: I worked at Space Odyssey and then Forbidden Planet, two large UK comic book stores, before setting up OK Comics. I’ve always thought that the vast majority of people aren’t given the chance to appreciate the diverse range of comics available, so when I established OK Comics I made it my mission to get as many new people reading as many new and different comics as possible. And, ten years on, that still the idea that drives us.
Steve: What do you think makes a comic shop succeed or fail? What, to you, are the most important elements of managing OK Comics?
Jared: I learnt very quickly that a comic shop that stocks exclusively Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly stuff isn’t going to last very long in a city like Leeds, so I’ve worked out a good balance between all the great ‘alternative’ comics and a full range of Marvel and DC stuff. It works really well, and thankfully both the big two publishers are putting out great stuff.
It’s really important to put your customers’ needs first. I constantly try to put myself in the shoes of our clientele and anticipate what the hardcore fans want and what the casual browsing purchaser may respond to.
Steve: How do you think OK Comics stands apart from other comic shops?
Jared: I’ve established a few quirky things that make us a bit different. We offer a free lending library service, run a free graphic novel scheme, host social drawing events… but what makes us most different is the way we present our shop. We’re quite honest about the fact that we sell comics and graphic novels, but we set the store out like a posh, upscale book shop. It’s clean, brightly lit with wooden shelving and a leather couch, there are no posters blocking out the windows – and most importantly of all there are no toys, DVDs, t-shirts or any other merchandise… oh, and customers are greeted by fresh flowers every day!
Steve: How has business been over the course of the decade? Have there been any moments where you noticeably saw a swell in custom, for example?
Jared: OK Comics has grown pretty naturally over the last ten years. I started trading from home by mail order, opened the first shop in a small unit in a run-down part of town, and when we outgrew that we moved to our current location. Now, despite the recession, our customer base continues to slowly, organically grow.
The two things that boost things for us the most are the comic book movies and Thought Bubble, our local/international comic book convention.
Films; everything from Avengers and Batman to Ghost World and American Splendor to Scott Pilgrim and Kick Ass to History of Violence and Road to Perdition; all bring more people through our door. looking for the source material for whatever film they’ve just seen, and we do our very best to hook them onto other relevant stuff.
Now in its fifth or sixth year, Thought Bubble is, in my experience, the best comic book convention in the world. It’s a true celebration of comics and graphic novels attracting people from all over the world. Many of these people visit our shop and become great customers.
Steve: Which books typically sell most? Is it always Marvel/DC, or do you customers tend to try more widespread, eclectic titles?
Jared: We sell lots of Marvel and DC comics, but more recently people seem more keen to try something new. Crime and Mystery series like Fatale – which is one of our best sellers – are becoming more popular, as are science fiction and fantasy comics like Saga or Manhattan Projects.
It’s getting easier and easier to get customers to try stuff by Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Los Bros Hernandez and Charles Burns.
Steve: Do initiatives like Comixology challenge OK Comics for custom, or do you think digital and print comics can coexist?
Jared: So far, digital comics have had a positive effect on our business. People who would not normally pick up a comic are finding Avengers or Justice League through their iPads or whatever and then coming to us to ‘collect’ the actual physical issues.
Steve: Do you think publishers could make more of their relationships with retailers?
Jared: It would be nice to have more support from the big publishers. The smaller publishers, certainly in the UK, are extremely supportive of comic book shops. Self Made Hero and Knockabout have done things that have had a lasting impact on OK Comics and boosted sales of their books.
Steve: On a similar note – how have your experiences been with Diamond?
Jared: Diamond are fantastic. I can’t stress that enough. We get deliveries from them every couple of days and there is very, vary rarely a problem that can’t be solved pretty much instantly.
Our contact at Diamond UK is an amazingly hard worker, and he often goes above and beyond what I expect. He’s like an extra member of the OK team. Diamond may have a bad reputation, but in my experience (17 years and counting) it’s completely unfounded.
Steve: You’ve always pushed to increase the presence of comics in Leeds, and as a whole Leeds has a surprisingly strong comics community – we have the Thought Bubble Festival, but also the Alternative Comics Fair and a range of other events around the year. How important is it to have this sense of community? Have there been any examples where it’s directly affected OK Comics?
Jared: Ever since I was young, Leeds has always had great comic book shops. Skyrack, Millennium, Odyssey 7 and Travelling Man were a big part of my life before I started working in retail, and even though most of those have gone people still remember them fondly. I guess it’s the constant presence of multiple comic book stores that has developed the great comic book community that exists in Leeds, a community that has been cemented in the last few years by Thought Bubble.
A few years ago Thornton’s Arcade, the glass covered Victorian shopping street that’s the home of OK Comics, was hit by unscheduled building renovation work. The scaffolding that surrounded our shop made it appear that we were closed. It hit our business very hard. After a few days of getting no passing trade, and even our regular customers thinking we were shut, it became obvious that we were going to go out of business permanently within a month. I decided to put a small message on our website forum and essentially saying ‘use it or lose it’, as an afterthought, I linked to it through Twitter. The following morning we had hundreds of messages, the phone rang all day with orders, and people began visiting the shop from far and wide. The outpouring of support from the local comic community and our loyal customer base saved OK Comics from closure.
Steve: When somebody comes in looking to try new comics… which do you tend to recommend?
Jared: Every day we’re visited by people who’ve never read a comic, or never been in a comic shop before. We try to make their inaugural visit as smooth as possible, explaining briefly how comic publishing works, the difference between comics and graphic novels, and from that we work out what’s best for that individual. We usually ask a few simple questions like “What’s your favourite film?”, or “What kind of novels do you read?” and answering those questions gives us an idea of what comic series or graphic novel to recommend. And if we ever get stuck for a suggestion we can always rely on universally popular books like Walking Dead, Love & Rockets, or Scott Pilgrim.
Steve: To celebrate ten years, you’re creating a ‘signature series’ of comics, in which the staff of OK have picked their favourite graphic novels. Which books have you chosen as your personal picks?
Jared: We always have a ‘top ten’ displayed in the shop. We change it every few months from ‘top ten UK graphic novels’ to ‘top ten new series’ to ‘top ten graphic novels of the year’ or whatever seams relevant at the time.
To mark our tenth year we decided put together a list of ‘top ten books of the last ten years’. Whittling it down to just ten books was pretty impossible, so I decided to expand the range a bit and invite input from all our staff, old and new, and encouraged customers to have their say through Facebook and twitter. We’ve ended up with a range of about 80 titles and given them about 25 feet of shelf space in the most prominent part of the store.
There is something for everyone on the list – from crime, war and horror to science, maths and history.
I’m looking forward to promoting a few of my favourites over the next few months. I love Zach Worton’s Klondike, a well-researched, fictionalised account of the last great North American Gold Rush. Snow, a low key, personal, character driven mystery story set against the backdrop of the encroaching recession in Toronto by Benjamin Rivers. Market Day, James Sturm’s comment on consumerism and the demise of artisan culture. Mark Millar’s Wolverine: Old Man Logan is a great post-apocalyptic-action-adventure- road movie. Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Daytripper is a perfect slice of life comic, ten chapters painting a picture of one man’s life, building to an emotional crescendo.
And ‘I Killed Adolf Hitler’ by Jason is my absolute favourite graphic novel of all time. It’s got everything, romance, humour, time travel and the most villainous villain ever, Hitler!
The signature series is populated by quite a few classics that we’re keen to put in the hands of people who may have previously overlooked them. It’s our duty to make sure everybody has read books like Fleep, Civil War, Essex County, Freak Brothers, and Love & Rockets.
Not just an empty threat – Jared was the one to sell me my first Love & Rockets trade. Many thanks to him for his time, and congratulations on 10 years of OK Comics! You can find him on twitter @OKComics, with the main site at http://www.okcomics.co.uk