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I was pacing the store shovelling mouthfuls of poutine into my mouth. The store’s owner and my replacement were going over initial order numbers for February, talking about comics I wouldn’t be around to sell. I wanted to interrupt on almost every line order to chime in with advice, but I know that wouldn’t be helpful. I know what to order if I’m around to sell comics. I don’t know what to order when I’m gone. This was why the poutine was important. It was the only thing keeping me from burbling over and offering opinions I had no reason to give.

Because: Canada.
Because: Canada.

It was a few days before Christmas, and I was having trouble letting go. I’d been at the store for over eight years, and had taken quite a bit of ownership over the culture of it, from the general atmosphere, right down to the ordering process. I wanted it to stay the same… but it can’t. It won’t. It shouldn’t.

Comic shops are like thumbprints, their make-up determined largely by parentage and circumstance. It starts at the root with the owner or manager of the shop, and the kind of experience that they want to build. While an owner should always endeavour to be inclusive when marketing to their customers, even the most delicate hand and even-tempered sales tactics give way to taste. People find it easier to market to those with similar tastes, and will sometimes do so without thought. For instance, when you hear the words “I’ve never read a comic before, what do you recommend?” – what is your first thought? What is your go-to book? I used to respond by asking what genres they were looking for, or what movies, tv shows or books they liked to read before moving onto the next step, but even then, personal bias would bubble up in my recommendations and would inevitably affect my sales and clientele.

Beyond that, there is a myriad of other things that affect the shape and feel of the store. Some of it comes down to what you’ll tolerate in the walls of your shop. What kind of jokes do you allow to pass? Is judgement passed on what is purchased, either positively or negatively? How active is the sales staff when you walk into the shop? Do they leave customers to their own devices? Do they say hello or offer a helping hand unprompted? When a customer offers up a fact, is it contested when it’s wrong? If so, how and when? Are female customers noted? Are they treated similarly to a male customer, or does the atmosphere change? The answers to all of these questions and hundreds more affect who walks through the doors of a shop, and with what frequency. It will affect everything – what is purchased, how it’s purchased, when, why and by whom.

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Going further out from there, a store’s location will often affect what is sold almost as much as who is selling and how. At my old digs, we had three locations at one point, and each couldn’t have been more different from each other in terms of demographic. They were owned by the same three guys, but each sold product in vastly different ways. The stores located in more residential areas did far more in items like Pokemon cards and superhero comics than the one located close to one of the local universities, where Magic the Gathering and indie fare was more appreciated. By and large, the people who worked at any location for any long stretch of time fit in with the vision the owners had for the stores and what the location demanded almost naturally. Going against the grain didn’t mean you were a poor worker, but it did mean that you didn’t quite connect with the product and the customers, and that you eventually found your way to other opportunities.

Having an identity crisis can be hazardous to your shop's health. (flips a table, yelling) METAPHORS!
Having an identity crisis can be hazardous to your shop’s health. (flips a table, yelling) METAPHORS!

A word of gentle advice to all those working at comic shops: it might be a pretty great gig, and you might enjoy what you’re selling, but always ask yourself if you fit. Are you constantly railing against the customer flow or the direction of the store? Is it causing audible distress or cognitive dissonance in the shop? If so… well, don’t quit, but at the very least, attempt to examine what you’re looking for. While shops can be changed, they have to be willing to change, and you have to be willing to put in the hard work to make it so. Almost everyone has a breaking point – even owners – and sometimes the best thing to do for the store and the industry in that situation is to recalibrate and reassess. That’s what I did.

At the end of 2014, I tendered my resignation as manager at my old shop. Since people have and will ask me, I didn’t leave because I don’t like the owners or the business or the people who frequent the store – I left because I felt as though I didn’t fit what the store wanted to be. Originally, the intent was to take some time away from the front lines and to just be a fan of the medium for a while – which probably begs the question, why am I still writing Retailer’s View columns. Whelp, the answer is simple: I took a look at stepping out from behind the counter, and decided that it felt too uncomfortable at this point in my life. I like standing behind a counter and slinging recommendations. I like shaping my corner of the comic book industry, and matching people with books they’re going to enjoy.

So I’m starting a new comic shop.

As you might have already guessed, the next few Retailer’s View articles will be about some of the hoops you have to jump through to get a store started. It’s not going to be a soup to nuts thing, as a lot of what I would have to say is specific to the time and place we’re setting things up. That said, you’re going to get a look at the retail experience from a place not often explored: right from the ground floor. Already, it’s a little strange and pretty scary, but armed with the knowledge I’ve amassed over the past eight plus years of working behind the counter and a whole lot of product, I think things will work out. Regardless, even during this state of gestation, I can see the importance of personality and location, and what it will mean for the new venture moving forward. It starts right at the beginning, in the very foundations, and it will inevitably grow from there. Hopefully in time, I’ll get to show you all what it becomes.

Until next time.

[Brandon Schatz has spent the last eight years working behind the comic book counter, and he will soon be starting a store of his own. In his spare time, he writes about the comics and culture. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson and at his website, Submetropolitan. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Well said, Brandon. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your new venture: what will you do the same and what will you change from the shop you were managing? What will you look for in new staff, and what customer range will you try to attract? Cool!

  2. I’m always baffled at the seriousness with which comic types talk about working at a comic store…it’s a minimum wage retail job…either the you own the store or you should be under 25…if you’re over 25 then you’ve made a serious career error.

    Do you fit the store? Is not a question I ever asked when working retail. Can I sell X? Yes? Then it’s a job and you do it and move on when you graduate or find something better. It’s not a calling, it’s a menial job. And there is nothing wrong with that, but like I said, either you own the store or it should be a temporary gig.

  3. Well Alex, if you’re doing it right, comics retail isn’t a minimum wage job for anyone. Treating it like such is how you get terrible employees and a terrible store which… would explain the culture of more than a few stores.

  4. Wow, congratulations! Running any small business has to be difficult, but I can’t imagine trying to run a comic shop. Really looking forward to this column in the future.

  5. I could spend hours…

    But I’ll offer just one suggestion:
    Get an account with a general book distributor, like Ingram, or Baker & Taylor.
    Eventually, Diamond will run out of stock on something, and you’ll need an alternative. (Even if it costs you margin.)
    But. more important, you can set up a sign that says: “Don’t see what you’re looking for? We can order any book in print!” That’s when you fire up the computer, search your book distributor, do a simple calculation, and offer a discount if the customer pays in advance for the book (or CD or DVD or…).

    You do this for two reasons:
    1) Customer service, which improves your store’s reputation.
    2) Discovering new sidelines which can help your store diversify and expand.

    I’d also talk to Diamond about web services. I believe they offer a web storefront for e-commerce. But you might want to push that to Year Two improvements.

  6. Congrats on your new business adventure, Brandon.
    I don’t envy the life of comics retail – I know it’s hard looking into a crystal ball and trying to figure out how and what to sell three months in advance.

    I wish you all the best.
    If I’m in your town I’ll stop by…. maybe sign a few books.

    Cheers,
    Jimmie

  7. Brandon, this is a really great read. I’ve met indie bookstore owners who have the very same approach and feel as what you have expressed. Retailers and staff who have your approach are creating a better experience and a loyal customer base. The questions you ask for the person who has never read a comic before is something I’ve heard other really intelligent retailers ask and they turn those ‘newbies’ into regular customers.
    Alex, I’d have to say you didnt have the same passion for the gig. That’s ok because it means you werent in the place you are meant to be.
    Torsten, awesome pointers…as always.
    Brandon, I’m looking forward to reading about the new challenge.

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