MINISTER OF PROPAGANDA
One of the most recurring bits of feedback on the first column I did was a veritable ocean of requests for me to define what I do as the wise and terrible "Minister of Propaganda" at Brian Hibbs' shop Comix Experience in San Francisco.
At its most basic, I'm a comic shop clerk for a few hours each Friday afternoon, keeping my writer-publisher self abreast of the retailing trends customers embody with their each and every purchase. At its most grand, I'm the charismatic leader of a small band of brainy hipsters who convene at the end of the week like the Impossible Missions Force to hoist a few pints and discuss-with-an-eye-towards-remedying the perceived ills of the comic book industry while simultaneously running the cash register with a free hand.
When I first started writing, editing, and producing Comix Experience's in-store newsletter, Onomatopoeia, which I did every four weeks for two months shy of five years straight, I took Brian's mandate to promote the store perhaps a little too seriously. I was so relentless and omnipresent online about extolling the many virtues of CE that my good pal Matt Lehman, owner of the excellent Boston store Comicopia, tried to take the stuffing out of me by derisively but good-naturedly referring to me as Hibbs' "minister of propaganda."
"Well, that's a perfect job title if I've ever heard one," I thought. And so it stuck.
Last Friday, I came home from CE and checked my email, and was surprised to find that one of my old college buddies was thinking about opening his own shop. He asked me what I thought would be the Very Most Important Thing he could do or say or offer in his store to guarantee success. This is a cleaned-up version of what I wrote to him:
So, you want to open a comic shop.
The best guesses show that there are about 3000 specialty retail stores in the country that sell comic books and related merchandise. And you want to jump into the fray... Oh, sure, you can go to the library and check out some dry business tome for advice, but chances are those books will not address the specific and unique problems that you'll run into on your sprint towards opening day. You might even be able to get up on to the Internet and find some resources that you can consult. In fact, there are many areas in which you can call upon for answers and expertise. It seems that many of the more savvy retailers are online in some capacity, and it's easy to find 'em. But.
The biggest pitfall that you can run across is actually listening to any of these people.
Even the most successful comics retailer has been so for idiosyncratic and possibly even special reasons. You will have to answer and implement questions and solutions for your own situation as it develops. Just as no two snowflakes are alike, no two comic stores are the same; what works like gangbusters in an urban area, for example, might spell a quick death in a rural location. So pick a good spot, sure.
The most important thing is for your comic store to have an identity. Too many shops are just extensions of someone's collection; one day, a guy looks around and realizes his stash of books is taking over his house, and he decides to open a store to maybe make a little money, and have a clubhouse to sit around with his pals and talk about comics. Without further thought to how your store presents itself to the outside world, this lackadaisical approach may very well spell doom for your fledgling outfit.
The first thing to consider is how you want to present your shop to the real world. Too often, shop-keepers ascribe to the Field of Dreams philosophy; that is, naively believing that "If you build it, they will come." Nothing can be further from the truth in today's economic climate. The comic book industry is fundamentally no different than the professional sports or motion picture industries, really; all are multi-million dollar businesses predicated on selling entertainment to the masses. The comic book is in direct competition for dollars spent on any other form of entertainment. However, it is the comic book's unique position to be able to offer a melding of capital A Art and literature: painting and prose, individually, lack the power, emotion, and narrative drive that pictures and words have when the two are juxtaposed. In other words, funny books kick ass.
In the past, it has been this very separation of capital A Art from the commerce of entertainment that has relegated comics to a backwater; they've been a bit of a bastard child of pop culture in search of legitimacy. But you read Entertainment Weekly; I'd make the argument that comics are now being recognized as a viable art form that can deliver a superior entertainment experience on its own merits. A good comic provides value in so many ways: a rollickin' story, pathos, elegance, poignancy. It can illuminate, inspire, or unnerve. And unlike a movie or a ball game, once you've paid for a comic book, the experience can be enjoyed again and again, just by re-reading your issue.
And this is what you'll be selling to folks. Repeatable fun.
But you've already come to the realization that comics are a worthy endeavor, and you wouldn't mind spreading the joy of funny books to the world. But what do you want people to see when they actually look at your store? The comics that you love? Maybe the fixtures you display 'em on? Well-mannered and knowledgeable employees? Well, yes, yes, and yes... but not yet. The first thing most potential customers will see is your store name and logo. Your good name and logo are your first ambassadors out into the rest of the world, and much care and aforethought should be put towards the best use of your identity.
First, ya gotta name your store. It should articulate the vision you have for your company. The name should evoke what sort of goods and services you provide, it can tender a message you might want to send, or it can even suggest the way in which your company does business. It can be as simple as Brian Hibbs' "Comix Experience," which lets the customer know that he sells comics and offers a unique "experience" when shopping. The name can be evocative of a more general, all-inclusive retail situation, such as Paul Howley's "That's Entertainment." The store's name might be a playful amalgam of words, such as Matt Lehman's "Comicopia," which suggests a veritable cornucopia of comics. You might even name your store, as Steve Ginsburg (of Claude's Comics) did, after your dog.
Whatever way you choose to represent your store to the world, you have to remember that your company identity is as important as paying the rent on time. Your identity is not just your name, or a cool logo, or the way you do business. It's all of those, and a consistency of vision for your shop and an adherence to that vision.
It's what we call around here "pick a pitch and swing."
Welcome to comics.
To see an earlier, and more general take from me on this keep-your-eye-on-the-ball issue, featuring Darick Robertson's wedding and the words "resplendent affair," I commend you to: this column.
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