HOW TO GET GIRLS INTO YOUR COMIC SHOPS
Dating a comics geek has given me ample opportunity to see my fair share of comic shops. Oft was the time he would drag me in, kicking and screaming. Once there, I would clutch at his hand and growl "Do not leave me!" 45 minutes later, when blood was leaking from my eyes and ears, he would promise (read: Lie) "Just 5 more minutes!" (Later I would seek my revenge in the shoe store. He would be crying and crawling for the exit, a broken man, and I would step on his neck with a shiny new pair of stilettos, bend down and whisper in his ear "Just five more minutes, baby. Five. More. Minutes.") And I always assumed that I felt unwelcomed at the comic shop because it wasn't my thing. But now it is my thing. I can walk into most of my local stores and see a comic I've written sitting on the shelves. There are talks of signings and special promotions. I'm in, right? I belong here.
Or do I?
Recently I went on a mini-expedition to several different comic shops in an attempt to figure out why they always feel like the neighborhood boy's cardboard fort with a sign out front proclaiming "No Girls Allowed!"
This is what I learned.
1) Darkened doors are not inviting.
I know why you darken your doors and windows. Your vampire like books would wither and die if the light of God shone directly upon them. But standing outside the shops, I couldn't help but wonder if, just inside, studiers of the occult awaited me with human sized butterfly nets and ether covered handkerchiefs. Guys, imagine if you will, a lingerie shop. You know it's a lingerie shop because the sign out front says so. But the windows are dark. When you open that door you have no idea what to expect. Will the sophisticated Swedish clerk greet you kindly and ask how she can be of service. "Perhaps this satin nightie, yah?" Or will there be a dozen soccer moms who look up at you like an intruder-- a cross-dresser perhaps, or some lecherous old man come to imagine them in their underwears? Intimidating, yah?
Wouldn't it be nice if you could look into the shop before entering it? Kinda know what you're getting in to?
Peel off that dark brown sheet that stains your windows. Put up some clear UV protection. Angle your shelves away from the sun or move the good stuff to the back. Whatever. Just don't ask us to walk in, sight unseen.
2) Your life-sized Spider-Man statue freaks me out.
Why does every store have one of these? If Joe Blow in Idaho opens a comic shop out of his mom's basement, does Marvel automatically ship him a giant Spider-Man statue? They're creepy-- like that guy in the haunted house who pretends to be a statue until you walk by and he tries to grab you. Despite what you may think, cardboard cut-outs of Dr. Doom, X-Men figurines and posters of Wonder Woman do not constitute decoration. To the untrained female eye, these things look a lot like the clutter of a 14-year-old boy's room-- another place we're probably going to feel a bit uncomfortable. Comics is an art driven medium. Treat it as such. Celebrate it. Grab yourself some antique mahogany frames and a Winsor McCay drawing, a James Jean painting or a Becky Cloonan watercolor. Put it up. Proudly display it and when someone says "I love this artist. Who is it?" just point them to the appropriate book.
And while we're on the subject of decoration, take the paint off the windows that looks like it should be up at the local market proclaiming 3 yams for $1.75. Paint your walls instead. Something warm, inviting. Take the books out of the boxes and put them on the shelves. (I know, I know. Space is limited. But there's a middle of the road that doesn't require me to flip through a big ol' box of "I don't know what I'm looking for!")
Put a few overstuffed chairs in the corner with a table and a lamp. Put a rack nearby displaying the employee's recommendations. Heck, go crazy. Make a water cooler or a pot of coffee available. Encourage people to come in and hang out. I've heard rumors of the Isotope store up in San Fran and how proprietor James Sime built his business on a drink slinger's knowledge of making people feel at ease. I've never been, but I envision the "Cheers" of Metropolis where an off duty Superman can come in and everyone looks up and says, "Claaaaaaark!" We could all learn a bit from the Pimp.
3) How was the Moon? Good view, but no atmosphere.
What kind of tone are you setting in your store? Is it too hot or too cold? Is the music too loud? Are the lights too low? I'm coming in to find stuff to read. It would help a lot if I could see the page and hear myself think. Now, I'm not one of those new-age mystic types but I can't deny that people and places all have an energy about them, including retail stores. Women are very cognizant of sensory input and store owners need to be sensitive to that. Organize your shelves. If you're going to carry "adult" material, and I use that term loosely, feel free to keep that in boxes in the back and out of reach of kids.
Speaking of the little ones, have a kids corner up front with age appropriate material. I promise you we'll make a mental note of it and know where to go when we need a present for our niece or nephew's birthday.
4) Put on your going to meetin' clothes. It's time for service.
Most of the shops I've been to are owned by men and have mostly male employees. Certainly it can be intimidating for people to talk with others who don't share their same reproductive organs, but if I walk into your store, that's your job. Greet me when I come in. Ask if you can help. Know what you're selling. Be able to speak in-depth on a wide range of books, from Marvel's top titles to the latest in indie and vanity publishing. If you're a waiter at a restaurant, you should sure as Hell know what's on the menu.
For each stop on my expedition, I did the same thing. I walked in, headed for the back and while I looked over the books on display, I waited. Eventually someone would ask if they could help me and I would turn and smile and say, "Yeah. What do you recommend for a newbie?" Most stared at me wide-eyed and asked what I meant. Eventually we worked it out to a series of grunts and hand gestures. "Me no read comics. You point comics me may like." And while I will say that once I got them going, everyone I spoke with seemed genuine, sincere and eager to help, I can't discount that many of them would point out a comic then tell me it was good, but when I asked why or what made it compelling they would answer with incoherent statements like, "Well, there's this guy and he does some stuff and stuff." Well, shoot! Why didn't you say so? I love stories about guys who do stuff and stuff!
If the clerk seemed to be running out of fuel, I would follow up with my second question. "What do you have that's female friendly?" And off they would go again, some of them making some really great suggestions like "Strangers in Paradise" and they all recommended "Fables." Now, before a bunch of hard core comic girls write in and tell me what a disservice I'm doing to women everywhere, let me just say that I, too, like Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and others like them out there writing on the edge. All I'm saying is that if a woman walks into a video store and says "I've never seen a movie before. What do you recommend?" the clerk probably shouldn't hand her "A Clockwork Orange."
Before moving on to the fifth and final step, I wanted to run down for you two of my experiences.
So for the life of me I cannot find the first shop I'm looking for. I know it's on this block somewhere, but even as I slow to 25 miles an hour on my third loop around the block I can't see a sign anywhere. Screw it. I park at a meter and decide to hoof it. Ah. There it is. Sign obscured by another sign and a slightly overgrown tree. A life-size Spider-Man staring out at me is all I can make out through the darkened windows. "Ah puke," I think, "but you've already come this far." So I head inside.
Two guys are milling about the shop and neither looks up at me. (This is a good thing.) I toodle on towards the back and start trying to decipher the Ultimate/Super/Fantastic/Incredible titles. After a few minutes, one of the guys walks up to me and says, "Let me know if I can help you find anything." I turn and smile and ask what he recommends for a newbie. "Hmm," he says. "Well, what movies do you like?" I tell him my tastes are pretty varied ranging from "The Matrix" to "Babe." "That is pretty varied," he says. But at least we have a starting point. He quickly moves me away from the serialized comics and over to the trades, explaining these are complete and collected story arcs so I don't have to jump into the middle of a story and try to piece together what's going on. When I ask him about female friendly material, he points me to some amazing selections like "Persepolis" and "La Perdida."
What really impressed me, though, was that from the time we started talking, he never stopped working for me. He would go away for a little bit and I would see him, out of the corner of my eye, digging through a stack of books. He would then return with some new selection like "Tale of One Bad Rat" and proceed to tell me how it was related to the Beatrix Potter books. He pointed out a few selections that his wife liked. A couple clerks did that and it set me at ease. (I've been to a few shops where I felt like a baby seal in a tank of socially awkward sharks.) And, at my request, he made a list of books he thought I would enjoy.
And he talked to me like a human being.
I was laughing when he spoke of Gaiman and Moore and Ellis because, of course, I'm familiar with those guys and have read and enjoyed so much of their work. But he didn't know that. As far as he knew, I didn't know nothing 'bout nothing. But not once did he talk down to me or treat me like an outsider. He just kept piling on stuff and talking to me about what I liked and what I didn't and why. I intended to spend 50 bones total that day, divided up between all the stores. I ended up spending close to $70 in that store alone.
I made and paid for my selections and he gave me a trade paperback card telling me that when I bought 10 trades, I got one free. Nice touch. And as I was leaving, he said, "Let me know what you think of Craig Thompson's 'Blankets,'" another book he turned me on to.
Well, Darren of Earth 2, let me just say thank you for the great service, the perfect recommendations and as for "Blankets?" Brought it home and devoured all 582 pages of it that night in bed. It is probably the most heartbreakingly raw work I have ever read. I loved it. Thanks for asking.
And now the bad.
I head into the next shop. Dark windows with a giant Spiderman face painted on the window. Well, at least it's not the statue. I head in through the propped open door. I don't think any lights are on, it's so hot I'm breaking a sweat just standing still and the air is, mmm, let's say musty. A Jerry Springer episode blares out from some beat-up old T.V. set as I pass boxes and boxes of comics and head to the back. Ah, there's the life size Spider-Man statue. Cherry. (As in "on-top of" my "This place makes me feel dirty" sundae.) When the guy behind the counter, who I later find out is the owner, finishes with the guy he was helping, he eventually makes his way over to me and says half-heartedly, "Let me know if you need any help." Show time.
I really have to work this guy to get him talking to me. But when he does start talking, this is what he says-- Don't get into the serialized books. Collecting them is a pain, there are storage issues and if I liked something I would have to come back every few weeks to get the latest version. (And why, oh why, would an owner want me to continually return to his store and purchase things?) No. He says I should try the trades. At Barnes & Noble! Go to the bookstore and grab a bunch of trades off the shelves and just sit there and read them until I start to figure out what I like. Three or four times he makes this recommendation. Go to Borders. Go to Barnes & Noble. Go anywhere but here. Take your money and your interest elsewhere. And this is the owner telling me this. I honestly think the guy was really trying to do right by me, but the fact that I'm there with money to burn and he's essentially telling me to get lost just blows my mind.
I keep on him and he eventually folds and says maybe I might like "Batman: Hush." His reasoning for this is that another girl was in not too long ago and she bought it. Sigh. Now, I happen to like "Hush," but recommending it because someone else with breasts bought it doesn't inspire me with faith in his suggestions. Unfortunately, she bought the last copy so even if I wanted it, he doesn't have it. Oy. In fact, in his big ol' Ikea bookshelf of trades, he doesn't have a lot of stuff. But I'm still sitting there looking at books that I have at home and love, books that I just bought at the other store, and all this guy's telling me to do is beat it.
So I do.
5) Be your store's superhero.
Up to this point, we've mostly been talking about foot traffic-- how to make your store appealing and accessible to anyone walking by. But what can you do on a larger spectrum? How do you actively go out and get girls to come to your store? There are no easy answers and it's going to take continued work, but if bringing a new customer base into your stores and raising your sales is something you want to do-- it is possible.
Here are a few suggestions.
First of all, have a website. If that guy who dresses up like Peter Pan can have a website with over 20 pages, photos and flash animation, you can have a simple home page that gives your address and store hours.
Start a book club. Tell every person you know, particularly the women, that you're starting this club and ask them to tell every person they know. Tell your employees that for every person they bring to the book club, they get a bonus on their next check. Make flyers. Hand it to every customer that comes in. Ask friends to hang them up at their work and mention it at their church gatherings. Pick a great book like "Blankets" or "Persepolis" and make it the book of the month. Offer it for 10% off and at the end of the month, have a dinner where the readers get together and talk about the book. Go up and down the street and talk to every retailer on your block. Tell them who you are and what your goal is and ask if there's a way to do some cross-promotion. Pick a restaurant near-by and see if they'd be willing to host your book club to a special dinner. Make it a literary event.
Have a Kid's Corner. Every Saturday morning is kid's time. Have an employee or a local actor come in and read to kids from some kid friendly comics. Push this at your local library, PTA meetings, schools and daycares. If the Dad's show up, make sure they leave with stuff for their wife. If it's the mothers waiting on the kids, turn them on to some more adult material that they might like. If they're hesitant to buy, give them the book. Tell them if they don't like it, they can bring it back or give it away but if they do like it, they have to come back and try another.
Do you know what bars do when they want more women coming to their establishment? Ladies night. Discount drinks. No cover charge. Make it known that every Wednesday, women get a percentage off every book they buy. You know what every guy is going to do? Bring a woman with him to the shop so she can buy his books. And I hope by now you have a pretty good idea about what to do with her when she comes in.
Ask around. If you're unsure of what's right for your neighborhood or community, go ask someone. Contact your Chamber of Commerce and local newspapers and ask about women's groups. Reach out to them and tell them you want to bring women to comics. What do they recommend?
Now I want to be clear here. I'm not telling anyone what they should do. Only what they could do if they wanted to make their stores more inviting to newbies, particularly women. Some of you won't like what I suggest or have any desire to change and that's okay. I like shopping at The Gap. I like it because I know what to expect. New items up front. Sale items in the back. Quiet, well-lit. Now perhaps somebody on some website were to write a column about what they wanted in a clothing store and The Gap decided they wanted to appeal to that somebody. So they turned down the lights and turned up the bass, lit some incense and rearranged the clothes. They would quite likely get some customers they weren't getting before. They would also, however, lose some old customers, including me. That's not what I want for the comic shops. But I'm hoping there's a happy medium.
In closing, I want to mention that I recently went to the grand opening of a new comic shop called Secret Headquarters. Beautiful store with a great turn out. I talked to several of the women there and heard the same thing over and over again. "This brings back such a feeling of nostalgia. I grew up reading comics." Having quite the extensive "ElfQuest" comic collection when I was a girl, I could relate. But like them, I drifted away. So perhaps, as an industry, not only do we need to be thinking about how to bring women to comics, but, how to keep them when we get them.