SUNDAY SERMON: Comic Book Shops and the Art of Community-Building

CBSWhat makes a community?

Keith Davidson wrote in Bleeding Cool’s FCBD magazine that “a comic shop is like a good community,” but I think he has it backwards. A good comic shop is a community.

I’ve lived in a lot of places around the country, and I’ve frequented shops in all of them. As much as those who love the medium may rage against it, the truth is that is very difficult to find a comic shop that truly feels like a community. With the exception of the true Wednesday Warriors who are there when the doors open and work odd schedules at the jobs they use to pay for their books, most people meander into the shop at their own time of choice, whether that’s lunch break or after work, school or when the kids go to sleep (if the shop is still open). This doesn’t create much of an opportunity for fans to talk with each other, compare notes on books they’ve read, or really get to know each other.

So, the question then becomes What to do: what can our retailers to to combat this negative perception and help to build truly inviting communities?

Events

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Fans gather en masse for Free Comic Book Day 2013

Shops and communities both thrive on events. I’m speaking not of the semi-annual multi-book crossovers endlessly being released by both of the Big Two, but rather gatherings of a shop’s community for any purpose. We hear every year about the hubbub on Free Comic Book Day, and pictures like this one are common as retailers make every effort to draw in new customers, but this should be the beginning, not the end, of retailer-hosted events. Too rare are the shops that set up viewings of super-hero tv shows, or even animated movies.

With Marvel and ABC releasing S.H.I.E.L.D. in prime-time this fall, shops around the country have a golden opportunity to begin building a sense of kinship among their patrons.

Salesmanship

TIP: Just because they have a TV show, don't be like these guys.
TIP: Just because they have a TV show, don’t be like these guys.

Communities also need leaders. They need wisdom and guidance but also enthusiasm and empathy. Ideally, this is the person behind the counter. One can almost envision the fantasy comic book salesperson: a genial soul with an encyclopedic knowledge of comics who has no greater joy than helping someone purchase something that they will delight in. This kind concoction would host reading parties, encourage experimentation in genre and art style, and help their loyal patrons connect with one another in personal and meaningful ways.

Too often, the reality is that the person behind the counter is none of these things. Lets face it, this is not a hobby that has historically attracted many extroverts. Comic shops have earned a reputation (one that is unfortunately supported by shows like Comic Book Men) of being arcane temples, shrouded in a sort of seedy mystery, with the high priest behind the counter prepared to sacrifice them at the merest misstep. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. There are any number of shops that come nowhere close to a textbook definition of seedy, but the form this alternative takes is too often a sanitized, mini-mall approach that, at its best, feels like entering a large national book chain such as Borders or Barnes & Noble.

Get out from behind the counter. Get to know your customers. Be that person they can talk to about all their books.
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Environment

A good, community-centered comic shop needs to feel like a home-away-from-home to its patrons. Far too few retailers have seated reading space or even seated socializing space. If the goal is to create a community of customers who are going to truly enjoy coming back each week, then the person behind the counter can’t be the only person they talk to in the shop.

A quick google image search for “comic book shop” is revelatory in this regard. Below is an example of what you might find.

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Now—while it may be easy enough to marvel at their selection or the quality of their displays—what’s instantly apparent is that this shop (like most of the others you can find interior images of) is not designed to keep its customers in the shop but to get them in and out as quickly as possible.

As the market shifts more toward digital (as we debated in this week’s INFINITE CROSSOVER podcast) it will become increasingly important for shops to transform into a social hub. To function in that capacity, many shops will need to be reimagined to provide spaces for their patrons to get to know each other, relax, and enjoy the ambiance.

Hopefully, those fans reading this will not see it as an indictment of comics retailers around the country, but rather as a plea for improvement. We love our comic shop (those of us that have access to them) and we want to see them survive, even as brick-and-mortar retailers in every market segment are finding it increasingly difficult to keep the doors open. We are lucky, however, in that ours is a community that is finally emerging from the basement after decades of mockery for our passion. Wouldn’t it be nice if our havens catered to that passion as retailers and strove to truly provide us a home, a sanctum, a community center, and a place where everybody knows your name?

Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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