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ComicsPRO ’11: CP’s Bus Ride of Doom!

Brian Hibbs

Y’know, given that my next TILTING is like 3 weeks away (well, I *could* do something and Jonah, I’m sure would print it, but I like to keep my schedule for sanity), I’m thinking now that maybe I’ll just write a series of smaller posts about the ComicsPRO ’11 meeting as we go along. We’ll see how this goes.

Spurgeon characterized from the last post that the meeting was “good”, and let me tell you that this is wrong.  The meeting was GREAT. Superlative. Splendiferious. Astounding. Amazing. Spectacular. Web Of.

Honestly, and this is my really-I’m-not-lying-to-you voice, there’s not a single more productive weekend of the entire calendar year. I can’t tell you a lot of what made it so good because I’m effectively under NDA (not signed, but “these are adults dialoging with one another and not to be shared on the internet”, if you see what I mean?), but maybe I can hint around it a little bit.

In the comments of my last thread, or maybe it was one of the two on Heidi’s blog (or maybe both!) was one of those things I hear a lot: “The problem with the DM” (he said, paraphrasing) “is that too many stores suck”

Let me actually step back half a step before telling the rest of the story, and mention that, for a number of retailers, I’m <<Booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS

I mean I’m just a guy with a medium-sized neighborhood comic shop who happened to be in the right place at the right time to get myself a soapbox, and after standing on said soapbox for two decades, I’m, for lack of a better term a “celebrity retailer”. If you asked 1000 random comics fans to “name a retailer”, I’m fairly certain that my name would be towards the top — but not because I’m the biggest, or the best, or the smartest, but because I have a long-running soapbox, and I’ve gotten fairly OK at using it (I still need some work, really!)

But, in reality, I’m just a guy with a neighborhood comics store. I’m not smarter or better than any other retailer, and I’m certainly not holding the keys of the “right” way to run a comics shop.

But, you know, for some I’m <<booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS, and they take what I say pretty darn seriously indeed.

Even if I share the name of a really lame Spidey villain.

(The Kangaroo, if you didn’t know)

Right so, he said, somewhere back in the narrative, on the last night of the meeting, Chris Powell organized a bus trip for about 40 retailers to… well, get on a bus and go tour other local Dallas stores.

I’m not going to specifically name the stores, though each will probably be able to figure out who is who, and if you’re in Dallas, you can probably figure it out too. But maybe not, and I’m not trying to write a Yelp review or something, but make a much broader point at the end.

So: four stores. 40 retailers. About four hours. Oh, and beer. Lots of beer.

The first stop is “a typical comics store”, in that it was a bit disorganized (it HAD an organization, but you’d need to hang around for a few weeks probably to fully absorb it), was a bit maze-like, clearly had been through several different re-rigging of the store’s signage or display, and, y’know, none of them had been completely completed, or maybe even thought-out outside of the context of “hey wouldn’t that rack look better over there?” as opposed to “how does this all fit together?”, if that makes sense? They had a TON of stock. Really really really diverse, but not, necessarily, organized in a way that you wouldn’t walk out of it thinking “Yeah, they’re mostly mainstream”. I think that would be a fairly shitty conclusion to come to, but it’s really more about presentation than anything else. This one is an archeologist’s dream — everywhere you turn you can find something need. Seriously, spin in a circle, and follow where your finger follows, and you’ll find something cool…. but one of my traveling partners opined they’d never take their kids in there because they’d be afraid a rack would fall over on them. (that’s a bit harsh)

The second stop, well the only word to describe it is “sexy”. Sleek, modern, incredibly clean and streamlined. I mean just staggeringly beautiful, and appealing to civilians in every way. Your Mom would shop there. She’d walk across the street through traffic to shop there. Seriously, it’s GORGEOUS. Even the staff. Each one was more teeth-achingly beautiful than the next, it’s the kind of staff where you know 20% of the customers come just to stare at them and have furtive thoughts. But when it came to the actual product on hand… well, I’d probably rate it as by far the worst store on the tour. There just wasn’t a lot of “there” there. Total absence of the “ten books I’m unfairly judging that a store should have”, big stock gaps in important series. A close look at their product selection shows that a fair percentage of it, though merchandised like a Goddess, is really old, stale stuff that *I* would have liquidated half a decade or more ago.

The third store is what you’d think of as a comics shop from like 20 years ago, back when it was absolutely common and expected that “comics store” also meant “games store”. And that “comics” means “We carry BOTH kinds: Marvel AND DC”. This is one of the places that being <<booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS came in. The owner came up to me and actually apologized for not having enough indy books. “I really really have tried to stock them. We bring them in, we physically put them in people’s hands, and we talk them up, and my customers just don’t want them.” And I’ll tell you what I told him: screw that kind of elitism. A store needs to carry what their customers want, not what the internet intelligentsia says they “should”. This store, it seemed to me, was really really good at serving their Marvel and DC and gaming customers. The staff CLEARLY cared about what they were doing, and the store was a great example of how you do gaming and mainstream comics and MAKE CUSTOMERS HAPPY. Who cares what “artsnob967” says on the internet? Who cares that <<booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS wouldn’t find a lot of interest — you’re there to service the customers that come in, not the ones that don’t.

The last store was a chain store. It looked like a chain store. It just reeked of chainism all over it, but it was also incredibly well organized, stocked in depth with a wide variety of things, and, if you were cool with walking past the first 50 feet or whatever of pop culture knickknacks (very very well merchandised and designed), you’d find out that they’re also a very diverse comic book store, too. Not quite as deep or wide as store #1, but absolutely acceptable in every way shape and form. My log line was “I’d certainly shop there, but I wouldn’t really feel that great about it, it being so corporate” But, again: who the hell cares what *I* think?

Four stores, each ABSOLUTELY DIFFERENT IN EVERY WAY SHAPE AND FORM from the one before — An archeological comics store, a sexy showcase, a game/mainstream hybrid joint, a totally chain store. And each and every one of them had something to recommend, something that made them special, and you could tell by looking that all of them were successful, that all of them received a great deal of love and passion, both from the staff and their customers, and that each of them was right for their customer base! Each one of them reflected a vision. Maybe you don’t like their vision, but, you know what? Unless you live in Dallas, and are taking money out of your pockets to buy products there, your (and my) opinion doesn’t matter.

You don’t get to  decide. Did some of these stores “suck”? Well, man, let me tell, I can easily find something in each I don’t like, that might earn them that sobriquet, especially from the sneering internet, but the only things that matter are “are they profitible?” and “Do they serve THEIR customers (not YOU, but THEIR customers)?” And judging by what I saw on the tour, they’re all looking really good by those criteria.

There’s room for a dozen different models of retail, and just because YOU think “the industry” should move past Marvel and DC, exclusively (and you’re not going to get me, as an individual, disagreeing with you too much about that), that ISN’T the case for a tremendous amount of readers out there. Readers who are taking money out of thier pockets and buying stuff and making thier own choices, thank you very much.

I think it’s fucking awesome that comics can contain the RADICALLY different approaches that we saw on display on the tour — there’s not one right way to do it. And that’s NOT a weakness, not by half, that’s a crazy strength, and it is among several reasons that comics aren’t going to match the exact path that happened in other media retailing when it came to societal changes.

That diversity is crazy wonderful, and it’s just one of the reasons ComicsPRO is crazy wonderful, as well.

More to come later…


16 Responses to “ ComicsPRO ’11: CP’s Bus Ride of Doom! ”

  1. And not even the REAL Kangaroo.

    The one Stan, Jazzy Johnny and crew created was named Frank Oliver.

    You’re the armored late-Nineties Kangaroo with the pouch-cannon.


  2. “ten books I’m unfairly judging that a store should have”

    OK, if that wasn’t just hyperbole by the Great and Powerful BRIAN HIBBS, what are the ten books?

  3. “Web of.”

    Okay, I grinned at that.

  4. I was saying in the post about digital comics that DM stores essentially need to stop sucking by only focusing on Marvel and DC and I’ll try to explain a bit…

    The amount of comic sales are shrinking. The total number of people buying comics is shrinking. So, the idea that a store is open and selling enough books to stay open = success is dubious at best. There are a *lot* of sales being missed because most of these dudes are too busy running their store like a hobby and only selling superhero comics.

    Totally anecdotal, but…I *love* comics and I haven’t been to a comic shop in over a year.

    Anyway, agree or disagree, that’s my opinion. I’m just an outside observer, though, looking at sales numbers and thinking, “Why is this falling apart? What’s broken?”

  5. James:

    It’s total hyperbole in the sense that there’s an “exact list” of exactly ten things, where I’m walking around with a clipboard checking things off, or scouring every corner, or, for that matter actually passing judgment — hell it could be they JUST sold some/all of my “dream list” 5 minutes before the bus pulled up.

    Its also a moving target in that what I’m thinking off probably changes from month to month, if not minute to minute.

    But, having said that: Maus, Persepolis, Asterious Polyp, all six Scott Pilgrims, all 9 Bones, all six big L&R volumes, Blankets, Wilson, something “obscure” from a writer like Gaiman (let’s say “The Facts in the Case of The Departure of Miss Finch”), something “obscure” in manga (not Naruto or Death Note, but, say, the four Tasumi books), I think that’s what I was looking for during the tour.


    I’m unsure if stores are leaving a “*lot*” of money by being primarily Marvel/DC locations — the downward nature of the charts is primarily driven down by Marvel/DC books failing, not indies underperforming. I had an astonishingly good conversation with Diamond’s VP or purchasing that clarified the national numbers in some fairly shocking ways for me….


  6. I am a fan of store #2, to the point of driving past several of the other stores to get there. (I live in Fort Worth)
    As an average fan, I find that they have everything I need, and when they don’t they can get it.
    Their service is fantastic, and their staff is knowledgeable and helpful. They have opened my eye to things I might not have gotten, and steered me away from things they know I wouldn’t have enjoyed.
    Look at it this way: if they didn’t have those books on the shelf it’s likely because someone bought them to enjoy them. They will get them back soon.

  7. James:

    You just proved the point of what I was trying to write (and failed?): you’re super-happy with them, they take care of you, and that makes them awesome.

    Just like the other 3 stores were awesome in their own unique ways.

    There’s room for everything in this crazy world of comics!!!


  8. Brian:

    What I’m trying to drive at, poorly, is that most comic stores aren’t serving the market well by only selling Marvel and DC comics. By only offering those comics, they limit their appeal to one segment of the market.

    Comic sales falling because stores have invested too heavily in Marvel and DC books just reinforces that belief.

  9. But we have examples (as noted in the piece above) of stores that have made honest and sincere efforts to offer a wider range of material, and their customer base SIMPLY ISN’T INTERESTED.

    To a certain extent the theory that it is the RETAILER’S “fault” that “indy comics don’t sell” is saying “retailers are idiots and are ignoring money on the table”

    The thing is that retailers who leave money on the table are, generally speaking, RETAILERS THAT CLOSE.

    I’m saying this as very nearly the prototypical “indy friendly, civilian focused” store — my model simply doesn’t work for the overwhelming majority of stores… even the overwhelming majority of stores in a “progressive, art focused” city like San Francisco! — it is MUCH harder to sell “Not Big two” comics, AND you make less profit margin for your effort!

    I know that they must somewhere exist these clubhouse environments where some smelly guy doesn’t look up from his MAGIC: THE GATHERING game when you walk in, and laughs when asked about something even as “safe” as, say, HELLBOY — people complain about them enough.

    But, statistically speaking, these stores are essentially meaningless; I’d wager you that if we added up all of the sales velocity of all of these stores that COMBINED they’d barely match the sales of Midtown comics just by itself.

    Comics sales aren’t falling because stores have “invested too heavily in Marvel and DC” — it is because Marvel and DC are publishing a lot of BS uncommercial work.


  10. Brian,

    Your response reads like you’re taking my opinion personally and that is not my intent. I’m just a guy who travels a lot and I’ve found these clubhouse stores *everywhere*. In my experience, they far outnumber the amount of good stores to the point I honestly feel the good stores, like yours, are the statistical outliers. That’s purely my opinion and not meant as an attack on you. I don’t even bother going to comic stores anymore because I’m tired of asking for the new Love & Rockets or Usagi Yojimbo and being met with, “What’s that?” I went to a store in New Jersey a year ago and asked for the Marvel Strange Tales anthology and the guy thought I had made it up.

    I dunno…this conversation can’t go any further if I’m saying I believe something and your response is you don’t believe what I’m saying exists.

  11. Two quick points….

    Midtown Comics is the epitome of the clubhouse store. That place is awful if you want anything non-Marvel or DC. I tried asking 3 people about Tales Designed to Thrizzle there and all 3 tried selling me some Green Lantern something or other.

    “Comics sales aren’t falling because stores have “invested too heavily in Marvel and DC” — it is because Marvel and DC are publishing a lot of BS uncommercial work.”

    That’s taking all the responsibility off the stores and putting it all on Marvel or DC. It’s really the fault of both.

    I don’t know why I’m bothering. Like I said, I feel like I’m saying something and your response is what I’m saying doesn’t exist.

  12. I feel like I have the perfect “test case” store; in a small metro area, been here for 31 years. (Pegasus Books of Bend, Oregon.)

    Yesterday, I had a guy come in and ask for Adrian Tomine. We found in the store:

    32 Stories.
    Summer Blonde
    Optic Nerve: 30 Postcards
    Scenes from an Impending Marriage
    and a couple issues of Optic Nerve.

    I bring this up to give an indication of how much independent material I carry.

    He was from Seattle, and bought 32 Stories…

    So…I haven’t had a single local ask for Adrian Tomine, or sold one of his graphic novels — in years, ever?

    I can only make this work because I get tourist business; and even then, it’s a hard sell.

    I’m proud of my store and what I carry, and I’ve managed to bring this material in and make it work, BUT….I would never second guess smaller stores who say they can’t sell it.

    It’s a hard sell, but I think worth trying for.

  13. “I’m just a guy who travels a lot and I’ve found these clubhouse stores *everywhere*. In my experience, they far outnumber the amount of good stores to the point I honestly feel the good stores, like yours, are the statistical outliers.”


    The point I’m trying to make is that it is my understanding that the 80/20 rule applies very cleanly to comics sales, and, thus, if every single “clubhouse” store magically could be convinced to carry even HELLBOY tomorrow, the net impact upon national sales would be virtually undetectable.

    That’s not to suggest that more efforts shouldn’t be undertaken (they SHOULD!), but that things wouldn’t change as much as you seem to think that they would.

    Hope that helps?


  14. […] http://www.savagecritic.com/brian/comicspro-11-cps-bus-ride-of-doom/ […]

  15. Speaking as strictly a customer and someone who only has an interest in the business in that I’d love to see my LCS thrive and be available to serve my selfish needs for years to come: Would it behoove some of the Smaller and/or Indy publishers to provide stores with some type of hardbound or at least sturdy “sampler” that they could have available to let customers or potential customers peruse books that stores aren’t likely to order in rack copies (or at all) so they can at least get a flavor for something they might like outside of the “Big Two”?

    This would also have blank spaces where the store in question could hype that they have the 1st or latest volume of what they’re reading available in store, or that they can order it for them. I certainly don’t expect the LCS I frequent to order everything just so I can loiter and browse the racks for something new and interesting, but something along those lines could make it easier for people who are at least curious about something outside the norm to get some exposure to them. It could also make it potentially easier for the store to cultivate customers to look for something beyond Marvel & DC. Heck, DC & Marvel could do something similar to highlight some of their lower-selling titles or some of the remaining Vertigo or ICON books.

    Just a thought, I’m admittedly naive about the costs of such a promotional volume, but I’m sure someone much more industry savvy than myself could come up with something that could work along those lines.

  16. Logistically speaking, I don’t know but it’s an interesting thought.

    Perhaps a concern comes together, ties together some web / pad / pod compatible content and then LCS benefits with a “buy it in print at _______” or “Order now through ________”

    Although, why have an LCS “middle-man” at that point?

    It would truly need some cross promotion between the LCS and the target company to make it benefit both sides.

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