Some time ago I wrote a column about being pleasantly surprised by a new comic store opening up in my neighborhood. I had visions of this new purveyor of all things comics as a glorious beacon of superhero goodness and all-purpose geekery just a stone’s throw from my house. It was going to be awesome. I imagined the place would fulfill all my comic book needs and then some. I imagined a sort of comic book clubhouse where I’d spend free afternoons just sitting around and jawing about comics with the decidedly pleasant and well-informed staff. I imagined a heavily tattooed female staffer with whom I’d develop a deep emotional bond over our shared fondness for Beta Ray Bill. I idealized this yet-to-be-seen place all out of proportion admittedly, but at the time I was so intoxicated by the proximity and freshness of this comic store that I just sort of went with it. Well, it’s many months later, and I’m sad to say that none of what I’d hoped for has come to fruition. No clubhouse. No jawing. No tattooed girl. Alas, my comic store fantasy turned out to be just that. A fantasy.
And here’s what makes things even worse: despite being spitting distance from my humble San Fernando Valley abode, I almost never patronize what really should be “my” local comic shop. The reason? Simply stated, after a couple of well-intentioned visits to the aforementioned place in the days after its “grand” opening, it dawned on me that this particular store was basically bumming me out. Simply put, I wasn’t having a good comic store experience. Now there’s nothing technically wrong with this particular comic store. They generally carry most of the comics I’m looking for, even if their organizational style leaves something to be desired. And while many of us have had the experience of feeling alienated by the folks behind the counter in a comic store, that’s not the case here. The guys at the register are nice enough albeit a bit bored. Unfortunately, this place, with its supreme lack of atmosphere and absence of any truly authentic comic-loving joy, is just sort of lifeless. Little more than a bland room with shelves for comics.
Now I’m not asking for a tickertape parade or people dressed up like Spider-Man when I walk through the door, but there’s something to be said for presentation and at least a semblance of atmosphere. Humor me with a some original art on the wall. Something that says this is a place you should spend your time and money. And what about events, signings, promotions and in-store appearances? None of that exists in this particular store. I can get my comics anywhere (or buy them digitally), truth be told, so why would I seek out a place with all the charm of a suburban basement? The last few times I’ve been in to this particular place, I would almost swear a tumbleweed rolled by while I was browsing the stacks. And I definitely heard some crickets. Again, it’s lifeless, and I’m looking for more than just a place to grab my books and go.
To further complicate things, I feel incredibly guilty about my lack of patronage to what is a very well intentioned local business. I really do. If these guys close their doors (and I’d bet money that it will happen sooner rather than later), I will feel some pangs of guilt and sadness. When I drive by with my son, he comments that we should go there to “help them.” He’s seven and even he understands the tenuous economics of the comics industry. There’s part of me that totally agrees with my son’s sentiment, too. I know that comics stores are closing all over the country, so here we are spoiled by a new one and we’re not even doing out part to keep it afloat. Is that my problem? I’m not sure. Part of me feels a responsibility as a comic collector to at least support what is truly my local comic store. But I have needs too. And as a money-spending man of a certain age, I know I’ve only got so many trips to the comic store left and damn if I don’t want them to be good ones. All this raises the question: Is it my responsibility to patronize a store that isn’t really giving me a whole lot in return?
Ultimately, I wouldn’t go to a restaurant that was continually failing to deliver with its food. And even though it gives me a warm tingle to give the guys in this store a few bucks once in awhile, there’s no question that these are essentially “pity purchases.” So what’s a comic collector with a sub-standard comic store nearby to do? Do you bite the bullet and give your dough to a business that’s technically failing the customer? Or, do you speak with your wallet and let the market dictate the success or failure of an underwhelming comics joint? Truth is, I’ll still probably wander in and drop a few bucks once in a while. I’m a softie that way, so I’m good for a pity purchase now and again. And there’s part of me that understands the dream of owning a comic book store, so it’s pretty easy to put myself in this particular owner’s place. Guilt is also a strong motivator, as is basic empathy for someone fighting the good fight. When I think about worst-case scenario, namely a purely digital world without brick-and-mortar comic stores, I’d hate to look back and think that it was partly my fault because I put my personal aesthetic and experiential needs before those of the comic-buying herd. What do you think? What do you require of your comic store besides books? Is simply being open enough?
Gabe Roth is a writer trapped in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He is of the mind that comic stores should sell beer. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.