Emanata: The Future of the Comic Book Store

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The announcement this week that comiXology would be offering brick-and-mortar comic book stores an opportunity to become its “digital storefront affiliates” is probably not actually that big a deal. Digital storefronts are not often particularly useful, or well-trafficked, unless they offer something that’s unavailable elsewhere. That’s why the equivalent strategy hasn’t caught on for bookstores or record stores; what you’re paying for when you buy a digital file of something that’s potentially also available in physical form is mostly convenience. The point for consumers is to save time and hassle and maybe money–consumers of purely digital media just want everything to be in one place.

It does bring up, though, the question of what comic book stores will look like in the future, as digital comics outstrip them in the convenience factor. Brick-and-mortar bookstores and record stores and video stores are all being slowly throttled to death right now unless they’re exceptionally well-run (and sometimes if they are). Comics stores are in a slightly better position–they have an entire category of customers who visit them on a regular schedule and, in some cases, not only know what they want but order it weeks or months in advance. But that’s only a slight advantage, and if they’re going to survive the next few years, they’d better keep a few principles in mind. Here are three of them.

(More on TIME.com: Emanata: The Future of Digital Comics and the Past of Digital Music)

1. Be a really nice place to visit. That cliché about the comic book store being a horrible, musty den of reheated adolescent male fantasies? It wouldn’t be a cliché if there weren’t a lot of truth to it. There are reasons to go to a physical store besides “convenience”–like consistently agreeable interactions with staff, personalized recommendations, public events, that sort of thing–and the ones that don’t offer those reasons are doomed by more convenient options. The idea that most comics stores need to be a lot less unpleasant if they want to survive is an old, old point, but it needs to be reiterated until the last Funnybook Dungeon in America has removed its dogeared, sun-faded Acts of Vengeance promotional posters from the walls, gotten a decent paint job and maybe some pretty fixtures, and done some serious thinking about what “customer service” means and how to attract people on the street to come in and pick up something to read.

2. Think about what’s going to sell over the course of a year, not just Wednesday. Once-a-week customers are the bread and butter of the American comic book store. They’re also a shrinking market, not a growing one, and a stocking paradigm that involves calculating the number of customers who are going to want a particular issue on the day of release (or, at least, within a few days of release) is eventually going to get creamed by a digital paradigm where supply always matches demand precisely. What comic book stores have to do now is consider what books they want to have perpetually in stock–the things that people will want to buy whether they’re new or not. To put it differently, if on any given day a comics store doesn’t have copies of Fun Home, Kick-Ass, Black Hole and every volume of The Walking Dead and Scott Pilgrim on the shelves and ready to buy, that store is Amazon’s (and the iPad’s) lawful prey.

3. If you’re going to sell physical objects, they better be nice. 32-page pamphlets, once the great American comics medium, are now usually a stopgap form for work meant to be collected later on. But comics publishers know more about artwork and design than most book publishers; they’ve had a head start on thinking about things visually. And a lot of them have figured out how to create books that are beautiful to look at and to hold–to provide value in ways that the convenience of the digital form can’t match, in other words. (Could any presentation of Prince Valiant on a screen be anywhere near as pleasurable as Fantagraphics’ current reprints?) These are the books that people go to stores to look at and choose from–books that there’s a pleasure not just in reading but in buying.

(More on TIME.com: Emanata: Life Drawings)

I live in Portland, Oregon, and I’m a little bit spoiled by having access to stores like Floating World and Cosmic Monkey that are pleasant places to hang out and browse for a while, keep a wide variety of beautiful and unusual books in stock, and make a point of reaching out to their community. But the sheer number of miserable comics-holes I’ve seen across America is disheartening. There are a lot of stores that apparently think of themselves as shooting galleries: if there’s nowhere else around for every-Wednesday customers to get their fix, why bother vacuuming? Those are the stores that are going to be first against the wall. 

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