Since we first opened our shop, we’ve operated with strict posted hours. We open when we say we’ll open and we close on time so we can get home to our families and have a good quality of life. Of course, the first couple of years, I played fast and loose with those rules; you kind of have to when you’re just starting out. Every sale counts, and you never know when someone might walk through the door and help pay for the hard work you and your employees did that day.
Late one night, I lost myself in my work. Think it’s easy to lose track of time while you’re in your basement or your garage sorting and tidying your collection? Imagine a full sales floor with a myriad of collectibles that change on a daily basis. You shift and clean and count and then you do it all over again. It was well past closing time and I just kept the music going and made a night of it.
The door opened and in came a young woman. Jeans, T-Shirt, altogether plain. After the “hello” and “can I help you” and “just browsing,” she set out to wander through the shop and test the waters. Customers come in a myriad of forms, and after doing it awhile, it becomes easy to tell which people are used to the comic book store atmosphere and which are the “newbies,” obviously curious, but a little hesitant and embarrassed to find themselves in a store made up of “childlike” product.
I watched her pick up a book, put it down. Pick up another, put it down. She looked frustrated. Off balance. I decided to approach her to ask again if she was sure I couldn’t help her find anything. All it took was a “You look a bit serious. What’s up?” and the information spilled out of her.
“Well, I’m a community college student.” she said. “I guess I’m struggling a bit. I’ve tried lots of different types of media to help me find inspiration, but so far I haven’t had any luck. I was just walking by and saw the “Graphic Novels” sign and I thought maybe there was something interesting in here.”
When it comes to new customers who are just being introduced to our form of pop culture, I like to start by finding out what novels they read. What movies they watch. What music they listen to. You get to know someone fast by their taste in other pop culture forms and can match their graphic novel recommendations accordingly.
She had good taste in music, novels, art. But, there was something else in her voice that obviously hid a deeper emotional struggle. As I’ve said before, good comic retailers are like bartenders. We’re interested to know about the finer details of customer’s lives and provide a safe forum for whatever they want to discuss. What comes into a comic store stays in a comic store.
“I’m failing my sociology and mythology course. I’ve been hoping to improve on the mess I made in high school, but it looks like I’m doomed to repeat the cycle. I’m supposed to write a sort of thesis on a piece of literature that touches on mythology and how its themes tie into our society’s history. I want to find something that no one else is going to pick. Something outside the box. Something different.”
Of course I said, “You’ve come to the right place.”
I took her around the store, recommending this and that. She was uncomfortable with superheroes, so I tried to stick with the indie titles that focused on the serious stuff, something a professor might not disregard. I knew she was in for a tough climb since many teachers still don’t take graphic novels seriously as a valid form of literature.
Nothing I threw her way seemed to meet her criteria, so I just gave up. Sometimes, it isn’t about the book – it’s about the person. She didn’t just want to buy a book. She wanted to talk about it. To work it out.
She wasn’t an altogether confident person. She didn’t do well in school and found it hard to focus and stay interested. She had no family in California and was trying to create a life and a community of her own. And she was thinking about quitting school.
She was studying psychology and sociology was a minor course she needed to complete. Funny thing was, she was more interested in how people thought about the world than how they thought about themselves.
I made light of it all and asked her “What do want to be when you grow up?”
“I don’t know exactly. I just know I want to help people. There’s so much neglect and injustice in the world and I want to be someone who actually does something about it.”
“So you basically want to be a superhero?” I said.
For the first time, she laughed and I could see a glimmer of hope left in there.
“If you’re interested in helping people and finding out why others aren’t, why are you majoring in psychology and not sociology?”
She had no answer. She just knew she was unhappy in school, that she was halfway through her semester and that she was seriously thinking of quitting and finding some other path to go down.
“Listen, I know you’re not interested in superheroes, but I think I’ve got just the thing for you.” I brought her over to the Modern Classics section of the store, reached up and handed her a copy of “Kingdom Come.”
“The art is going to knock you off your feet, but the writing is what’ll grab you. It has mythological themes. Each character represents an archetype of Gods and Icons we’ve found in stories throughout history. The Flash isn’t just the Flash. He’s Mercury. Superman isn’t just Superman. He’s Hercules and Apollo. And, Shazam? Well, he’s all of them rolled into one!”
We talked about Joseph Campbell and “The Hero’s Journey.” We talked about the Greeks and the Romans. We talked about how people have always made choices in their lives. Some choose to be heroes, some choose to be villains, and all stories, from the Bible to the latest Stephen King novel, play on those themes.
After awhile, she asked me, “Hey, when do you close?” I answered, “2 hours ago.” Needless to say, she thanked me for the long conversation, bought “Kingdom Come” and went out into the night.
Two years later, I was again working late. Lost in the music and restocking the shelves. A young woman walked in. The usual “hello” and “let me know if I can help you find anything.” She came directly toward me. She was stunning and uninhibited. Elaborate tattoos ran down both arms. Exotic jewelry adorned her neck.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she said. And then, it came back to me. The insecure young woman tortured by her indecision. Unsure of what the future held for her.
“Sure I do”, I said. “Heroes. Villains. Joseph Campbell. How’d it all go?”
She told me how inspired she was by “Kingdom Come.” How it renewed her faith in alternative forms of literature. How she swam upstream and wrote her thesis on it. How her teacher wasn’t exactly encouraging, but after her thesis was complete, gave her an “A.” How she finished her semester and changed her major. How she just graduated last week.
“Congratulations!” I said. “What now?”
“I leave for Berkeley in the morning. I’m continuing my studies and looking to get my degree up there.”
“What’s your major?” I asked.
And, this transformed young woman said, “Human rights and social injustice. My plan is to get my degree and move to Africa. Maybe try to help people outside of America.”
Obviously, she’d chosen to be a hero.
“I was taking an inventory of my life over the past couple of years and decided I needed to come in here and say “Thank you.” The night I came in here, I was planning on quitting school the next day. You told me to hold off. You told me to finish the semester and see how I felt after. You told me that school doesn’t just teach you about whatever your major happens to be, it teaches you who you want to be as a person.”
“Did I?” I said. “From what I recall, all I did was sell you a copy of ‘Kingdom Come!’”
We laughed and made a few jokes. She said she had to go. Lots of packing to do.
“Good luck” I told her, knowing she probably didn’t need it.
She said, “Hey, maybe I could drop you a line someday? Let you know how I’m doing and where my life takes me?”
“I’d sure like that,” I said. And, she walked out to rejoin her life in progress.
So far, I haven’t heard from her. But, whether I receive a letter someday or not, I’m pretty confident she’s out there somewhere, not just doing well. Doing good.
Now, I didn’t really change this girl’s life. I didn’t inspire her to be a hero. If you have that trait in you, it’s bound to come out sooner or later. She just needed a little nudge. And, I suspect that the content of what Mark Waid and Alex Ross produced did more for her than the guy who owns a local comic book shop.
But it sure meant a hell of a lot to me. And for $14.99, that sale remains one of the most important that’s ever run through my register.