“Daddy, can I press the buttons?”
My daughter, Hannah, stood on a chair at my counter, reaching out for the cash register. She loved it when the cash drawer popped open. Surprised her every time. She’d spent many hours behind my counter. She was only a year old when we opened our doors and I carried her around on my hip while I served customers. At seven years old, she got to be a good deal taller than my waist and had free reign of the place. She knew the best hiding spots, she knew where things went and remarkably, she knew my customers. Guess what? They knew her too.
I took great pride in the fact that she got to tell her classmates that “my dad sells comic books!” It made her the coolest kid in school. I’d fill the school library with books and hang Free Comic Book Day posters in the halls every year. I was a rock star to the little boys. I’d say it made them respect her more than the other little girls, but in Elementary School, even “comic-book-cool” has its limits.
When she was tiny, she’d crawl all over the place, staring at herself in the display cases. “Honey, don’t lick the glass! It’s not good for you,” I’d say, wiping the displays with Windex for the hundredth time. “Da!” She’d reply, tongue hanging out.
Back then, my dog came to work with me. She didn’t have a backyard, so I made a little area for her in the back room. I worked long hours, as most new retailers do, and I didn’t have the heart to keep her locked up away from me all day. Not to mention the mess I’d come home to. It wasn’t unheard of for customers to come to the door and find a handwritten sign in the window.
“Back in five minutes. Taking Faith for a quick walk. When she’s gotta go, she’s gotta go!”
Everyone understood, of course. It was a one-man (and one-dog) operation back then and my customers are the kind of folks who don’t lack patience.
Hannah grew up in the kids section of the store and knew what a “spinner rack” was. More and more kids don’t these days and that’s just a crying shame. I’m forever regaling my poor customers with the story of her spinning the display, grabbing a copy of the latest Betty & Veronica digest and rushing up to the counter with it.
“Daddy! Can we buy this?” she pleaded. “Please?”
“Honey, we kind of already did.” I replied.
Sometimes, she came with me to work. She had her own chair with a cup holder. She had an endless supply of colored markers, sharpies and paper. A little fridge in the back for juice and snacks and of course, much needed paperclips and rubber bands for those special art projects. I often found her hiding upstairs in the storage area, lying on her back and lost in her imagination, hidden among the toys and boxes. Some kids have tree-houses. Hannah had a comic-book store “attic.” On occasion, she was known to lie at the top of the stairs, crushing packing peanuts and sending them raining down onto the heads of my unsuspecting employees.
“It’s snowing!” she’d cry out. “Boogedy-boogedy!”
Like many proud parents, I got to display her unique art pieces in my back room. Super-Dogs and crazy pictures of Mr. Toast and Shaky Bacon. One day she made a wonderful drawing of “The Flash’s Pet” and I was thrilled to put it in the back room. When she came in and saw it there, she asked “Why isn’t it out front? Why are you keeping it hidden in the back?” So, I brought it out and put it behind the register.
After seeing it there, she said “Everyone else’s art is framed and on the wall. Why can’t mine be?”
“Good point.” I said. So, I framed the picture and hung it out on the shop floor alongside the original Alex Ross paintings and the John Cassaday pages. I asked her what we should do if someone asks to buy it. She replied, “depends on how much they want to buy it for!”
Together, we watched our customer’s children grow over the years. She knew some of the regulars who have kids and they had “play dates” while their parents chatted and shopped the store. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t have a “how’s the kids?” conversation with one of my regulars. While our children are growing up around us, we’re growing as parents and it’s fun sharing the stories while we talk all things comic-book.
Jeremy, one of my long-time subscribers, just became a father. Unfortunately, he also just lost his job. While he and his wife are ecstatic, they’re scared and uncertain. But they come in every other week together, religiously. Comic-book store, nail salon, supermarket. Him, her, them.
Jeremy’s cut back on his spending (a good thing, to be sure), but he’s held onto his store visits and his periodical purchasing. He’s moved to trade paperbacks for some titles and doesn’t have a problem waiting for some stories, just not all. I recently asked his wife how he was holding up and how things were going with the job hunt.
She was mostly positive and added, “Thank God he has this. He cut out everything else, but this is his special treat and I’d never let him take it away from himself. Plus, it gives us time to be out together and not be cooped up at home. Every little thing counts.”
Why am I telling all of this to you, faithful reader?
Well, I know there’s lots of debate (on this site and countless others) about brick-and-mortar comic-book stores vs. online discount services. Opinions are varied and heated, with good points made for both options.
Times are tight. We look for ways to cut corners. We look for ways to be smart and spend less. We look for ways to make it through this recession intact. Here’s what we don’t look for. Reasons to stay home and worry.
We go to the movies to laugh and be entertained. We exercise to keep our minds sharp. We meet friends for drinks and accept invitations to parties. Sure, we spend more time online. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. But these sites we visit and the messages we post revolve around one thing. Communication. It’s not a time for us to bury our heads in the sand. It’s a time to talk. To socialize.
Certainly, saving money is paramount in the economic climate we find ourselves in. It’s unprecedented and filled with mystery. It’s my position that in times of great trouble like the ones we’re facing right now, the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to fall back on the people and the places we love and to support our community in the process.
Most people don’t come to my store to just pick up their books and leave. They come for a shopping “experience.” They come to see the colors and listen to the music and share their opinions. Many drive from far away and brave the traffic every week because it’s one of the rare things they do that isn’t jaded and frightening. We have many things in our lives that remind us we need to be responsible adults, but few that remind us to have the spirit of a child.
I’m no fool. I know you can hop online and get things a heck of a lot cheaper on Amazon than you can in my retail store. We discount what we can and make up for it with customer service, ambience and a deep sense of family. We’re a small store, not a giant warehouse. I work as hard as I can to pay my mortgage and cut corners. I run a tight ship so we don’t find ourselves sinking. And I rely on my customers to shop with me and not lose themselves in the price wars of the Internet conglomerates.
Frankly, they can’t give you what I can. They can’t spend time with you and hear about the joys (and troubles) of your day. They can’t have a signing where you have to show up in person to hang out with your favorite creator. They can’t invite you to Free Comic Book Day, where families and friends meet in person and do the thing we need so very much to do right now. Celebrate.
And did I mention that there are stacks of comic books in our store that day that are…FREE? Discount doesn’t get much deeper than that!
The fact is, I could be making a heck of a lot more money doing something else with my life. Even in this uncertain economy we’re trapped in, I’m qualified for quite a few well-paid professions. But I choose to do what I love. Even more important is the fact that my child learns that lesson from me every day. Do what you love. It makes you feel better and enjoy your life, especially when times are their darkest. This applies to both work and play. Which is exactly what we all do in your local comic-book retail store. Play.
Like everyone else, I need to earn a living. I have books that need to be sold. And no matter what the word on the street may be, the weekly periodicals are still the bread on which the butter sits. Yes, trade paperbacks and hardcovers are taking the industry by storm and my store reflects that change. Embraces it.
But the never-ending soap opera of the comic-book periodical has made its way through wars, witch-hunts and economic devastation. Are we truly to believe that the tactile concept of holding paper in our hands and being thrilled by its content will suddenly disappear because of a technological revolution?
I don’t think so. And every day I come to work, I unlock the door, turn on the lights and prepare my store for you. I clean the counters and turn on the music and tidy up the joint so when you come in, you feel safe. Safe from the raging world outside. Safe from the pounding images on your computer. Safe from the stress crawling through your mind. Safe.
It doesn’t take that much effort to escape into the digital world of your computer. Heck, you’re reading these words right now, trying to decide if you care one bit for what I have to say. Coming into a comic-book store requires time. It requires effort. It might even require a few extra dollars. But would you rather sit at home and hide away or would you rather come to the party?
My shop is filled with customers on a Wednesday. People are buzzing about “Old Man Logan,” quizzing one another about what happened to “Batman” and trying to guess what the next “event” will be. A little girl grabs for a copy of “Amulet.” A little boy sits at the kid’s table reading “Bone.” A businessman inspects that vintage copy of “Silver Surfer” he’s been coveting forever.
Two students from the local University are in a heated debate about Garth Ennis. Someone’s asking me what the song is that’s playing on Spotify while he flips through an Alfred Bester paperback. Two of my subscribers are flirting with one another in the indie section. They’ve been at it for weeks, but can’t seem to pluck up the courage to ask each other out.
I close my eyes and breathe it all in. There’s an energy in this small box that can’t be found anywhere else.
Unless of course, you’re in your own local comic-book store in your own neighborhood in your own state in your own country. You can’t get this feeling from a screen. You can’t get it typing at a keyboard. You’ve got to show up. You’ve got to be there to be a part of the experience.
My fifteen year old, beautiful young adult daughter watches me close my eyes and doesn’t seem a bit confused by what I’m doing. She’s seen me do it many times before. Or maybe she just understands what it is to be lost in the wonder of life with your friends and family close by.
“Dad, can this be my first summer job?” she asks me.
I open my arms to everyone around me. “This is all yours if you want it, honey. All of it.”
“I do.” She says, her smile adding even more light to the room. “I want people to come into our store forever and ever and always be happy.”
An invitation has been offered you. Come into our stores, everyone. Don’t sit at home. You’ll find us all there, waiting to welcome you. To give you an experience you so desperately need after a long, hard week. An experience you can’t get at home on your computer or waiting by your mailbox.
And if you come into my store, you might just find a beautiful girl behind the counter. Growing, growing, growing. Wanting you to come into our stores forever and for you to always, always be happy.