This column was written before the Great Water Pipe Explosion which completely razed CE to the ground. Below that, even. We don’t use Long Whites as Sub dumps anymore. In fact, when I think just how much we’ve changed the look of the store in the time I’ve been writing Tilting, I nearly get freaked out.
This one’s bleak. But man, if you weren’t a comics retailer in 1995, no one can really explain to you how fucking hard it was.
This was Ground Zero, and we were standing right in it.
Tilting at Windmills #39
By Brian Hibbs
(Originally Ran in Comics Retailer #40)
There's more information, and misinformation, and rumor, and innuendo, and gossip, and whatever other words I don't feel like looking up in the thesaurus right now floating around this industry then ever before (well, duh, Bri!) We keep trying to get a handle on the scope of our situations, and what the impact will be for each microcosm of the industry (our stores), and it’s just too big -- your brain can’t possibly wrap around all the facets of our shifting and transforming marketplace, because we’re no longer a single (or singular) type of demographic. I mean, just try to describe an “average” comic book shop.
Oh, sure, one can take an average (mean, mode, median, whatever) sales level, based on whatever (woefully inadequate) information exists, and come up with some sort of a number, but that doesn’t tell you much of anything about the store. And there are a lot of stereotypes about comic retailers, some of which I plead guilty to continuing to perpetuate (gasp! It’s the new kinder, gentler, Tilting at Windmills!), but it’s all just wrong -- retailing is an individual task.
Let me try to make an odd example to illuminate this point. Mimi Cruz runs Night Flight in Salt Lake City, right? She’s in a mall, it’s extremely friggin’ clean (I mean, she’s showing me pictures of signings with 100 people in line, and in the background you can see that every single rack is perfectly straightened! How in God’s name she manages to accomplish that, I’ll never know, but suffice it to say that the store is pristine), and she offers full-on service-with-a-smile, the-customer-is-always-right attention to her clientele.
Now I, on the other hand, am in San Francisco, with a street location almost, but not quite, off the beaten path, our neatness sometimes wavers on the fringes (Just ask Ann Ivan about the broken-in long whites I use to hold the subs!), and we’re not wholly above being ever so surly (but in a loving way!) with our customers.
Now, if we had a dimension-hopping machine like the one in Sliders, and we went to a parallel universe where Mimi and I were switched at birth (yoikes!), and she opened Night Flight at my location in San Francisco, I opened Comix Experience in her mall in Salt Lake City, our sales would still reflect our personalities. That is to say, the books that Mimi can sell 50 copies of, and I can only sell 5 (or vica versa), would sell 50 copies in San Francisco if Mimi were behind the counter. Certainly, location and customer base do play a significant role in how far your customers are willing to follow the directions you lead, but I think that personal passion (or dispassion, for that matter) for individual works is the greatest single component of what sells in which store. Nearly every day I’ll talk to a retailer who will astound and amaze me with their sales on a favorite title, or genre, but it’s because the passion of the leadership of the store (whether it be owner, manager, or even, quite frequently, a single employee) is a tangible, shining thing that the customers can’t help but be affected by.
Do you see? You can’t generalize about retailers, except in the most shallow of terms, because we’re like snowflakes -- no two are truly alike upon inspection. (We’re also like 1000 cats, but that’s not my story...)
And, like the retailers, you can’t truly generalize about distributors or publishers either. Diamond is not Capital is not Friendly Frank’s is not Hobby Game, and Kitchen Sink is not Dark Horse is not DC is not Aardvark-Vanahiem. And nor should they be. Our strength is in our diversity, and, just like in Diamond’s slogan (though I’ll be charitable and spare them a paragraph questioning how closely their definition of “diversity” follows mine. I mean Beavis and Butt-head is hardly diversity, folks. Ah, but onward!), we need to celebrate diversity.
To get back to the original train of thought, the distribution changes that have been happening are, I believe, nearly impossible for any single person to fully process. Why? Because you can’t work out all the intangibles. What exactly their effect on me will be will be different then their effect upon Mimi, or upon Rory Root, or Carol Denbow, or Bob’s Comic Hole in Pigsuck, Arkansas. And any plan that doesn’t take into account these differences (not geographic or cultural or architectural or whatever else you choose to throw around -- but differences, instead, in personality) is a plan that’s going to hurt and confuse an already shaky and gun-shy market-place.
And that’s the last thing we can afford right now.
I know a lot about this industry, right? I work hard everyday to try and learn the business from every side. I try to stay plugged in (BBS services like CompuServe are great for this), and keep educated about publisher concerns, distribution concerns, creator concerns, what have you -- because the more I know about all corners, the better I’ll be able to service my customers, and my store’s best interests. If I understand how the distribution channels work, then I can explain why a title didn’t show up this week; if I understand how publishing works, then I can explain to my customers why the book they really like got canceled, or why price increases happen, etc. None of this is necessary to keep my doors open, but I figure it allows me to better service all of my customers concerns -- because, just like us, there is no such thing as an average customer, either. I get lots of comments from lots of people of what a great job I’m doing (the recent Pro/Con was a most excellent stroke-fest for me), but I’ll say this much loud and clear: my education hasn’t even started.
I can be one helluva opinionated bastard at times (you can hear the sounds of nodding heads coast-to-coast on that one), and I eat, breath, and sleep comic books. Hell, I nearly sweat the damn things from my pores. If I’ve got a life outside of this industry, it’s news to me -- 12 to 16-hour days don’t give you a lot of time to pursue anything but your calling. I’m often hailed as an “industry insider”, or a “top retailer” or whatever the hell you want to call it, but the things I don’t know, the parts I don’t understand outnumber what I do understand ten-to-one (ah, screw that! It’s a hundred-to-one!). I’m man enough to admit it. Which is why I find it the height of arrogance, the height of ignorance, when anyone stands up and says they’re doing X, Y, or Z to help or support this marketplace, and not their own perceived “best interests”
D’you see where I’m going with this? Paul Levitz and Terry Stewert (or Steve Geppi, or John Davis and Milton Greip, or the Snyder family, or...) may well be bright and caring individuals, who are dedicated solely to the future of our medium -- I dunno, I don’t hang out socially with these folks. But I do know, that however well educated they may well be about the aspects of the business outside of their purview, it’s nowhere near enough, at least to enact the kinds of sweeping and broad-based changes these folks have unleashed upon us all. Oh, they can prolly individually debate the “big picture” better then every contributor to this magazine rolled into one, but, time and time again, they seem to forget that the big picture is made up of thousands upon thousands of “small pictures”. Kinda not seeing the trees for the forest, as it were.
As we try to reconstruct the puzzle of the comic book industry after the mailed fists of this industry have come crashing down upon the table, scattering things to and fro, a lot of the “small pictures” are never going to fit back in again. It’s simple reason that not everyone is going to receive the information they need to survive (No? As I write this, it’s less than 3 weeks before our July orders are due -- both Marvel and DC [!] reps are telling me they’re getting phone calls from guys asking “so what about these rumors about Marvel and Heroes World?” Hell, Marvel hasn’t even given us the damn order form yet -- if that’s not the simplest part of the distribution process, I dunno what is! And DC expects Diamond to hook up every Cap City, Friendly Franks, Styx, Multi-book, etc., etc., ad nauseum, client up in 10 weeks? Pull the other one, folks!) And each one of our “small pictures” is made up of hundreds of even “smaller pictures” -- our customers! When a shop closes down (any shop), x% of customers go away, too. Our market is shrinking for any number of reasons (quality, price point, availability, etc.) -- to throw what amount to machivellian political reasons upon that as well is...irresponsible, to say the least.
Ladies and gentlemen, the direct market is dead. If there was any question of it, they’re gone now that DC has announced their deal. I don’t know what exactly it is that we’ll end up replacing the direct market with, but what’s more important (and infinitely more sad), neither do the architects of it’s assassination. I sincerely hope we’re still all here in a year to toss back a cold one, and reminisce on when this game was still relatively simple. Until then, I beg all of you to watch your backs, and be safe out there -- the cold streets just got a lot colder.
“And the three men I admired most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost,
they took the last train for the coast... the day the music died.”
--Don McLean, American Pie
Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience, doesn’t want you to see him cry for promises broken, dreams unfulfilled, and the best minds of a generation stacked like so much cordwood.