ComicsPRO '11: CP's Bus Ride of Doom!

Y'know, given that my next TILTING is like 3 weeks away (well, I *could* do something and Jonah, I'm sure would print it, but I like to keep my schedule for sanity), I'm thinking now that maybe I'll just write a series of smaller posts about the ComicsPRO '11 meeting as we go along. We'll see how this goes. Spurgeon characterized from the last post that the meeting was "good", and let me tell you that this is wrong.  The meeting was GREAT. Superlative. Splendiferious. Astounding. Amazing. Spectacular. Web Of.

Honestly, and this is my really-I'm-not-lying-to-you voice, there's not a single more productive weekend of the entire calendar year. I can't tell you a lot of what made it so good because I'm effectively under NDA (not signed, but "these are adults dialoging with one another and not to be shared on the internet", if you see what I mean?), but maybe I can hint around it a little bit.

In the comments of my last thread, or maybe it was one of the two on Heidi's blog (or maybe both!) was one of those things I hear a lot: "The problem with the DM" (he said, paraphrasing) "is that too many stores suck"

Let me actually step back half a step before telling the rest of the story, and mention that, for a number of retailers, I'm <<Booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS

I mean I'm just a guy with a medium-sized neighborhood comic shop who happened to be in the right place at the right time to get myself a soapbox, and after standing on said soapbox for two decades, I'm, for lack of a better term a "celebrity retailer". If you asked 1000 random comics fans to "name a retailer", I'm fairly certain that my name would be towards the top -- but not because I'm the biggest, or the best, or the smartest, but because I have a long-running soapbox, and I've gotten fairly OK at using it (I still need some work, really!)

But, in reality, I'm just a guy with a neighborhood comics store. I'm not smarter or better than any other retailer, and I'm certainly not holding the keys of the "right" way to run a comics shop.

But, you know, for some I'm <<booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS, and they take what I say pretty darn seriously indeed.

Even if I share the name of a really lame Spidey villain.

(The Kangaroo, if you didn't know)

Right so, he said, somewhere back in the narrative, on the last night of the meeting, Chris Powell organized a bus trip for about 40 retailers to... well, get on a bus and go tour other local Dallas stores.

I'm not going to specifically name the stores, though each will probably be able to figure out who is who, and if you're in Dallas, you can probably figure it out too. But maybe not, and I'm not trying to write a Yelp review or something, but make a much broader point at the end.

So: four stores. 40 retailers. About four hours. Oh, and beer. Lots of beer.

The first stop is "a typical comics store", in that it was a bit disorganized (it HAD an organization, but you'd need to hang around for a few weeks probably to fully absorb it), was a bit maze-like, clearly had been through several different re-rigging of the store's signage or display, and, y'know, none of them had been completely completed, or maybe even thought-out outside of the context of "hey wouldn't that rack look better over there?" as opposed to "how does this all fit together?", if that makes sense? They had a TON of stock. Really really really diverse, but not, necessarily, organized in a way that you wouldn't walk out of it thinking "Yeah, they're mostly mainstream". I think that would be a fairly shitty conclusion to come to, but it's really more about presentation than anything else. This one is an archeologist's dream -- everywhere you turn you can find something need. Seriously, spin in a circle, and follow where your finger follows, and you'll find something cool.... but one of my traveling partners opined they'd never take their kids in there because they'd be afraid a rack would fall over on them. (that's a bit harsh)

The second stop, well the only word to describe it is "sexy". Sleek, modern, incredibly clean and streamlined. I mean just staggeringly beautiful, and appealing to civilians in every way. Your Mom would shop there. She'd walk across the street through traffic to shop there. Seriously, it's GORGEOUS. Even the staff. Each one was more teeth-achingly beautiful than the next, it's the kind of staff where you know 20% of the customers come just to stare at them and have furtive thoughts. But when it came to the actual product on hand... well, I'd probably rate it as by far the worst store on the tour. There just wasn't a lot of "there" there. Total absence of the "ten books I'm unfairly judging that a store should have", big stock gaps in important series. A close look at their product selection shows that a fair percentage of it, though merchandised like a Goddess, is really old, stale stuff that *I* would have liquidated half a decade or more ago.

The third store is what you'd think of as a comics shop from like 20 years ago, back when it was absolutely common and expected that "comics store" also meant "games store". And that "comics" means "We carry BOTH kinds: Marvel AND DC". This is one of the places that being <<booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS came in. The owner came up to me and actually apologized for not having enough indy books. "I really really have tried to stock them. We bring them in, we physically put them in people's hands, and we talk them up, and my customers just don't want them." And I'll tell you what I told him: screw that kind of elitism. A store needs to carry what their customers want, not what the internet intelligentsia says they "should". This store, it seemed to me, was really really good at serving their Marvel and DC and gaming customers. The staff CLEARLY cared about what they were doing, and the store was a great example of how you do gaming and mainstream comics and MAKE CUSTOMERS HAPPY. Who cares what "artsnob967" says on the internet? Who cares that <<booming voice>> BRIAN HIBBS wouldn't find a lot of interest -- you're there to service the customers that come in, not the ones that don't.

The last store was a chain store. It looked like a chain store. It just reeked of chainism all over it, but it was also incredibly well organized, stocked in depth with a wide variety of things, and, if you were cool with walking past the first 50 feet or whatever of pop culture knickknacks (very very well merchandised and designed), you'd find out that they're also a very diverse comic book store, too. Not quite as deep or wide as store #1, but absolutely acceptable in every way shape and form. My log line was "I'd certainly shop there, but I wouldn't really feel that great about it, it being so corporate" But, again: who the hell cares what *I* think?

Four stores, each ABSOLUTELY DIFFERENT IN EVERY WAY SHAPE AND FORM from the one before -- An archeological comics store, a sexy showcase, a game/mainstream hybrid joint, a totally chain store. And each and every one of them had something to recommend, something that made them special, and you could tell by looking that all of them were successful, that all of them received a great deal of love and passion, both from the staff and their customers, and that each of them was right for their customer base! Each one of them reflected a vision. Maybe you don't like their vision, but, you know what? Unless you live in Dallas, and are taking money out of your pockets to buy products there, your (and my) opinion doesn't matter.

You don't get to  decide. Did some of these stores "suck"? Well, man, let me tell, I can easily find something in each I don't like, that might earn them that sobriquet, especially from the sneering internet, but the only things that matter are "are they profitible?" and "Do they serve THEIR customers (not YOU, but THEIR customers)?" And judging by what I saw on the tour, they're all looking really good by those criteria.

There's room for a dozen different models of retail, and just because YOU think "the industry" should move past Marvel and DC, exclusively (and you're not going to get me, as an individual, disagreeing with you too much about that), that ISN'T the case for a tremendous amount of readers out there. Readers who are taking money out of thier pockets and buying stuff and making thier own choices, thank you very much.

I think it's fucking awesome that comics can contain the RADICALLY different approaches that we saw on display on the tour -- there's not one right way to do it. And that's NOT a weakness, not by half, that's a crazy strength, and it is among several reasons that comics aren't going to match the exact path that happened in other media retailing when it came to societal changes.

That diversity is crazy wonderful, and it's just one of the reasons ComicsPRO is crazy wonderful, as well.

More to come later...