Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Buying Comics in California: Three Tales

My oldest friend (i.e. friend of longest standing) got married last weekend. So, despite it being a rather busy time of year, my wife & I made a quick trip out to Berkeley so that we could go -- for my part, squeezing it in between my semester's last class and first exam.* We were only there for two days -- just long enough for the wedding, really -- but Berkeley is a Town of Very Good Bookstores (even with the loss of the Telegraph Avenue Cody's), and in what little spare time we had we, naturally, went to them. And since I've had comics on the brain recently, I made a special point of checking out both the graphic novels sections of general-purpose bookstores and a few comics stores. Herewith, three reports.

1. The Platonic Comics Shop

There are a number of comic book stores that are recognized by the cognoscenti as a step above the ordinary local comics stores that you can find all over the place. For instance, in the Boston area (where I lived for many years), there's the wonderful Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square. Well, the Bay Area, naturally, is also home to a few of these. I didn't have a chance to get into San Francisco, where a few famous ones are located, but I did get to a store in Berkeley which is widely well-regarded (hey, it says so on the internet, so it must be true...): Comic Relief on Shattuck Avenue.

And it's really quite extraordinary. While years of familiarity have made the Million Year Picnic dear to my heart, I have to admit it: Comic Relief is the best comics store I've ever seen. Indeed, I'll go farther, and say that it probably is pretty much the Platonic Ideal of a comic store.

What makes it so extraordinary?

Well, in every area that I could test in a brief, 30-45 minute browse, it not only got all the fundamentals right, but it did them extremely well. It has a superb selection -- broad, deep and rich. And the atmosphere is wonderful: it looks and feels like a bookstore, which is just what one would want -- not an ounce of the grimy feel that poorer comics stores can have, it has nice rugs, shelves with the books neatly placed, tasteful magazine racks for its floppies which don't feel crammed (and which don't overwhelm the book shelves). This is an extremely important aspect, one that it seems ought to be easy to get right, but must not be, since so many comics stores get it wrong. It doesn't feel like a toy store or magazine rack or game store or Den of Geeks** or anything. Things are clearly displayed, without stacks of dissimilar materials hiding each other. The store is, as Hemingway wrote in a rather different context, a "clean, well-lighted place". It's just a nice place to be. Which is a plus if you want people to, y'know, be there so they can shop.

(I didn't have time to test the knowledge, efficiency, politeness, etc, of the staff, although the brief interactions I had with them were favorable.)

But what really makes the store is the organization.

A lot of comics shops -- most of the ones I'm familiar with, even the really good ones -- organize their material by publisher. Now, in one sense, this makes a lot more sense than it would in most book stores: Marvel and DC aren't just publishers, they're brand names, associated with characters; they're linked stories, in many ways, so grouping them is like putting different issues of a serial together. Fantagraphics, Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly have more-or-less clearly defined aesthetic sensibilities, so that if one of their books appeal to a reader others are more likely to. And so forth.

Now all stores break this to some extent -- grouping together publications from big-name writers like Alan Moore or Brian K. Vaughan, say, even if they're from different companies. And good ones break it more.

But Comic Relief departed from it (almost) entirely.

They had a few big categories. The biggest and most interesting one was "Fiction and Literature". Yeah, I know: obvious. Practically every bookstore in the country has a section like that. But comics stores don't. They have an "independents" section, a Vertigo section, and so forth. But to put almost all the fiction, on bookshelves, spine out, in simple alphabetical order by author...

It felt like a revelation.

Next to it was a section -- a separate section! -- for journalism & other non-fiction.

I suppose it's a testimony to the sad state of the comics store that this was so impressive. But there it is.

Now they didn't go quite all the way with it. Manga, all-ages comics, books of cartoon strips, film-based books, erotica (and "underground" comics, although this was much narrower than equivalents in other stores that include anything that isn't PG-13), foreign-language comics, etc, each had their own section. But each of these makes sense in its own way. (I almost yelped with joy when I saw for sale a copy of the incredibly-hard-to-find but also incredibly-high-reputation David Mazzucchelli book Discovering America... until I noticed it was in Italian. Damn. But I had just walked in: in another minute I wouldn't have made that mistake, and that's a good thing.)

And they had some other sections too: new and notable books; art books (i.e. that aren't comics, or aren't primarily comics); a "weird culture" table (my term -- I don't recall what they called it) of quirky books that might appeal to comics fans (the example I remember is the (no longer the?) most recent issue of the McSweeney's Quarterly, with the Oulipo selection in it); and some others in a similar vein.

They have a charming little "undersized books" rack right over their "oversized books" rack: a wonderful idea, since the former are as prone to getting lost as the latter are to not fitting, and it's nice to see them set aside, for the same practical reasons.

And so on.

But the biggest departure from their scheme was one other separate section: superheroes.

Now, I've nothing against superhero comics as such; certain superhero comics are among some of my favorite comics. But as Warren Ellis famously said:
Fuck superheroes, frankly. The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd. It's like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels. Imagine that. You want a new novel, but you have to wade through three hundred new books about romances in the wards before you can get at any other genre. A medium where the relationship of fiction about nurses outweighs mainstream literary fiction by a ratio of one hundred to one. Superhero comics are like bloody creeping fungus, and they smother everything else.
By "genre" in the second sentence he means "medium"; but otherwise he's right. It's not that superhero books can't be good or fun or even profound. But the proportions are wildly out of whack... and while, yes, I hope we've all come a long way in the last decade, comics are now taken very seriously by mainstream culture, and we no longer need to say "comics can be more than superheroes!" in every article...

Well, yes, we no longer need to say it, and graphic novels sections at mainstream bookstores look like we don't need to say it. But, more often than not, comics shops don't. And it can turn people off.

So yes, Comic Relief has all the superhero comics you could want... on the left side of the store. Not what you see when you first walk in. (And, as I've seen mentioned on the web before, their new comics racks are in back, where you have to walk to get them (except for the "new and noteworthy" table, which is a different kettle of crab), a much better idea than up front...). What you see are the, well, other sections. Y'know, fiction.

And fiction is all fiction that isn't in one of the other categories: if it's not erotica, manga,*** or superheroes, then it's there. The bleak realism of Chris Ware is cheek-by-jowl with the hip thrillers of Brian K. Vaughan. Everything from SF to what would in any other literary context be called "mainstream". Just not superheroes.

But that's not all. The real genius is that they apply the same system to their pamphlets. They have a "fiction and literature" rack that has non-superhero pamphlets of all sorts... and a separate rack for the superhero comics.

I can see why this might irritate superhero fans. And on some abstract level, I agree -- just as, on some abstract level, Affirmative Action is unfair to whites. But given the actual history in both cases, some positive discrimination is required to make up for the corrosion set in by a long history. And in the case of comics, that's against superheroes and for everything else.

Anyway, I trust you've gotten the point. It's not that other good stores don't do many of these things. It's that I've never seen any other store do them all, and do them so thoroughly or so well.

Before the trip, I'd tried, once or twice, to envision what a perfect comics store would be like -- perfect within the limits of the real world, I mean; I'm not talking Hicksville here -- just on a physical level, what it would look like, how it would be organized. I think I had a pretty good sense of what should be done.

And that's precisely how Comic Relief looked.

Which is to say: perfect.

If I ran a comics store, I'd want it to look like Comic Relief.

2. Free Comic Book Day

It just so happened that the day of the wedding was also free comic book day. Since FCDB began only six years ago, the only place I'd ever seen it was at my home-town comic book store, Comics for Collectors in Ithaca, New York. But the wedding wasn't until the afternoon, a free comic is a free comic, and hey, FCDB is the happiest day of the year. So I went to the handy-dandy comic shop locator and found a convenient comics shop to go to. Now, the actual wedding was in Benicia, California -- which was the state capital of California for two years in the mid-Nineteenth Century, and they don't let you forget it for a moment while you're there, believe me -- so rather than make the (longer and traffickier) drive back into Berkeley, I went to Flying Color Comics in Concord, California (which Tom Spurgeon also includes on his list of favorites, along with Comic Relief and the other stores mentioned or linked to in part one), which was supposedly only 20 minutes from Benicia.

Hmm, make that 30. Still, I got there at 11, right at the time the store opened; the owner had warned on his blog to get there early, and it's hard to get there earlier than opening, right?****

Now, at C-for-C here in NY, FCDB is a big day: which means you might have to stand in line behind a few people, maybe even two or three, to get your free comics. And the store is usually rather busy. Maybe not the best day to browse. But it honestly never occurred to me that it might take any significant amount of time to get the comics. I thought I pick up the ones I wanted, browse for half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes, drive back to the hotel, suit up, and be ready to go sheva some brachot. So I got to the store -- suburbs, yuck, big mall, parking lot, where's the store, oh there it is...

With a line down the block, around the corner, and halfway down the next block.


I ask the owner at the door how long he thinks it'll take: about an hour, he guesses. Even assuming he's right, and even assuming I whiz through the store without any time to browse afterwards, and even forgetting about the pile of term papers back at my hotel room that need to be graded (that I didn't think to bring because, to repeat, it never occurred to me that I'd have to wait for as long as five minutes)... even with all that, I'd be stressed the entire hour, worried about the timing. It wasn't worth it.

So I went home.

Pressing my nose against the glass from outside, it did look like a pretty cool comics store, if not a genuine rival to Comic Relief. But I obviously can't testify to that with any real force.

It was rather a bummer, I must admit: an hour's round trip (and, though I didn't know before I set out, $4 in tolls) for nothing. But as a fan (and wanna-be creator) of this field of comics, I was pleased: clearly the promotion is working quite well, at least for somebody.

At least in California.

(Update: An actual, honest-to-God retailer's thoughts on FCDB's success as a promotion can be found at the aforelinked site (via my increassingly desperate need to procrastinate on the !@#$% exams I have to grade.))

3. The Pièce de Résistance

But none of those was the real jaw-dropper of the weekend (even restricting myself to comics-buying related program activities). The real jaw-dropper came at a regular-old bookstore, Moe's on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Moe's is a mixed new & used book store, with new books down on the lower level and used books on the upper floors. I wandered in Friday afternoon, went up to the third floor, wandered about, looking for the graphic novels, where are they, probably stuck away on some small shelf some place...

But no. They had more than three full bookcases of used graphic novels. The best selection of used graphic novels I'd ever seen -- by an order of magnitude. I got a number of good deals on books I'd been wanting, and a few obscure items I hadn't had an opportunity to buy before -- and saw a few books I'd never even heard of, which frankly happens rarely enough in new comics stores -- but in all honesty most of the time I was there I just sat there, looking at the shelf, feeling totally stunned.

If you, Noble Reader, haven't spent much time in used bookstores looking at graphic novel sections (or sighing the lack of them), this may not seem like much to you. But far more than anything else I've ever read, graphic novels are hard to come by, price-wise. They're expensive, compared to prose -- particularly given that they take less time to read.***** Even though libraries are starting to carry more and more of them -- and even though our much-beloved local public library has a rather jaw-droppingly good selection of graphic novels itself -- you can't go to a library with the expectation that they'll have more-or-less any graphic novel that you want to read, except maybe very obscure ones, the way that you can with prose novels. (University libraries, which have very good prose collections obviously, have particularly bad graphic novel collections.)

And they're very hard to find used. Even very good used bookstores usually just have a handful of them -- and often not very interesting ones at that. Oh, you can order used graphic novels on line -- but shipping costs drive up the price considerably.

And here I was, with a selection that would put most new bookstores -- hell, would put a lot of comic book stores -- to shame. In a used bookstore.

I had never seen anything like it. I hadn't, really, thought that there was anything like it.

Now, having since been to Comic Relief, I can see that with stores like that in the area, perhaps Moe's selection was understandable. Still, I was floored.

And I should say that Shakespeare & Co., half a block away, had a very respectable 3+ shelf selection of graphic novels, too, plus some interesting floppies. I would probably have been extremely impressed with that selection if I hadn't just seen the one at Moe's.

So if you're in Berkeley, and you're a comics fan, go to Moe's and pick some used graphic novels up. And if you're in Berkeley, and you're not a comics fan, stop by Comic Relief: it's a good place to browse, and maybe get interested.

And always go early to Free Comic Book Day.

Update: Edited to fix those little typos that gremlins always -- and I mean awlays -- insert in a post after the final proofread and before it winds its ways through the wires to actually sit on my blog. (As I usually do without bothering to mention it. But I'm feeling procrastinatey (exam grading sucks!), so I thought I'd tell you this time.)

Later Update: So it seems that Comic Relief won the Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award in 1993 (the very first year it was offered, if that list's complete); Flying Colors Comics won in 1995. Million Year Picnic seems not to have ever won (which is too bad; it is quite a good store).

* Why, since you asked, yes, it was a lovely wedding. It was a Catholic ceremony -- the first I've been to since I was too small to remember -- which, it turns out, is quite wonderful, very solemn and beautiful. (I was even asked to say a Hebrew blessing, to honor the Jewish side of my friend's heritage.) And my friend was glowing, which was good to see. And as my people say, the bride was beautiful and graceful. (True in this instance, although the problem with following Hillel's rule is that, since you're always supposed to say it, no one ever believes you really mean it! (...Yes, of course, the rule can be understood to mean that, really, all brides are beautiful and graceful. And in a sense that's true. But to the extent that it's necessarily true, it doesn't mean much to say it -- save as an emotional speech-act which boils down to: I was at a wedding. (What if I point out that the groom was beautiful and graceful? You're not required to say that, so maybe people will take me seriously...)))

** Not that there's anything wrong with that.

*** Arguably the least defensible separation -- the one most like keeping Vertigo and Fantagraphics separate, as other stores do -- but I guess nothin's perfect. Even Platonic perfection. Not in this crazy world.

**** I was already in the air by the time of his next post (I just saw it now looking for a link for this entry) and didn't think to check the blog in CA, or I might have been prepared for the day's events. Ah, well.

***** Which isn't a slur on them as an art form: films take less time to see than novels take to read, and (practically) no one thinks film is a lesser form. It simply has to do with the efficiency of human visual information processing versus linguistic processing. And there are compensations: graphic novels are much harder to skim, so I, at least, find I am more likely to read every word of one than of a prose book; and because they're swift, I'm more likely to reread them.


rorydroot said...

Thanks Stephen I'm glad we made you happy.

Rory from CR.

Unknown said...

Good post, Stephen. Sounds like Comic Relief would be a good store to visit if I'm ever in the area. I think your ideal comic shop is pretty similar to mine.

As for used book stores, I had a similar experience when I visited Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon (It was actually a satellite store in the suburbs, not the main downtown location). I love bookstores, but I rarely expect them to have much of a graphic novel section, so I was floored to see a huge shelf of them, and I spent almost all of my time there browsing that shelf and trying to decide what I could afford to buy (if I remember right, I think I found a copy of Paul Hornschmeier's Mother Come Home with a ding in the spine for a pretty good price). It was a very pleasant surprise. And I highly recommend Powell's if you're ever in Portland. I'll be there this summer for my sister's wedding, but I might be too busy to stop by. Hmmm, I should start planning to go there now...

Eddie Campbell said...

you saw, yes? (links on my blog)

The May issue of The Believer has a colossal 6,000 word essay on the Codex Seraphinianus by Justin Taylor (see here for my own short post on the subject)
"It was the last I heard from him. For whatever reason, Serafini did not answer any of the questions I sent to him or the follow-up letter I sent asking if he would prefer to be contacted in Italian.
With the author himself apparently out of the picture, I decided to try and get some art-historical context for the book and its elusive author. I wrote to Arthur C. Danto, art critic for the Nation, and described the book to him. He was intrigued and invited me to his apartment... “
(link via Charlie Orr)

Stephen said...


I did see, and liked it a lot -- and meant to link to it, and forgot. So thanks for the reminder!


rorydroot said...

Oh and Stephen next time you are in the Bay Area, check out More Moe's on Moe's fourth floor, that is their rare book room and they often have some real gems. Both comic strip and illustrated books, and one of their specialties is illustrated children's books.

Rory from CR.