What It Means To Manage A Comic Shop

There’s a Tweet going around lately by @Gigs_and_hills that asks folks to state the most common response they receive upon telling someone what they do for a living.  It’s been really interesting to see how wildly people misinterpret all kinds of jobs — and how I have also misinterpreted them!  And it brought up the response I’ve been getting a lot lately when I say that I manage a comic shop:

“You must have the coolest job in the world!  I bet you read comics all day!”

I know there’s no malice in comments like this, but that idea is so far from my reality that I wanted to give a bit of a breakdown of what, exactly, goes into comic shop management.  A lot of it will be the same as any other retail management position, but there are certainly some….quirks in the comics retail industry!  And I’m only going to be speaking from my personal experience, as the manager of a fairly small shop (three whole employees!) in a decently big city that has a glut of excellent comic shops.

Ordering

A good deal of my job revolves around ordering, whether that’s ordering brand-new books, or reordering books that we’ve sold within the past week.  I do the former once a month, and the latter at least once a week.  I place orders across multiple distributors, including Diamond Comics Distribution, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillian, and Baker & Taylor.  Occasionally, I also place orders with individual artists or wholesalers, which is a separate process that involves more of a time investment since there isn’t necessarily a system already in place to process those orders.

Once these orders come in, I’m sometimes the person who then has to check them in, pull copies for subscribers, and put them out on the shelves.  Which brings me to the next topic…

Maintaining Subscriber Pulls

I’m lucky in that I don’t do a ton of the unpacking and processing of our weekly Diamond shipments, but there is always a good deal of subscriber maintenance to deal with.  Adding new subscribers, physically filling the pulls, getting in touch with subscribers who have lapsed, sending comics to subscribers who live a little further afield, keeping track of special orders — these are tasks that my boss and I split, but in reality we could have one employee just doing this, that’s how much work it can be.

Organizing Sales and Events

One of the simultaneously most challenging and most rewarding things I do is organizing events.  We vend at a couple conventions, the largest of which is Anime Boston.  Preparation for this starts a couple months before the actual event with ordering.  We have to assess past sales at conventions, make some educated guesses about what’s going to sell well this year, and plan out table displays.  Once the orders are placed, they have to get processed as they come into the store, which I usually do because I am intimately aware of what we’re supposed to be getting, and because I need other folks to run the register and help customers.  I’m also the one who does a good deal of the packing, though I am glad to say that I have lots of strapping young folks to help move the boxes of about 10,000 manga to and from the store!

And that’s just the ordering and selling aspect!  We have a contractor (and friend of the store!) help with organizing the volunteers, figuring out meals, scheduling breaks, and making sure I drink water and get rest.  (Bless you, Jasmine, I could not do any of this without you!)

After the cons are over, there is the job of returning all those books that we are able to and don’t need in the store (this is a project I’m working on right now, in fact).  This process means paying close attention to the inventory as it comes and goes, which is somewhat easier when you’re already doing orders once a week!

Outside of the conventions, there are other events to organize: Free Comic Book Day, in-store signings, local outreach events, sponsorships, etc.  I don’t get to just be the paperwork jockey, I have to also serve as the face of the business in many instances.

The Day-To-Day

When I’m doing all these other tasks, I don’t have a separate office.  I’m doing all this at the front counter, which means that I also have the duties of anyone else in the store: I deal with customers, give recommendations, run the register, clean the store, run the social media, and all those other menial tasks that have to get done.  Of course, I don’t have to do all this alone, and I have excellent staff who help by alleviating some of these duties — as well as assisting me with some of the others mentioned above!  There’s plenty of work to go around for everyone.  (And scheduling that staff is also one of my duties!)

I’m not going to pretend that I never read while on the job.  At the end of my work week, when I’ve finished any major tasks and it doesn’t make sense to start a new project before I’m off for two days, I will definitely get some reading done.  This is partially pleasure since I obviously love comics, but this is also a part of my job!  I need to know what we’re selling in order to be able to recommend it.  Sometimes, I’m granted advance copies of books that I read during work hours so that I can decide whether or not we should be ordering it to begin with.  (And in some cases, I will advise other retailers stock those books in my monthly newsletter.)

I don’t want to crush any dreams here — I do genuinely enjoy my job!  I get to meet awesome people all the time, I get to help promote work that I care about, and I get to be part of a really diverse creative community.  But there is a blurred line between business and pleasure when you work in the entertainment industry.  My husband and I went to Montreal last weekend for our anniversary, and I had to drag him to the Drawn & Quarterly stores.  I went as a customer and a fan, but I found my comic shop manager brain yelling at the back of my head saying things like “check out this display, this is a good idea!” or “we already stock this, right?”  I read a lot for pleasure, but a good chunk of that reading is manga, which is very relevant to our shop in particular.  I have to be very careful about burning out or being overwhelmed by every aspect of my life being overtaken by my job.  It can be a challenge!

So in short: No, as a comic shop manager, I don’t get to read comics all day.  There’s a lot of labor involved in keeping a comic shop chugging along, especially in the age of the Internet.  And while not every comic shop employee will have to do all of these tasks, there’s a chance that they will have a hand in some of them, even if they’re not involved in management.  Unless you work for a large store with a lot of upper management, a shop will need all hands to balance as many plates as possible.  This is the nature of small business!

When all is said and done, I take pride in the work that I do, and I know that I’m good at it.  I think that’s perhaps more rewarding than being able to just read all day — though I honestly wouldn’t mind having more time for that, as well!

Monthly Manga Mailing

I have some exciting news to share with everyone today!  Part of my job is to advise fellow comics retailers on which manga they might be interested in stocking in their stores.  Because the demand for this service has gotten so high and is causing me to cross-post in several groups, I’ve decided to create a mailing list!  While it will be geared toward comic shop retailers, certainly anyone who would like to see my monthly thoughts on upcoming titles is welcome to sign up.  I just ask that everyone bear with me as I slowly learn how to use MailChimp to its fullest potential, haha.  The link to sign up is here, and I’ll be posting it in several locations over the course of today so that it reaches everyone who might want it!

In other news, I haven’t written much lately, but I assure you all that I’ve been reading a ton.  I’ve been on a bit of a shojo romcom kick lately; I read seven volumes of Waiting For Spring the other day, and have slowly been working my way through High School Debut.  I’m not sure why, but every now and then I just feel the need to read something sweet and positive, and shojo romances really fill that requirement for me.

My last post was a review of a middle reader graphic novel that isn’t a manga.  This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned manga (obviously), but I do want to mention that I probably will be doing more non-manga reviews in the future.  I believe that middle reader and young adult graphic novels are among the best (and best-selling) graphic works right now, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them, especially as so many of them have been influenced by manga and are being read alongside manga.  Media, after all, does not exist in a bubble.  Works for young audiences are important right now, creating many new readers and strengthening visual literacy.

And that’s all to report right now!  Just some little updates to tide you over until I post again — or until you sign up for my regular emails!

On Recommending Comics

When the Preacher television series came out, I had customer after customer provide me with the fandom theatre of being shocked that I had never read it, and then immediately insisting I amend that as soon as possible. Putting aside the fact that I was a literal baby when Preacher was first running in single issues, it seemed so unfathomable to everyone that despite the fact that I was sitting behind a counter selling them their comics every week, I might not have taken part in this very specific rite of comics passage.

Preacher is not necessarily something I wouldn’t read; indeed, I think the Morgana I was in high school would be very interested in the violence and the symbolism of it (I say, having still not read it). But out of curiosity, I flipped through the first volume after getting enough pushback from folks, just to see what the fuss was about. In no short order, I saw amidst the pages someone getting their face peeled off.

Knowing nothing about me, scores of men (they were all men) told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to read this comic. Scores of men have told me to read Berserk, and not a single one of them have ever mentioned that their are depictions of sexual violence — I just found that out recently through a thread on Twitter. When these people have given me their “recommendations,” it has been more about them pushing their interests on me, than about considering what I might enjoy, or trying to convince me of their value while also alerting me to things I might not like about them. Who recommends graphic violence porn to a stranger! Jesus Christ, guys, get it together.

I have had customers who have confessed that their “friends” belittled them for not having engaged in certain media. Forcing, shaming, belittling…these are really, really ineffective ways to convince someone that what you’re recommending to them is worthwhile. How can they be expected to start, if they keep associating the title with guilt and pressure, and on their inherent “unworthiness” as a fan?

Coming up against my distaste for being told what to consume, I find myself in the position of getting paid to tell other people what to consume. Giving good recommendations isn’t easy. My initial desire is the same as everyone’s: to recommend the things that I love. I don’t think this is a bad gut instinct — something is enjoyable, and you want more people to experience that, and you want to support the creators and the publisher. That’s great! But what works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone else. There’s a comic for everyone, but not every comic is for everyone.

This means I have to know how to talk about even the books I didn’t like, or that I haven’t read. I have to not use negative language about books I found boring or bad, because the person I’m helping might be looking for exactly that kind of thing. I have to try to figure out what a customer wants through asking endless questions, and there is nothing more frustrating than someone saying “oh, I’ll read anything!” (Especially when I then recommend ten different things and they turn every single one down!)

It is hard to know what people enjoy, even if youre familiar with their tastes. There are books that I thought I’d love that I just didn’t, so even for myself I can’t always pick ’em right! But I really, really think it’s important to be able to let go of the fact that not everyone is going to like the things you like, and that doesn’t make them a less good consumer of media. And when you’re really dead-set on giving a recommendation, it’s important to be able to give some insight into why it’s worth the time and effort, and maybe a caveat if there are some, uh, upsetting facets of it.

Basically, I want people to read comics, so I feel that it’s always best to be kind and cautious. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I’d love it if we were all a little more generous with our thoughts, and less concerned with checking off the boxes of cultural currency that allegedly make someone a “real fan.”