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!

LadiesCon 2018, Women in Comics, and Community Engagement

This past weekend, I tabled for the store at LadiesCon, an annual event organized by the Ladies of Comicazi.  As can probably be surmised from the name, this community event (free and open to the public!) focuses on the many non-cisgender-men who work in comics in some capacity.  The featured guests this year were Marjorie Liu, Erica Henderson, Ming Doyle, and Kristen Gudsnuk.  I even got to be on two panels!  “Women In Comics Retail,” which I’ve been on a couple times before, and “Manga and the Women Who Make It,” which I debuted there with my good friend Juliet Kahn.

Here in the Boston area, we’re really spoiled when it comes to the comics community.  We have many excellent comic shops, all of whom staff women.  And not only do we have the incredible, and incredibly important, LadiesCon, but we also play host the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE), which is also family-friendly, free, and open to the public (and which this year is featuring, among others, the young reader powerhouse creators Vera Brosgol and Tillie Walden).

One of my favorite aspects of these shows is that they always remind me of the Artist’s Alley at an anime convention: full of passionate people of all genders, colors, and creeds who have come together to share their work with like-minded fans.  Anime cons have always been some of the queerest, most diverse spaces I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of, and it’s very gratifying to see that kind of representation making itself known to the general, curious public.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the community aspect of comics lately.  To the outside observer, it can seem quite divisive — and it certainly can be!  I know how lucky I am and have been to encounter mostly kind, open-minded individuals in this space who trust my judgment and who believe in uplifting instead of shooting down.  I can’t overstate how important it has been for me to have friends within the comics community who have been able to share in my joys and commiserate when I encounter those aspects of comics that aren’t as pleasant.

In somewhat related news, for those of you who don’t follow my various social media maneuverings, I finally sent the first Manga Maven Monthly email, which you can find here.  The response to this project has been very positive, even when I was just making super-long Facebook posts in various retailer groups.  It’s very validating to have people you really respect, who have been working in comics retail a long time, sincerely thank you for your suggestions and talk about how they have positively influenced their businesses.  It’s been really great to feel that, if nothing else, here is at least one thing I know I’m doing well.  So thank you to everyone who has signed up!  I hope to keep giving you fruitful suggestions for a long time!