Tom Spurgeon, on his invaluable Comics Reporter site, recently talked about the importance of comics shops. He noted that we should move past the stereotypes about seedy fanboy havens and instead talk about what a comics shop should be. To answer that question, a potential shop owner has to have an understanding of the potential customer base in the area, a location suited to the kind of business they hope to attract, and a storefront that makes the most out of its square footage. To that end, I'm going to take a look at several local comics shops here in the Triangle area of North Carolina. In many respects, this is an ideal location to open a comics shop. There are nearly a dozen universities in the area, along with a thriving arts community. For a smart shop owner, there's definitely a fanbase to be tapped.
In Durham and Chapel Hill, there are three prominent comics shops, all with very different aims. Books Do Furnish A Room is half-used bookstore, half-comics shop. Ultimate Comics (in Durham & Chapel Hill) is the quintessential mainstream comics shop. Chapel Hill Comics, however, has a different mission. It's a store that aims for a more general clientele and especially is interested in sales to children.
The store is located on Franklin Street, the main drag of Chapel Hill. As the location for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is the quintessential college town. As such, parking is scarce and foot traffic is high. Thus, the store makes sure to have a bright and attractive window, filled with product aimed at a general customer. Some of the things displayed when I dropped by included PEANUTS, BONE, X-MEN, Uglydolls and the book WHAT WOULD WONDER WOMAN DO? In a second window (seen when one walks through the door), some of the comics displayed include TINTIN, OWLY, LITTLE NEMO and BART SIMPSON. It's a shrewd arrangement and one that makes sense. Why not tell the general public that you have copies of some comics from some of the most recognizable characters in the world?
Chapel Hill Comics has a relatively small storefront, about 800 square feet or so. The store is brightly colored, with vivid red and yellow welcoming in customers. As one walks into the store, there's a long table displaying new graphic novel releases. When I was there, it included copies of FUN HOME, THE RABBI'S CAT, UP FRONT, NOTES FOR A WAR STORY, and Warren Ellis' new novel. Right next to that is a huge spinner rack filled with Uglydolls, and several huge racks and shelves with manga. On either side of the cashier were shelves filled with graphic novels and collections. One of them had superhero collections, and the other had miscellaneous fiction, humor, horror and autobiography. There were also wooden and metal spinner racks with minicomics (including John Porcellino and Sam Henderson), digests (superhero and otherwise) and oversized issues of stuff like the Ignatz line from Fantagraphics.
In the back of the store, there are more racks organized by author, art books and current issues of comics (mostly superhero stuff). The store is owned by a husband-and-wife team, Andrew & Vanessa Neal. Vanessa told me that they're going to reorganize the store a bit, thinning out manga a bit and adding more space for kids' comics. They're also going to try to add more minicomics and add more shelving for display of books. In particular, Vanessa noted that they hope to get minicomics from local artists. Few comics stores have an extensive minicomics selection, and this is certainly one way the shop can distinguish itself.
One interesting move the store made was completely cutting out back-issues. Vanessa explained it simply: in the same, limited amount of space, they can either display graphic novels that cost 10-20 dollars or a back issue that costs 3-5 dollars. It not only makes economic sense, it also improves the aesthetics and ease of use of the store. Instead of having people hovering around a store with limited space, the customer can easily move around the store. Also, given the fact that most publishers are going out of their way to keep their comics in print with collections as well as releasing a huge backlog of reprints, it's no longer as important for a comics store to keep a stock of back issues.
Given the way the store is set up, it's no accident that a huge subsection of its customer base is women and families. The philosophy behind the store is that superhero fans will find them and be happy with the store's product. The store does have a subscription agreement available, though it doesn't offer a discount.
The owners of the store get high marks for making the best use of the store's location, understanding the customer base, providing a bright and attractive storefront, diversifying their stock so as to attract a wide variety of customers, and providing excellent customer service. Both Andy & Vanessa are friendly and knowledgable, guiding their customers to comics that might interest them. In addition, the store hosts a number of events, including 24 Hour Comics Day, various signings, art shows and other ways to bring in the public. Check out these photos from various store events. Overall, Chapel Hill Comics is the model of what a general-audience comics shop should be. Superhero enthusiasts won't find action figures or other such ephemera, but anyone who is interested in comics, in all their forms, won't be disappointed.