Pulp, Bricks and Mortar: Why Local Comics Shops Still Work in the Digital Age

One of the ironies of my personal turn towards digital comics is that I have made that move at essentially the same moment as I gained access to a local comics shop.

As I noted in an earlier column, “Killing the Page: Comics’ Digital Conundrum”, for the past several years I lived in a small university town where the nearest comics store is 30 miles away. I got my comics largely via an online retailer and, had selection and platforms been more attractive, would have seriously considered shifting much of my reading, especially of monthly titles, to digital for cost and convenience (no waiting for shipments, no shipping costs).

However, at that time digital had not matured to the point it had by the end of last year, at which time, coincidentally, we also moved to a city with a local comics shop. One of the first things I did after we closed on our house was set up a pull list with that store, and about a month later — I bought a Kindle Fire.

I wonder, what difference does it make that I now have a shop to go to, instead of a monthly shipment, in regards to my adoption of digital? While I was happy with the service I got from the online retailer, not having a local comics shop meant missing out on some of the rituals of American comics culture, notably going to a store on Wednesdays, which is when new comics are typically released.

The Wednesday ritual is tied most closely to Marvel and DC, and to genre titles and periodicals from publishers such as Dark Horse and Image, but all kinds of comics are released that day. Having a comics shop means not only having a location to pick up subscriptions, but also an opportunity to browse and sample new releases on the day and date of their initial availability.

With more publishers offering same day as print for digital, the availability aspect of the Wednesday-at-a-comics-shop experience can be simulated electronically, certainly with more verisimilitude than with traditional mail order. But what tablets, phones and computers don’t replicate as well is the (palpable) collective and social aspect of the traditional brick-and-mortar visit. I don’t want to overstate the depth of the connections I’ve made with the clerks or other customers at my local store, but I have had a couple of interesting conversations with the owner, alerted others to certain titles, learned about new books myself, and I also like to see what others are buying.

Sadly, there are very few people are in the store with me. On the Wednesdays that I pick up my comics, which is more often every two weeks than every week, the place is usually pretty busy with activity, some has to do with unpacking the day’s shipments, but mostly shoppers are checking out the new games, not the new comics. To accomodate this, many comics stores have changed and adapted over time in the same way that many comics conventions have: by developing new aspects of their business in related, but still distinct, areas of pop culture and fandom, including comics-related merchandise, role-playing games, and genre entertainment, particularly science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Visit a local comics shop and you’ll see a microcosm of pop subcultures. Culture is not static or hermetically sealed, of course, but it’s embodied in what people do. People who read comics are also people who game, who read and watch genre fiction in other forms, and literally wear their comics love on their sleeves, on their walls and in their offices. Comics shops, in this way, are transmedia spaces where different flows of cultural goods and habits are practiced and combined more than they are separated or discretely defined. It seems only natural, then, that many shops would start selling different kinds of cultural products, from games to DVDs, to pop art, as well as comics.

While there are times when I wish comics stores were more focused on comics, usually when I’m trying to negotiate boxes and piles of stuff to get at something I am interested in, mostly what I see is how the shop is reflective of the pop and fan communities that have spiraled out from comics. My local store, for example, puts on a gaming convention, once or twice a year, where people can play all day long at all manner of roleplaying, card, and board games, maybe even finding new people to game with outside of the convention. This kind of community engagement is a good reason for getting a significant number of my books locally, even as digital has become more viable and, by some measures, is more convenient and economical than print.

In the US, and I suspect in most places where the medium is in use, comics are not simply books, but artifacts in a broader cultural field. Going to, and supporting, the local comics shop is not only about access to titles, but also comics as a social practice, whether talking to the clerk about the latest Marvel crossover, making an introduction to a book, or discovering a new card game. It may be that the ongoing digital transformation of comics will prompt further changes in the economies of comics retailers, but local comics shops are important social hubs for comics buyers and sellers, and even for creators and publishers, and in fulfilling that role, stores are likely to survive, even thrive, depending on the quality of the experience they offer.

See also an interview with bricks and mortar comics store owner, Joe Field, in “The Future of Comic Stores in the Digital Era”, by Shawn O’Rourke.