Comic Fodder

What Do I Look for in a Comic Book Store? – Part One

When I talk about “traveling abroad,” it usually means leaving your home town, not going to the opposite side of the world. One of the first things comic lovers do when they get their wheels is explore their home town and experience each and every comic book store. Then, they settle on the one they like the best. There are exceptions to that, like there are for everything, but that’s for next time. Right now, it’s time for a road trip!

I do not get to travel a whole lot, but there have been some business trips that have taken me to a few states in this grand republic. Too often, there is no time, or you have obligations with the people who are traveling with you, but one glorious time, I was on travel by myself, and only putting in a 40-hour work week. That left plenty of time!

Step Zero: Know Your Budget

After comic companies have done “Issue 0” so many times, this step number felt appropriate. The most important thing is to only spend money if you can afford to part with it. This means if you’re young, tell your parents ahead of time and ask for a set amount of money. If you’re old enough to have credit cards, don’t put an amount equal to what’s in your savings account on the card. Either stick with the number in your head, or have enough self-control not to start if it’s going to cost you next week’s rent. It’s okay to not have a concrete number written down if you know enough about your situation to pay attention when the traffic lights in your mind start to turn from yellow to red. And don’t a single one of you pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about! I heard that!

Step One: Use Your Best Resource

I made my battle plan the first night I arrived in town. My biggest ally? Ye Olde Phone Book. That’s right, even in this digital age, the most accurate ads for a locale are going to be in the physical phone book. Just one or two pages for comic stores. I copied down names, phone numbers, and addresses, all of them. Then I went to get a good city map from the front desk of the hotel.

Step Two: Planning Your Itinerary.

I come from Las Vegas, which is mostly a 24-hour town, even though that is changing slightly (and I have paid the price on a couple of late-night attempts to get donuts, only to find Krispy Crème no longer open 24 hours. Curses!). In other towns, businesses close sooner, sometimes by a couple of hours. My visit to another state meant that I had a limited window of opportunity each day to make my assault. Work ended at 5:00 p.m., and the stores all close by 7:00. Hence, two store locations per evening, then back to the hotel.

Spreading out the street map on the bed, I found twelve or so stores I could reach; almost all of what the town had, and I plotted out how to get to each one. There is no time to waste on a wrong turn in an unfamiliar town! Then down to the lobby to Google map anything that looks weird, just to be safe. Many comic stores are notorious for being in dank, murky, off-the-beaten-path type locations that are easy to overshoot, even when you’re looking for them. Next, chatting with some of the locals, mostly hotel workers, who are often that appropriate age: old enough to work and know the town, but young enough to maybe know just enough about comics. Get the lay of the land from the natives, and then you have a good idea of which stores are to be the most recommended.

Special Annual Step 2-1/2! Only $3.99!

What are we looking for, in order to call a comic store in a foreign land (like, say, Cleveland) a “good” store? One word: Organization. There should be some semblance of order so you can make your way through their store without a guide. Most things are easy, but the biggest issue (pun not intended) is the back-issue bins. Some stores arrange everything by comic company, others arrange them by pure alphabetical order. Some arrange them by price, which is still doable, and others have no discernible arrangement at all. These latter stores are the ones you will spend the least amount of time in, because they have made no effort to make things easy on you. A few cursory glances in a few random boxes, then you’re off to a better store where they at least pretend to make an effort. Time is your most valuable resource now.

The stores that are clean and well-lit are your friend. Boxes arranged so you don’t have to move one off of the other to get at the ones beneath are best. I’ve seen many different shelving arrangements that allow you to slide out boxes and push them back in when you’re done. The best combination for arrangement I’ve found is one that fits best with my want-list: alpha-order, but by company, i.e., DC comics in alpha-order, Marvel comics in another section by alpha-order, and so on. Cross your fingers, hope all of the issues are in the proper numerical order, and start flipping through them, snapping them forward by the top of their plastic-baggy confines. Whap! Whap! Whap!

Step Three: The Attack!

Monday, 5:00 p.m.: I escape the confines of the workplace and speed down the street in my rental car. Not too fast, cops love to sack out-of-towners with those traffic tickets. It happened to me once, and no way do I want to give them an excuse ever again! From Monday on, I hit two, sometimes three stores each night.

Different people have different goals. If you wanted just one thing, be it comic or statue, all you would have had to do was pick up the phone and call the store to inquire about something specific. Me, I’m armed with a want-list several pages long, and my home town has already been drained dry by yours truly. I pass by the new issue racks and the magazines, pausing only to look at some of the newer statues and other assorted merchandise. The real prize (for me) is the back-issue bins, and quantity over quality. Notice I say nothing about the high-end stuff, or CGC nonsense, or the really old or obscure comics. That calls for an entirely different strategy. For this column, let’s stick with the nickel-and-dime strategy, shall we? Trust me, it’s cheaper…

Step Four: The Booty (The PG kind!)

I find the discount boxes and pillage each and every one of them. I spend no more than $5 on any one issue, and that’s only if I know it’s really hard to get. I’m buying old Captain Americas for three bucks, a special with a cover price of $4.00 for two bucks. I bring my first pile up to the counter (if they’re not observant enough to offer to help me ahead of time), and just before I go back for seconds, I ask what kind of discounts they have. Depending on my feel for the place, I may say nothing and wait until the final ring-up to see what they will spontaneously offer. For places that have a good “feel,” you wait for them to bring it up, because nice people and good businessmen will take a look at what you’re doing and offer some bonus or discount without prompting. For places that feel like it’s only a business, and there is no additional meaning beyond that, you prime the pump and ask them first, before you dive back into their selection. The prospect of you closing your wallet and leaving prematurely will make them (however grudgingly) knock a buck or two off your grand total.

Step Five: The Return

Okay, I’m back in my hotel room, double-checking all of my purchases against my want-list to make sure I haven’t bought any duplicates. Out of several hundred comics, I bought two dupes, not bad. Somewhere before the final night, though, I realized a defect in my strategy: luggage. Specifically, I didn’t have enough room for all these comics! Maybe if I had stopped after the second night, but in the days before airlines charged you for extra baggage, no way was I sending my new treasures by postal, they were staying with me! I ran to Wal-Mart and got a duffel bag. Problem solved! I stayed within my mental budget (even though I felt pain at leaving some choice potential purchases behind), I can get everything back to my home, and I have ransacked an entire town. ‘Nuff said!
Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.

Travis, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

I always check comic book stores and used book stores if time and my spouse permit it.

Yes, hopefully, all of us collectors/obsessives have a strategy in a new town. However, you've done more than most to verbalize it.

I do have a couple of things to add:

1. Try to do your research before you get to town, on-line or whatever. This can help a lot.

2. A big problem with yellow pages, and sometimes even with web-sites, is stores that don't mention if they actually sell back issues or not. I guess you should assume they don't if they are silent, but this can be annoying.

3. One final issues with yellow pages - the info can be ephemeral. Checking that a store is still in existence, at the address noted, is a great idea before going out.

Dave HOok

-- Posted by: Dave Hook at August 29, 2008 8:57 PM