Buying comics off the rack isn't always easy. Many store owners look on my style of shopping with a certain amount of scorn, but I don’t like having a pull list (or an in-store subscription, as some people call it). I vastly prefer to go and look at the shelves. You know: browse like a normal consumer in a more mainstream vertical. There have been times when I might not have many titles coming out on a week and would go every other week… and I’d still expect to be able to buy a week old comic off the shelf.
When I lived in New York or Chicago, this was not a problem. Oh, I might need to make alternate arrangement a couple times a year, but it really wasn’t a problem. Especially if I could make my shopping trip over the lunch hour.
New York and Chicago are exceptionally good places for comics retailers. The comics consumer has multiple choices for complete shops. If you live in other places, you may not be so fortunate. With so much publishing centered in Manhattan, it’s important to understand that the act of buying a comic is not quite so easy elsewhere.
At various times, I’m had occasion to make an extended family visit in Iowa. When in Iowa, I actually cross the Mississippi River back into Illinois to buy comics. There aren’t a ton of shops, and I’m in for roughly a 40 mile drive to get my comics. It’s a smaller shop and I really have no option but to say what I want a couple weeks ahead of time. I may or may not get it, especially with independent comics. When things sell out a month ahead of time at the distributor level, if shelf copies weren’t ordered, I would just be out of luck. When I had an extended visit dealing with some estate issues in 2004, I vividly remember having to catch up on Queen & Country while visiting Chicago. You’ll get that with a small store if your tastes are a little different from the normal clientele and its worse if you aren’t pre-ordering one to three months in advance.
Currently, I’m in San Francisco. A great city for comic books, you say. Great stores, you say. I’ll meet you at very, very good stores. There are three here that I visit on a regular basis, but I can’t actually call any of them great for the simple reason that you can’t buy off the shelf at any of them. Does this sound odd to you? Let me tell you what I did yesterday afternoon, on Comic Book Day.
At lunch, I went down to my first retailer of the day. I picked up a few books, but at 12:30 in the afternoon (for a store that opens at 11am), he was already out of Punisher, Wonder Woman and Batman. At least two of those three titles, you would really expect to be in stock for the weekend, let alone over the noon hour.
A bit later in the afternoon, I was able to slip out and make a trip to the second store of the day, which did have those three in stock. I was fortunate. My record is visiting five different stores while looking for Flash Gordon #2. I ended up buying #2 and #3 at the same time. It took me three trips to find The Twelve #11. Off the top of my head, some other titles I’ve had to bounce between stores to pick up have been All-Star Western, Captain America & Bucky, I… Vampire and Elric. This are not terribly obscure titles, especially for shops in a major metropolitan area. I’m making multiple trips usually two out of four weeks in a given month.
It isn’t always the same titles each month, either. From what I’ve experienced, none of the retailers I’ve visited is going to be able to handle my off the rack shopping needs to the level I was once used to. This is San Francisco, not rural Mississippi, but it’s closer to the national comics shopping experience, where if you want something unusual, you’re pressed into a subscription service and pre-orders. In fairness, San Francisco has had three retailers close since September and the sudden redistribution of customers will cause a shortage here and there, but the problems are maddeningly consistent.
Many retailers simply don’t understand why I don’t want to have a standing order for my books. The two primary stores I frequent have both urged me to set up a list. There are a number of reasons I prefer not to. First, there’s the failsafe aspect. There have been times over the years when I’ve gotten home, realized I forgot to pick something up and then realized I didn’t need it. The subconscious helping me realize a book has jumped the shark and it’s time to drop it. Of course, that’s not good for the retailer or the publisher. I’ve been known to have periods of time where I travel frequently or am in very different parts of the city and I want to pick up the week’s books where I am, rather than waiting until the weekend.
I also just don’t like getting locked into things. Fear of commitment? Well, I am a man, after all.
The idea that you need to pre-order your goods is a strange one in the consumer world. Do people occasionally special order a book at a bookstore? Sure. More often they’ll just order from Amazon or the Barnes & Noble website, though. If you’re needing to special order 25% of your purchases, odds are you’re going to be looking into mail order for just about any category of purchase besides comics.
So, for now, every Wednesday I go on an adventure. Am I going to one store or two? Will I need to hit a third on the following day? I really don’t know. However, when they say it takes dedication to read monthly comics, they aren’t kidding.