“My philosophy is good stories and good art,” says Kimberly Johnson, co-owner of Comics and Classics, a 1500 sq. ft. hybrid bookstore, comic shop and art gallery in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., which she and her husband, Percy, started in October 2007. Originally the two were planning a space that would fit the tagline: Where Spiderman Meets Shakespeare. Now she prefers to think of the year-old store as a fusion of art, fiction and comics.
Although a handful of comic stores around the country like Rocketship in Brooklyn and Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles offer comics in a setting with a bookstore feel, Comics and Classics is unique in shelving classics like Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and contemporary fiction by Orson Scott Card, side by side with graphic novel editions of the same book. It’s also one of the few comics shops to look to school sales to grow its business. But then Kimberly, unlike most middle school and high school teachers-turned-booksellers, is comfortable discussing the latest manga and graphic novels. She looks to the media specialists in the 179 schools in her county as potential customers, as well as the students they serve—and their parents. As part of her school outreach, Kimberly’s been working to educate librarians and media specialists on what’s appropriate for their schools and what the ratings mean. For example, T (for “teen”) on Japanese manga designates older teen readers, in high school.
“Kimberly’s background as a teacher helps her see the benefits of graphic novels from an entirely new perspective,” says John Shableski, sales manager at Diamond Book Distributors. “She and her husband understand the challenges that teachers face. They know that graphic novels are fun to read and enhance the joy of reading.” So far the Johnson are making the most inroads at the three schools closest to the store and they look forward to setting up graphic novel author events with these schools in the future.
And then there’s the art. Comics and Classics has gallery-style lighting to focus attention on the original art for sale that covers the wall, some by local street artists and urban artists, others by graphic novel and book illustrators. For example, they sell giclée prints of illustrations like “The Mirror of Erised” by Harry Potter artist Mary GrandPre.
In addition Comics and Classics offers Saturday morning art classes for children ages 12 and over with comic artist Rob Jones, and it holds monthly shows with local artists. Coming up next month is one on “Right, Left, Middle: Politics in America.” The Johnsons are planning to hold a mock presidential debate among superheroes at the opening night reception. December’s show on “Nuclear Winter” will feature sci-fi and futuristic art.
The store, which is a member of the American Booksellers Association, has a strong children’s book selection, although collected comics trade books are its biggest section. Currently, periodical comics outsell books and graphic novels by a wide margin, according to Kimberly. Revenue, however, is evenly split between comics and books (which also includes graphic novels). In choosing what to carry, says Johnson, “my idea is your son or daughter may want to go to a comic shop, or you want to go to a comic shop but you read other books.”
Originally the Johnsons had planned to offer customers a latte with that graphic novel. Although they haven’t added coffee, they do sell Japanese snacks at a bar-style counter top, and there are chairs to lounge in and read. Even the color scheme seems reminiscent of a Starbucks coffee shop, if it sold manga.
Despite that, the Johnsons have worked hard to make Comics and Classics’s stand out from competitors on the book side like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million as well as from area comics shops. They carry Juxtapoz, Hi Fructose and other magazines not typically found in chain superstores, as well as comics from Top Shelf, Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, which are less frequently stocked in comics shops. The store also does well with anthologies like Mome from Fantagraphics.
Still, says Kimberly, Marvel comics are the store’s top sellers, followed by DC and then independents like Dark Horse. Even with a woman’s touch, very few toys and statues and a brightly-lit, female-friendly atmosphere, she characterizes the store’s typical customer as a young man between the ages of 18 and 40. However, she continues to reach out to draw in new business. Her latest plan is to start a graphic novel reading group with help from a professor at the University of North Florida, who teaches a course on graphic novels. The first selection will be Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, illustrated by Dave Gibbons.
Although the Johnsons didn’t plan for anything like the current economic upheaval when they were putting together their 42-page business plan, sales are still going up every month, says Kimberly. In the meantime, Percy is holding on to his day job as a pharmaceutical representative.