Before comics took over the universe, Rory Root, founder and owner of the legendary Berkeley, Calif., bookstore Comic Relief, played visionary superhero to the comic book market. What set Root apart from owners of virtually any other comic book store was his early decision to join the ABA and run his operation using a bookstore business model rather than as a comic store. He also embraced the book format of graphic novels long before general bookstores created tiny sections and mainstream reviewers took notice.
After 18 years in 1,270 square feet of retail space, Comic Relief recently moved one block away, to a new 5,700-square-foot location in the heart of the Berkeley cultural district. With more than quadruple the space, Root can now create more displays, add fixtures and expand his inventory of small publishers and budding artists.
"Moving a bookstore is always fraught with peril," said Root. "You're usually betting the store when you commit to changing your location." While he admitted the store had outgrown its space years ago, Root's decision to move was forced upon him when UC Berkeley purchased the city block containing Root's store.
One of Root's chief apprehensions about moving was that his original location was such prime real estate. "Our real estate agent told us we were a destination store and we shouldn't worry about where we moved," Root said. "But I think that's wrong. Even a destination store has to be a convenient destination."
Although it took a push to make the move, Root has no regrets. The relocation puts the bookstore "half a block away from a BART station, on a primary shopping street and one block away from UC Berkeley, which has 50,000 professors and students," Root said. While the rent has doubled, so have the profits. "On an average day, we make close to $3,000," he said. Foot traffic in the store is now 10 times what it used to be.
The store carries more than 14,000 graphic novels, an increase of 4,000 titles since the move. And while most comic book stores stock roughly 300 monthly comics publications, Comic Relief offers 500 to 800. "There aren't too many retailers who support the frontlist and backlist as strongly as Rory does," noted Peggy Burns, director of marketing and publicity at Drawn & Quarterly Publications.
Having an enormous inventory that dwarfs most comic book stores is less important to Root than having an enthusiastic staff to handsell it. (He calls his 15 employees, many of whom are Harvard graduates and MIT students, "probably the most overeducated comics staff in the country.") "I would never claim we were the bellwether for the business, but we're a taste-maker store," Root said. "Many artists were brought to a larger audience through mini-comics bought at Comic Relief. They may have made it anyway, but we made it easier through our advocacy and handselling."
"Rory's approach as a bookseller in the world of comics has been a very prescient one as the comic book industry has moved so much more toward books with spines as the primary format for comics, rather than the old-fashioned pamphlets of our youth," said Eric Reynolds, director of marketing and publicity at Fantagraphics Books.
When Root started the store in 1987, it "stocked comics in magazine format and back issues thereof," Root said. "The first year, we started looking at the book format. I thought it would be the largest growth because I personally enjoy books, and I couldn't understand why the classics were available only in periodical format, which can get very expensive." Root's belief in bound books led him to follow the business model of bookstores (buying returnable, working with many wholesalers) rather than the model most comic stores still follow, which is to buy nonreturnable merchandise.
Besides recognizing early on that books rather than traditional magazines were the future of comics, Root also identified a wider audience. The typical comic reader was assumed to be 10- to 14-year-old boys. "Yet," Root noted, "according to all statistical data, comics sell mostly to 30-year-olds." His customer mix includes "prize-winning cartoonists, UCal professors and 12-year-old girls."
Larry Young, publisher of AiT/Planet Lar and author, called Root "a veritable Yoda of advice and information. Rory's biggest contribution, if you ask me, is his uncanny ability to turn 'civilians' on to the comic book form and on to graphic novels."
Root was aggressive in working with local YA librarians to build their library collections. "Libraries thought that if they offered superhero comics, they could bring in boys," he said. "When the librarians came to our shop, they saw it was appealing not only to boys and adults, but to girls."
The store's lively events calendar includes the Comix Salon, a quarterly gathering of local small-press cartoonists and comic creators.
"His store is part of the cultural fabric of his community, more than just about any comic book store I can think of," Reynolds said. "He's a model for what a good graphic novel bookseller should be. I wish he'd open a store in my town."