Sunday, May 5, 2013

Free to be...

So, Saturday was a spectacularly sunny day here in the Queen City of the Pacific Northwest, and even though I hadn't specifically planned for it, I decided to head on down to a Free Comic Book Day event. I'm lucky enough to live in a town where I have four or five comics shops within in a couple of miles; I decided to walk to one particular shop which shall remain nameless because I really don't want to call it out.

Now, you can read about how a well-run store might do FCBD other places, like from Mike Sterling at Progressive Ruin,  but I am afraid that's not the story I have to tell. I chose to head down to a nearby store run by a kind and well-intentioned fellow who just can't seem to crack the nut of a good retail operation; this FCBD was no exception.

Normally, each time I go into the store, the experience is pretty much the same: there is a motley group of "customers" sitting around the gaming table, which is situated smack in the middle of the main space, right as you enter. The Regulars are arguing whether Thor could beat Superman in a fight or if Obscure Anime One was more or less awesome than Obscure Anime Two or if Bruce Campbell could beat Joss Wheadon in a fight, and they give me, the stranger in town, the same sidelong glances employed by the extras in Western movie saloon scenes. Often there are foodstuffs present; Subway or pizza or phad see-ew take-away scents the air. Some folks might be reading comics. The owner is scurrying about stocking shelves, participating in the discussion as he moves around the shop. I look around for the particular graphic novel or trade paperback I came in for, but can't find it on the shelves crammed with new releases, DC and Marvel collections, and RPG manuals. I catch the proprietor's attention and ask about the item; he is friendly, sympathetic, and willing, but totally unable to meet my request in any way that satisfies my needs, and he apologizes sincerely and wishes me a good day.

The fellow always strikes me as someone who has read a book on good customer service and memorized some of the suggested lines, but really hasn't internalized it yet - or contextualized it in the operation of his store. If my experience is even within a standard deviation of the mean value of customer satisfaction, I honestly don't know how the store stays open. But maybe I am just a bad match, and not in his customer base.

This being FCBD, I guess that hope which springs eternal in the human breast led me to believe that the store might actually ramp up its performance above the typical; I am sorely disappointed.

First of all, there is no Free Comic Book Day signage - no banner, not poster, no xeroxed flyer taped the door, no hand-scrawled note on an old grocery bag, nothing. Inside, the Regulars are at their stations; on the menu today are gooey garlic cheese sticks and a piquant red sauce, which are being shared across the table. The Regulars are having a robust discussion on D&D vs Magic. The owner is scurrying around; no other staff is present. No one greets me.

So wait, is FCBD even observed in this store? Well, it must be - otherwise what are these piles of comics, semi-neatly sloppily stacked on the gaming table for? I really can't tell - there are no labels or signs, the regulars seems to be leaning on/eating over the comics, and there is a guy to my right going through a longbox, pulling out back issues, and making similar stacks, so it's a little confusing. I don't recognize any of the titles on the table, and none of them clearly says "Free Comic Book Day Edition," so I am unsure about taking any.

The proprietor is busy so I decide to just leave. I feel sad, though. Not because I didn't get any comics; I clearly could have tried a little harder if that was really the objective. It is more that something that could be so much fun - whether it's Free Comic Book Day or just a regular visit to my Friendly Neighborhood Comic Shop - is so disappointing. As a business model and as a cultural value, I guess I expect some inclusion, or at least to be made to feel welcome.

But the sun is still shining on the walk home, so there is that.

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