Good customer demographics help.
Good business practices help. But successful bookselling, it can be argued, is
ultimately about passion and how that passion gets transferred from booksellers
to customers. This is especially true in the graphic novel section where,
particularly among younger booksellers, passions can run high. With support and
communication from owners and managers, the graphic novel section in some
stores is becoming a profit center as a result of these booksellers' love of
Skylight Books, located in the
vibrant neighborhood of Los Feliz in Los Angeles, Calif., is a case in point.
The store has had a graphic novel section throughout its 14-year history. Head buyer Charles Hauther is an alumnus of Chatterton's, which "had a
long tradition of selling 'underground' comics and graphic novels long before
the term graphic novels was invented," he said. Hauther brought that
appreciation of indie comics to Skylight, and the section did well: for a
long time, it ranked sixth among the store's categories.
Around two years ago, Daniel
Kusunoki and Darren Clavadetscher joined the Skylight staff. Both had worked at
comics-heavy bookstores and comics stores, and they brought their expertise
and passions with them. "Darren is the master of the Marvel and DC
Universes, and Dan is the single most knowledgeable person I've ever met when
it comes to manga," said Hauther. The two new staffers convinced their
bosses to expand the graphic novels section from two shelves to two full cases
and to move it to a more prominent position in the store. They collaborated
with Hauther on title choice, handselling and merchandising. Now graphic novels
are the #2 category in the store, second only to fiction.
Kusunoki, who began reading manga in
Japanese around age three, describes the working relationship with the store's
buyer as "a constant dialogue," which he emphasizes is vital for
keeping the graphic novels section fresh and interesting. "Darren does the
research on websites like Aintitcool
and Newsarama, looking at what the
new thing is and going to comics stores; I look at what the next manga thing
will be," said Kusunoki. They bring their knowledge to discussions over
catalogues with Hauther. "The store has to be behind those who deal with
graphic novels; if it's just one person passionate about it and no one else is,
it doesn't work," he insisted.
In many ways, the graphic novel section at
Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville, N.C., has had a similar trajectory. When
graphic novel buyer Gina Marie Cole began working at Malaprop's more than five
years ago, the graphic novel section consisted of "about 10-15
titles"--and some of those titles were unusual art books, not comics per
se. "I decided that the section needed a curator, and since I was the only
bookseller that read graphic novels frequently, I nominated myself," she
Under Cole's curation, the graphic
novel section has grown to three cases, with 300-400 titles, including classic
and indie comics, manga, series and how-to. And the section's sales are up
50% from two years ago. "I've had nothing but support from my co-workers,
the store owner and managers, and our customers," said Cole, though she
admits that purchasing comics is not a given even in Asheville's hip
atmosphere. "Readers are very open to trying new things, but rarely do
they peruse the graphic novel section at our store without the help of a
bookseller. I think that our graphic novel section is doing really well right
now because I hand-select every single title we carry. This hands-on approach
takes a lot of the guesswork out for our customers."
It can be a challenge, especially in
an established store, to get everyone on the same page with regard to graphic
novels. At 40-year-old Logos Books and Records in Santa Cruz, Calif., new book
buyer Janina Larenas returned from a trip fired up with a new passion for comics.
She made a plea to move the graphic novel section
from its previous home downstairs with genre fiction to upstairs near the
literature section, arguing that "the stigma previously associated with
comics had long since passed, and that we needed to move it to a place in the
store that was accessible to everyone."
As Larenas recounted,
"There was definitely resistance from some of our senior staff at first.
It can be difficult to notice a trend change when you have been immersed in
bookselling for so long. But the resistance was short lived, and the owners and
managers have an incredible amount of faith in my ability as a buyer. All of
the staff is on board and happy to see it doing so well at this point."
The store is gradually adding more titles, both new and used, with the
expertise of Larenas and her comics-loving co-workers (including Ray Gabriel,
who blogs about comics for a local newspaper) as a guide.
Gerry Donaghy, new book purchasing
supervisor for Powell's City of Books, Portland, Ore., credited an impassioned
publisher as well as his comics-reading staff for helping to turn the graphic
novel section around at the enormous bookstore. While he has "a 30-plus-years-long habit" of reading comics, he admits that "until recently,
the graphic novel section was a subsection of humor. Also, because of concerns
of customers reading them in lieu of purchasing them or just plain manhandling
them, graphic novels were kept in sealed bags"--not very conducive to
browsing. A few years ago a sales rep from Viz Media, which publishes English
translations of Japanese manga, persuaded Donaghy to create a manga display and
gave him an incentive: he would replace any damaged copies if he would display
them unbagged. "We didn't have to take him up on his offer," Donaghy
said, "and shortly thereafter we stopped bagging them."
The store's graphic novel section has
increased in both the shelf space and in sales in recent years. Like Hauther,
Donaghy relies on conversations with his staff to keep the section fresh.
"The staff in the Gold Room, which is where our genre fiction and graphic
novels are kept, is pretty keen on graphic novels. They make the bulk of the
decisions of what to face out, what to feature, and handselling. I also rely on
them to fill in gaps in my knowledge," he said. Fortunately, the staff
members "aren't shy about making suggestions for titles that fall outside
of the mainstream."
As Skylight, Malaprop's, Logos and
Powell's can attest, booksellers' knowledge and passion about graphic novels,
with the support of management and staff, has the potential to grow into a
major sales boost for a general bookstore. And it takes only one or two
impassioned graphic novel readers to get it started--passion spreads among
booksellers as well as from bookseller to customer. Donaghy observed,
"It's great to see co-workers who have never previously discussed graphic
novels or comics carrying around copies of Y: The Last Man or Scott
Pilgrim or DMZ." As Kusunoki pointed out, "It's
infectious, this graphic novel thing."--Jessica Stockton Bagnulo