Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Interview with a Retailer: Austin Books and Comics

At last, an original interview! As fun as recommending comics and linking to articles is, there's something a little exciting about asking the questions yourself.

This (first?) interview is with Brandon of Austin Books and Comics, a (as may have guessed) comic shop in (as you may have guessed) Austin, Texas. Let's get to it!

HWC: First off, let's get to know the store a bit. What's your selection of comics like? How is everything organized?
ABC: We try to have as comprehensive a selection of comics as possible. Obviously there's the superhero mainstream comics, Dark Horse, Image, and the popular Vertigo line. But we also look to more indie comics publishers like Top Shelf, Oni Press, Slave Labor Graphics . . . and even smaller companies. It's our goal to have comics that will appeal to anyone who walks in the door.

We organize by genre. You'll find Humor titles in their own section, as well as Sci-Fi, Horror, Fantasy, True Life Fiction, Classic Comics, and of course Superhero. There's quite a few shelves that hold thousands of graphic novels and collections, alphabetized by title. Our Indie Comics alcove and Art Book sections are alphabetized by creator's name.

HWC: On an average day, about how many people come through the store?
ABC: That's hard to say, because every day has its own style of shopper. Wednesday is New Comics Day, so we usually get a couple hundred regulars in. Thursday and Friday aren't as busy, but there are steady waves of customers.

Saturday feels like the busiest, because it's a popular day for out-of-town visitors and families looking for a fun shopping experience. They usually need more help and suggestions, because they're not as familiar with the store layout as our Wednesday diehards.

Sunday through Tuesday are a little more relaxed, but there's always a group of folks browsing through the store. It's pretty interesting seeing people form their comic-buying routines.

HWC: How many of these people are walk-in customers, as opposed to weekly regulars?
ABC: The majority of our customers are our regulars, and we appreciate them all for supporting us. We try to learn everyone's names and comic preferences as soon as possible, because we love to strike up conversations with our customers. We learn a lot about what people are looking forward to reading the most.

There's always walk-in customers but Saturday is the highest concentration of them. We're careful to make sure all their questions are answered, because you never know when today's walk-in will become tomorrow's weekly comic fan.

HWC: About what proportion of your walk-in customers are women?
ABC: A surprising number, actually. The percentage is probably around 40%. Some of them are in to buy gifts for others, but we do our best to find something they might enjoy, too. In fact, we a have a gal who calls herself Danni Danger that has made it her goal to get all girlfriends who are tagging along with their boyfriends into comics, too.

HWC: You're located near some businesses that tend to attract women, including a salon. Do you get a lot of customers who discover you after visiting one of those businesses?
ABC: It actually seems like it's the other way around. We've had the ladies that work in the salon come over bewildered that we're always so busy - and I've seen more of our customers in there than the opposite. It would be nice to get more of those salon patrons in the store, because then we could show them some great reads. But half the battle is getting folks to realize comics are for everyone.

HWC: What sort of books do walk-in customers end up buying? Are there any titles women come looking for in particular?
ABC: Vertigo titles are big hit with all walk-ins, women and men. Really, they're perfect for people that are interested in comics, but want something different from the mainstream. In many walk-in cases, they've borrowed a volume or two of Y: the Last Man, or Fables, and they want to keep reading the series. Those are also great books for us to suggest, because they're captivating - practically addisting - stories. They really show off the medium.

Manga has been an important part of bringing in female customers, as well. Though they make manga targeted to all reader groups, the majority of buyers are female.

HWC: Comic shops in some cities have held Ladies Night events. Does your store hold events like that?
ABC: We don't right now, but we're always looking to create fun new events. And we're always interested in hearing what our customers would like from us. So how about it, readers? Would you come to a Ladies Night? Would you want it to be a book club, or a mixer? If you let us know that you're interested, we could certainly try it out.

HWC: Do you do a lot of advertising? How much of it is aimed at current comics non-readers?
ABC: It feels like advertsing is changing. We don't do many print ads, but we are very active in promoting events, comics, and ourselves through social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. It seems to be working pretty well, too. More and more people cite those sites as being the way they found out about our parties.

As far as targeting comics non-readers, I think a small percentage of people who "like" us on Facebook are in that category. Maybe they liked us because their friends did? Maybe to support local? I can only guess, but I'd love for them to come in and try some comics.

HWC: In a comics non-reader survey, some women used words like "overwhleming" and "crowded" to describe their experience in comic stores. Do you thinkt he atmosphere in your store is appealing to new customers?
ABC: One of our main goals is to make our store friendly to EVERYONE. That means keeping it clean, organized, and well-lit. It also means having a friendly, knowledgeable staff that are helpful. Because those are reasons that are always cited in positive reviews and awards, I feel like we're successful in creating that environment. But there's always new ways to be better.

And I won't deny that the word "overwhelming" gets used to describe us. Mostly, it's used to describe our cray amount and variety of comics, so I don't mind that so much. But I am mindful of it, so we make sure that every customer can find what they're looking for.

HWC: If you had a million-dollar budget (suppose the next Marvel event is EXTREMERLY popular,) how would you use it to improve your store?
ABC: Life-size Galactus statue, of course. Okay, maybe not. But that would be awesome, wouldn't it? [Ed. note: For those not familiar, Galactus is a Marvel comics supervillian known for eating entire planets. A life-size statue of him would, indeed, be awesome.]

That's a tough question, considering we're just finishing up a couple years of dramatic renovation. We'd fix anything that still needs to be improved first. I'd like to invest some of it into getting a few more of the really classic comics, like a copy of Batman's first appearance in Detective Comics #27. What fan wouldn't want to come to the store just to see that?

I think what everyone would want us to do would be a second floor. That would be fun, too.

And there you have it, folks! Things we have learned today: Saturdays are busy, comic fans love going to salons, and some people will "like" just about anything on Facebook. Thanks again to Brandon for being part of this interview. If you're ever in Austin, swing by Austin Books and Comics - and tell 'em Hey, Women! Comics! sent ya!

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