True story: back in '82, one of the local hobby stores had this new game called Dungeons and Dragons. It was a huge hit for my brother and his friends. By the time I was old enough to actually buy my own stuff, the store that originally stocked it refused to carry it anymore—this decision was prompted by a group of concerned parents. Religious types, mostly. This tale, I think, illustrates exactly the kind of town I grew up in.
Regardless, I cobbled my gaming stash together through trips to bookstores and hobby shops. Comics were just as hard to come by, and they were mostly below my radar until The Dark Knight Returns sparked a fire under me. Hell, I remember having to special-order Richard and Wendy Pini's Elfquest.
Imagine my surprise when I went off to college and found an actual, real-life, unashamed comic and game shop. Sure I was broke and should have been studying, but, but I had come home!
I've been buying comics and gaming fixes there for 15 years, and it's time to sit down and ask some questions of the man who runs the show, Bart Bush, General Manager of Atomik Pop.
Dotar Sojat: When and how did you get involved in the comics business?
Bart Bush: First, thanks to Dotar Sojat, who thought I would make an interesting subject to interview. I've been a staple on Main Street in Norman, an Oklahoma college town, for some 35 years now, and have damn near outlasted everyone!
The short answer to this question would be that I was a serious comic book collector when I came to Norman in 1971 and knowing how difficult it was to find the new comics each week, I decided to open the state's first all-comic book store! A longer, more detailed story can be read in my interview that comes up later this fall in Alter Ego magazine, where Comic Fan Historian Bill Schelly and I sit down for a visit.
DS: An extension of that question: at what point did you decide that this was what you wanted to do for living?
BB: I graduated from OU in 1973 with degrees in both psychology and journalism. I wasn't sure what I really wanted to do in grad school, so I took some time off. In 1974 my friend Don Maris and I opened Down Memory Lane on Main Street in Norman, in a building with no heat or air, just lights and a bathroom, but for $150 a month it was a great deal. There was business from our first day open, and before we knew it, the store was doing pretty well. People were crazy for back issues and new comics (they were only 25 cents then) so there were a lot of collectors that were thrilled that they could go to one location and get their comics. Previously you had to hit the convenience stores or grocery stores and hope they had what you were looking for.
I had planned on going back to school but as the months rolled by and the store grew, it just faded away from being an option. Being my own boss and running the store was perfect for me anyway. I love the comic art form, I love visiting with fans and collectors, and I love the weekly releases of new product related to the comics industry. I've never looked back, and while I'm sure I could have made more money doing something else, I doubt I would have been as happy. For all the headaches a business brings to its owner, it also supplies a great deal of personal satisfaction of running an alternative literature store at the level that we do.
DS: Just what kind of training/knowledge do you have to have to do your job? I imagine that you have to have a broad base: accounting, inventory, the art of the display. What's on the list?
BB: Every aspect of business is applied in this store. Daily bookkeeping, making weekly orders, special ordering, helping customers, buying old comics, cleaning and much more. It takes 8 hours to get it all done.
DS: And on top of all that, you have to have your fingers on the pulse of popular comics culture. How hard is that?
BB: Very important and very difficult at times. Usually the customers are my first sign when something gets popular. They will come in looking and asking questions and telling me about whatever it is. Next I have to find the product (comics, books, anime) that interests them. Not everything takes off even when you get good fan reaction. Some things are hits for three months and dead after that. I pull my hair out constantly.
DS: I would imagine that you get a lot of customers who want to work for you. Is that the case? Does the garden-variety fan make a decent employee?
BB: Fans have been a great source of employees. It isn't required, but having a fan/collector mentality helps when dealing with customers who are fans/collectors themselves. It's very difficult for an off-the-street applicant to understand the medium at the level it requires to deal with the product and the like. And if you haven't been brought up with reading, collecting, etc., then it can be hard to relate or learn at the necessary speed to keep up.
DS: What's surprised you most about the business?
BB: How quickly it changes and the product we have to buy to keep up with trends and demands.
DS: That brings up another question. The Internet. Do you find that, with the ability to order comics directly, that you are losing customers?
BB: Yes. For all the good the Internet does, it does pull customers away. Product can be cheaper and that seems to be what matters most to some. We try to be competitive with our pricing, but it's a battle. A lot of people enjoy the personal interaction with our staff or other customers, and the ability to see what you are getting before you buy is very important to many, and you can only do that IN a store. I appreciate every customer! We have to buy everything non-returnable from the comic distributors, and therefore we have to eat everything that doesn't sell. It's very difficult to order in proper levels so you aren't too heavy on unsaleable items.
DS: What do you like most about your job?
BB: Being my own boss and getting to know many of my customers as friends.
DS: And what do you like least?
BB: Paying taxes.
DS: The common enemy of the business owner! Trends come and go; in the early 90s your store had a wide selection of sf/f books, which was gradually edged out by role-playing games, which in turn seem to be pushed out by anime. How do you know when it's time to pasture a trend, and which new one to bet on?
BB: If I knew that answer I'd have psychic powers. Really, though, we watch our sales and amount of floor space we devote to an area and pay attention to whether demand is rising, staying the same or falling.
DS: What would it take to get Analog/Asimov's/MoSFF/RoF on your shelves again?
BB: Well, our distributor dropped carrying all the SF magazines with the exception of Locus, which we carry. We just don't have any way to carry those magazines or others which we used to sell.
DS: Your store doesn't exist in a vacuum; there are two other comics store in this town. How do you compete? Are there unspoken terms? You do the superhero comics, one does games, and one specializes in hoarding older works—something like that?
BB: We opened in this city first, and the other stores followed. We carry what we think will sell based on our location, regular customers and our expertise. The other stores do more gaming because we don't have the floor space to devote to it and I'm sure they benefit from it. But our sales in anime, manga, new comics, graphic novels and the like are our strong suits.
DS: What is hot right now, comic-wise? If I read one comic this year, what should it be?
BB: There never seems to be any ONE hot comic anymore. Usually there are more comics that have a strong following due to the writers and artists involved. What is hot is Joss Whedon's X-men, and his Serenity comic. New Avengers and Young Avengers are quite popular, as well as Justice from Alex Ross. The Goon and Hellboy have big followings.
DS: What's next on the horizon, what's the next trend?
BB: I'm looking hard for that one. Nothing right now seems to pop out as the next big thing. We've seen Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Death of Superman, Ultimate Marvels, and much more that was BIG, but right now ... just don't see anything being a really big hit. I can't wait till it shows up, and I bet something will be surprising us all soon.
DS: Tell me, is there a comic line that folded that just broke your heart? That you just couldn't believe that it went the way of the dinosaur?
BB: Yes, the 1980's were particularly hard. I miss Eclipse Comics, First Comics and Harvey Comics.
It's really a shame Casper, Richie Rich and Little Dot are absent from the marketplace. Richie Rich used to appear in 32 titles... that's right, more than any super whoever! Now he's gone and has been for years.
DS: Hang on. Since Batman Returns came out, I've been hearing comic fans arguing that the USA is one of the only countries that still thinks comics are for kids—yet you just listed off three kids' comics as being the ones that you miss the most. What's up? Are US comics, from a business angle, for kids? Is that what the market is built around?
BB: No, that's the problem. The market isn't built around kids! I miss the Harvey characters—besides being clever and fun kid stories, we need that kind of early exposure for kids. The market is very mature in terms of adult content comics, and I don't mean just sex and violence. The mature life themes and approaches these days are way beyond a 10-year-old kid's understanding. While there are kid entry-level Batman and Spiderman comics, most of the DC/Marvel line is 13 and up, and really more like 16 and up.
Sure we have Archie and Disney comics, but for mainstream young readers, besides manga (the Japanese comics) we don't have enough. So the market for the comic shops is collectors, and more adult storylines and characters. I want more all-ages comics. And I think Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman should be for all ages, which they aren't.
We've gotten away from the hero concept, made many of them antiheroes, raised the violence levels and such, and 'darkened' up the characters to appeal to a new market that entered into comics a decade or so ago. But the winds they are a-changin'...the tide will turn back, I feel, and comics be enjoyed by more people than ever in its next evolution. Don't ask me when, but the cycle will change directions once again!
DS: The other side of that coin—any lines that you just shake your head and wonder how something that bad could not only survive but thrive?
BB: Everyone laughs and says anything by Rob Liefield, but people's tastes are what they are. In the comics explosion of the 1980s, many very poorly drawn and conceived comics were produced. One of my pet projects is to do an article on some of those ill-advised efforts!
DS: Any titles that are just too creepy and weird for you to handle?
BB: Being across the street from the high school we don't carry any adult items beyond Crumb and the 60's undergrounds. There are plenty of 'strong' titles available, but we can't have 'em!
DS: Speaking of which, what about public/political pressure? You're right across the street from the high school, I'm sure that there have been concerned parents—perhaps one of the most terrifying things in this life. Any run-ins?
BB: No, we monitor what we carry and monitor who buys what. Years ago I had some problems with grandparents who thought Robert Crumb in particular was offensive and complained about that. Nothing obscene, mind you, but just perhaps too raunchy for them. Anything somewhat subversive or adult otherwise is placed on our top shelves to be away from easy access by minors.
DS: Speaking of the high school, what are the rough numbers—what percentage of customers are high school vs. college, vs. post-college?
BB: Most of our customers are college age or older. The high school students buy what they can, but are pretty limited on money available to them. Once they get cars, I may not see them again!
DS: How about the ladies? Are there female-centered comics out there that surprise you? Female writers/artists?
BB: We have a Women's Comics section in the store. And many sell real well. The Female Manga writers are particularly popular, and creepy monster-like comics like Lenore are steady sellers.
DS: I love Lenore. It has my favorite walk-on character of all time, 'The Mighty Possum King', that was so bizarre—
BB: Wait. I just remembered that Lenore is written by a guy: Roman Dirge. I was thinking of Gloom Cookie. I love Lenore but was thinking more of characters rather than creators. Hopefully that wasn't too confusing.
DS: I'm just glad one of us caught it.
Okay, next question. I'm sure that you, like all professionals, have occasional issues with your clients. Do you ever just want to shake 'em and tell 'em to get a life?
BB: For some of them it is their life. That's a big fact, but they seem to be quite happy dealing with their hobby and being so involved with it. I think it can be a good thing. It gives them something to do that is fun and sometimes profitable. And collecting is fun! I've enjoyed collecting for some 40 years. It's fun to get new things for your collection. Better than stamps and coins... you can read them!
DS: Do your products warp the young? You've been in this long enough that I'm sure you've had customers who started as adolescents and have stuck with you through the years into adulthood. Any trends?
BB: The long-time customers are remarkably smart people, I've noticed. Reading so much does educate a person in many ways. I think long-time collectors are really well-adjusted, hard-working, caring people. Not that others aren't, but I do believe the Zen of reading and collecting or whatever you want to call it actually exists! Many of these collectors want to share their knowledge and experience with others. The overall knowledge of US and foreign history by comic collectors would amaze you! I'm not sure what it means, but a study should be done.
DS: Speaking of which, I've noticed that there is a generation of adults who have continued their gaming/comic habits well into adulthood; I see them in here with their kids. What's your take on that?
BB: Parents are introducing their kids to the joys of their hobby. I love that! Nothing makes me happier than to see the parent interacting with his kid. Great bonding is happening! Keep your child reading. Comic books are a great way to get them started. You'll thank me later.