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Devourer of Words 019: Judge and Jury

I have been going to comic book stores for about as long as I can remember. Good ones, bad ones, ones that smelled of Cheetos and sweat and others that were wall-to-wall with long boxes and pewter figurines.

I had never really given much thought as to what made a great comic book store since I usually just shopped at the store nearest me and sucked it up. A good comic book store had good comics. Everything else was gravy.

But this year, I was asked to be a member of the judging panel for the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, which is given out during the Eisner Awards ceremony at the San Diego Comic-Con. (Joining me on said panel were [pictured below, left to right] Ross Richie, founder and CEO, BOOM! Studios; Jeromy Cox, color artist; Jason Blanchard, PR manager at Diamond Comics; Patrick Brower, co-owner of last year’s Retailer Award recipient, Challengers Comics & Conversations; and [kneeling] Alex Sinclair, color artist, and myself)

Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award 2014 Judges

I had to think, hard, on what I thought made a great comic book store something,  as I said, I’d never thought of before.

The conclusion we all came to was that, ultimately, we wanted to reward the kind of store we could send a comics virgin to and they’d want to go back. It needed to be welcoming and well stocked. It needed to be bright and thoughtfully designed. It needed to have shelf-space as well as depth and variety of material.

And it needed to be run by people who loved comics as art and treated their customers as partners.

Now, the only way for the six of us to gauge these things was via five-minute videos, stacks of pictures, and an assembly of facts and figures. And you haven’t lived until you’ve watched 37 different people walk you through their comic book shops; until you’ve seen 37 different cash-wrap areas, shelving solutions, event/gaming rooms and storefronts that attempted to conjure the feeling of “geek” while not being alienating to “muggles.”

I can’t say the experience was fun, but it was incredibly informative. I can’t speak to the other judges and what they took away from the day spent in a lost meeting room in the Convention Center, but for me, it was about making the two halves of my nerd whole reconcile.

I am enough of a nostalgia fan that I was looking for a store that was the Platonic Ideal of the stores I loved as a kid. A little dark, a little mysterious, a little cramped—like you’d be as likely to find a back issue of Mage as you would a genie’s lamp. And yet I was also looking for what Ross Richie termed a “future facing” store. One that left behind the cliché of the “no girls allowed” fortress of broitude that so many stores were—the kind of retailer that actively resisted new customers (and, more importantly, female customers) in favor of keeping it old school.

I knew in my heart of hearts that it was possible to synthesize those two seemingly polar opposites into one store. But I was wrong. We found two stores that did it: All Star Comics in Melbourne, Australia and Legend Comics & Coffee in Omaha, Nebraska.

I’ve never been to either, but from what we could glean, they’d be great places to spend an afternoon, being a nerd.

Of the stores that missed the cut, some did because they just weren’t there yet—with a couple of small tweaks (good signage became the watchphrase of the panel) they could take it in a year or two. Others because they tried too hard to be all things to all people (we were looking to reward a comics retailer, not a “bunch of other stuff and, oh yeah, comics” shop). And others still because a good effort is just not enough.)

Still, the passion on display was humbling. Few of us invest quite as much in our love for comics as people who invest everything.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!