Karen: My very first "real" job was at my small town's comic shop. The phrase "shotgun shack" is an apt description; the space was about 8 feet wide and 25 feet long. With the long boxes stacked along either wall, the actual walking space from end to end was no more than 3 feet wide. It was cramped, with dim lighting and cracks in the walls. Yet, it was an honest to goodness real comic book shop, something I had never even imagined existed until Mr. Markgraf opened his store. (None of these pictures are of his shop -I simply added them for flavor.)
I was a regular customer from the age of 11 up. When I hit my teens, I struggled to find a job. I applied at all the usual places (the new mall was a popular site for teen job-seekers) but nothing came my way. Then, Mr. Markgraf asked me one day if I'd be interested in working in the shop part-time. As Mary Jane said to Peter Parker, "You just hit the jackpot!"
When I look back on it now I am amazed that my parents let me do it, as the days that I worked, I was the only person in the shop! But it really was a different world back then. Hiring me gave the owners a chance to have a few days off each week and even go on trips. I started out working two days a week but it moved up to three and sometimes four at a time. I'd also sometimes come in on Wednesdays and assist with putting the new comics out. Being alone in the shop usually wasn't scary though. Well, except for the time a guy I'd never seen before lurched through the door and asked me, "Are you alone in here?" That was a wee bit disturbing.
I knew I had a good thing going. I could read as many comics as I liked, for free. This was the early 80s and the independent market had come alive, so I was reading all sorts of stuff. It was here that I was first exposed to Elfquest and Nexus (back when Nexus was in a magazine format). Mr. Markgraf was a smart guy; he probably knew he'd get back a fair amount of what he paid me. At least I got a discount.
My friends enjoyed coming by, too. Most of them weren't comics fans but they were all geeks of one sort or another, and it had higher prestige with them than working at Hot Dog on a Stick. One of my friends did read comics and sometimes she and I would sit behind the register with a big stack of books to peruse.
Now don't think I didn't help the customers; I did. I offered suggestions, found back issues, and generally chatted them up. For the most part, it was fun meeting other fans. But there were always those customers that I dreaded seeing. There were the ones who you could smell as soon as they opened the door. In that confined space, especially in the summertime, and without an air conditioner, it was nearly lethal. There was the the shambling mess of man who had an ever-present crust of snot around his nose, who loved to share his knowledge. For hours. There was the uber nerd who would come in and start arguments with me over comics history. Even when I dug a book out to prove him wrong, he'd insist he was right.
Perhaps the worst though was the sheriff's deputy who was always trying to pick me up. Seriously, I was a teen-ager and this man must have been in late thirties. He'd come in, all puffed up in his uniform, with his pomaded hair and talk about some criminal he'd caught or some other exploit. A couple of times he pulled out his revolver to show me. He would ask if I was seeing anyone and I was smart enough to say yes. It didn't really deter him though.
But despite those things, it is a job I look back on fondly. When I go into comic shops now, I always scan them with my past in mind. I'm often awed at how much space some shops now have, or the great displays they put up. I always note the level of cleanliness, or lack thereof; whether the shop focuses on new product or has a strong back issue inventory; and of course, how they treat their customers. I've been in far too many stores where the employees never even acknowledge your presence. But that type of store seems to be disappearing. Most of the shops I have patronized in the last ten years make an effort to welcome their customers. There's been a lot of diversification, just to survive, and many shops are a combination of comic, game, and toy store. But one thing hasn't changed: the role of the shop as a place for comic geeks to get together and express their love -or hate! -for their hobby. I hear many of the same discussions now as I did then; oh sure, the names may change, but it's still pretty much the same. It's oddly reassuring.
With the decline of bookstores, I wonder if the comic shop is not far behind. Here in Phoenix, our biggest comic seller, Atomic Comics, went out of business suddenly last summer. All four stores closed. But thankfully a number of other stores appear to be going strong. I would really hate to see them disappear. Comic shops are like a safe haven, a clubhouse for comics fans where they can be themselves and find like-minded people. I suppose if they did disappear there would still be conventions, but it's not the same as having a place to go week after week in your own community. Long live the LCS!