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Comic Shops and Safe Spaces: Why Retailers Are The Real Gatekeepers

Noelle Stevenson comics retail webcomic

Noelle Stevenson’s recent comic about her decision to stop shopping at brick and mortar comic stores has garnered many different reactions from fans. Exasperation that these negative experiences still happen, empathy from those with limited retail choices, and of course those eager to point out that their girlfriend / sister / wives had never been treated that way in their shop. As Heidi MacDonald points out in her reaction piece, those of us lucky enough to live in cities with multiple store options might find it hard to imagine being marginalized as a customer in this day and age. Even in cities and towns with more than one comic shop, finding a “safe space” store, one where the employees do not actively insult, ignore, or belittle their customers, can still be a challenge in 2014.

Let’s take a moment to unpack that term, safe space. It means something very different to those that have never felt uncomfortable in their comic shop. For them, comic book stores represent a space apart from the greater world. This was where they found their tribe. A refuge from the world that looked down on their Spider-Man tee, a beacon in the storm that was high school. The world today is much more accepting of nerd interests than it was 20 years ago, which makes a comic shop less of a refuge and more of a destination shop. Culturally the act of reading comics is no longer exclusively in the realm of the outsider. Clearly many fans and retailers resent the increasingly mainstream status of our beloved hobby, which can lead to a sense of intrusion when someone says comic shops make them feel unwanted. Shop online, they say. Simply go somewhere else; this place is my home away from home, and I cannot stand to see it changed. The once bullied are now the ones actively excluding those that share their interests, and for what, the right to avoid shopping in the presence of women?

The real problem here is that a safe space for women, and any group perceived as “other” in the comics community, means something very different than a refuge. It is the lowest of expectations for a retail setting: that one be treated respectfully as a potential customer. To not be utterly ignored in a store and to not have employees make disparaging comments. Again, the bar could not be lower for social interaction here. Making comments about one’s appearance, their taste in comics in relation to their gender or sexual preference, and talking about someone as if they are not in the room but are standing 3 feet from your face are just a few examples of ways in which customers can feel belittled in a comic retail setting. Being ignored altogether while other customers are engaged is the more passive form of exclusion, but equally damaging when it comes to retaining patrons. Would your retail experience truly be diminished if the employees stopped asking women if they are picking up comics for their significant others? Does your “safe space” include an invisible bouncer, checking credentials for every person that enters the store and gives them the side-eye when they say, “This is my first time in a comic shop”?

Kevin Smith's Mallrats, 1995. jeremy London & Jason Lee

Breaking up the text with Smith’s comic-lovers side-eyeing (Mallrats, 1995)

I’m glad that Stevenson resisted the urge to name and shame the store she has decided to stop frequenting. She may have done this to avoid the inevitable he said / she said reaction, but a larger benefit is that the conversation has revolved around ‘that kind of shop’ instead of one where the situation is treated as an anomaly. Hater Free Wednesdays, a popular tumblr where patrons can send in short Yelp-like reviews of stores to draw attention to the good and bad comic retailers has been frequently mentioned in pieces about Stevenson’s comic, and I doubt that would have been the case if Stevenson had specified the store. After an employee of Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash retweeted the Comics Beat’s piece, which briefly uses that store as an example of a negative review on Hater Free Wednesdays, the comment section quickly devolved into defense of the retailer with many erroneously thinking Stevenson had made the comic about said store. “Store X” is not what the comic was about, but a greater problem within the comics retail world. It is not uncommon to see calls for more women to create comics and be represented in comics, but we also need more women selling comics.

Think about what a new comic book reader sees when they step into a store owned and staffed entirely by men. It most certainly does not reflect the comics community at large in any capacity. Comixology’s recent survey of their readership reveals that women account for 20% of their users. Conventions are seeing larger attendance numbers for women each year. Yet in the realm of comics retail, it is not unusual to have one or two men behind the counter, and it is almost expected that you will be treated poorly. Stores like the one Noelle Stevenson formerly patronized are the remnants of a persistent stereotype that is frequently proven wrong: that comics are for men. Having a woman behind the register or (gasp) owning a store is the quickest way to dispel the comic book guy myth. Having a woman answer the phone and tell someone their box of comics from the 90’s are almost certainly worthless goes a long way. Whether a store has women on staff or not, it is entirely their responsibility to train their employees to treat their customers with respect and quickly get rid of the employees that singlehandedly keep alive those negative stereotypes. If you ask a girl buying comics if she reads said comics, no matter how kindly you do so, you are part of the problem.

The geek community at large has a well documented history of gatekeeper attitudes; trolls don’t feel any immediate loss when they intimidate women out of engaging in the online community. In order to expand and maintain a healthy market, comics retail simply cannot afford to lose any customers. I cannot tell you how many times my interest and knowledge of comics was questioned during my time as a comic shop employee, but it was worth it just to know that I made female readership more visible by being there. I still organize the monthly Ladies’ Night at Graham Crackers Comics in Chicago, an event that has brought several women into a comic shop for the first time. Visibility matters; if we want to truly put to death the gatekeeper mentality we need to hold the failing retailers to a higher standard. Start by sending Noelle Stevenson’s comic their way.

  1. Brenda_N

    February 28, 2014 at 7:06 am

    During our women’s comics group meeting a few months back we talked about the local stores in our area. We are lucky that we have several options from our group base which is very active in the community to one store that doesn’t actively engage anyone, male or female, to the store that keep “forgetting” to add her selections to the family folder.

    We also talked about how the type of comics a store carries also makes us feel welcome or not. For example, we as a group read a ton of non-super hero comics, so stores that primarily or only carry them, didn’t seem a good fit for us.

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