03 May 2012

CHOICE?

So, this is interesting:

Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn, NY recently went public with their decision not to stock DC's Before Watchmen miniseries on their shelves, instead opting to order it only for those customers who request it.

The reaction has been nothing short of disgusting.

Before I get to that, though, let me point out that Bergen Street Comics is an awesome shop, and Tom and Amy Adams are two of the coolest, nicest retailers you're ever likely to meet. Oh, and even more importantly: They're both incredibly smart. They're not newcomers to this business by any stretch, and people don't sing the praises of them and their shop because they lucked into running a store. They're savvy businesspeople who know what they're doing, and I'm not indulging in idle hyperbole when I say Bergen Street Comics is one of the absolute best comic book stores in the entire country.

Exactly why Bergen Street Comics is so great is something you'd really have to experience firsthand, but one thing I think is probably easy for anyone to understand is that, like all the best places – be they comic book shops or record stores, restaurants or bars, bookstores or cafes – it's an extension of its owners, of Tom and Amy. Everything about the store, from the way it looks to who they hire to the kind of atmosphere they cultivate, is an expression of their sensibilities. When you visit Bergen Street Comics, for all intents and purposes, you are visiting them, just as whenever you drop by your own favorite shop, you're visiting its owners. Tom and Amy take tremendous pride in their store and they want their business to reflect who they are and what they believe in. 

Writ large, what they believe in is comics as a valuable entertainment medium, an art form, a means of communicating the myriad wonders of the imagination. If you love comics, that's something you can easily relate to. On another level, though, what they believe in is measured by their personal values, and I don't think I'm offering any terrific insight when I say their personal values may not be your own. But that's the truth, and since Bergen Street Comics is their store, its their right to run it according to the standards they've set for themselves. To do anything less would be dishonest. It would be wrong.

In regard to Bergen Street's decision not to make Before Watchmen widely available in their shop, though, a writer on one comics site asked: "Should shop owners serve their own sense of right and wrong (not that all retailers agree about what that looks like in this situation) or does that not matter compared to the mandate to serve the customer?" before commenting that he doesn't feel qualified to cast judgment either way.

Well, I do, because I've been to comic book stores, because I've been going to comic book shops most of my life now, and I can say with some authority that every shop owner I've ever encountered serves his or her own sense of right and wrong just about one hundred percent of the time. They have to: It's their shop. Their stores are not owned by some faceless corporation, they're owned by real people, and the decisions they make reflect upon them as human beings. Comic book stores, perhaps more than any other independently owned retail business, sink or swim on the idiosyncrasies of their owners. 

And guess what? Comic book store owners chose not to order things all the time, and while the reasons may vary wildly, they all boil down to the fact each owner serves his or her own sense of right and wrong in the manner that suits them best. Just a couple weeks ago, I wrote about a store that refused to order a copy of Jeff Smith's Bone for me back when that book was first starting out, a retailer who told me he only ordered that for pull lists, because he didn't think it would sell. I've been to stores that don't stock mature readers titles on their shelves. Some stores carry adult comics, some don't. Some don't carry anything other than Marvel and DC. I know a store in Burbank that for the longest time, was quite proud not to carry comics by a certain creator, merely because the owner has a personal distaste for him and his work.

If you've ever been to more than one comic book store, you know this, so I won't belabor the point, but even if you aren't particularly well-traveled when it comes to the Direct Market, I think it's pretty easy to understand that stores absolutely do put their own sensibilities, their own values, ahead of what the writer quoted above described as a "mandate" to serve their customers. You or I may not always agree with them, but you know what? We don't have to. If we don't like it, we can go somewhere else, and that applies to every store of every stripe, in every city on this planet. Even if there's not another store nearby, whether you're reading this on your computer, your phone or your iPad, you are capable right this minute of choosing to take your business elsewhere.

And that, ultimately, is why the reaction to Bergen Street Comics' decision not to stock Before Watchmen on their shelves is so abhorrent to me: It's their choice. Bergen Street's manager, Tucker Stone, noted it would likely lose the store money and quite possibly customers, but that the overall feeling was that Bergen Street didn't feel comfortable supporting the project. They chose not to be part of it.

Why? Well, if you're a regular at Bergen Street Comics and you really want to know, I'd wager you could ask, and regardless of whether you agree with the overall decision or not, you'd be answered with honesty and respect.

Instead, we're stuck dealing with people from the Internet, so we get to read that Tom Adams is crazy. We get to read – yet again! – that Alan Moore is crazy. We get to hear that Bergen Street is "leaving money on the table," and that this is why comic books stores are going out of business. And worst of all, distilled down to one point that is echoed loudly across all these irate, intolerant posts we get this: Standing up for what you believe in is bad business.

Or as Jarvis Cocker put it a few years back, in the brilliant "Cunts Are Still Running the World":

"Fuck the morals. Does it make any money?"

Fortunately, there are still men and women with backbones, willing to walk it like they talk it.

Like I said earlier, Tom and Amy Adams are wonderful, smart people, and they have a truly fantastic store. As it happens, they don't care to support Before Watchmen. They don't believe DC's decision to publish it meshes with their own personal values, and since Bergen Street is their store, they don't want something they don't support on their shelves. 

That's not crazy. 

That's their choice.