To hear just about anybody in the book business tell it, you'd have to be nuts to open a bookstore in this recession. But two weeks ago, Ballard's Arcane Comics opened a second store in West Seattle. The new branch, located at 3219 California Avenue, a few blocks south of the Junction, is light and airy—a pleasant change for a comic-book store, which are traditionally cramped and free of natural light. It's a big storefront, too, although the second half of the space and the basement, which will be reserved for role-playing games, are still under construction. Employee Scott Taylor says early business in the new store was slow, but has increased every day it's been open.
Scott Stafford, co-owner of both Arcane locations, has been planning the new store for about a year and a half. He's not overly worried about current economic problems: "We continue to grow at a small but steady clip," he says over the phone. "The nice thing about this business in general is it's recession-proof. People are always looking for new ways of affordable escapism." Stafford admits that some of his customers, facing unemployment and foreclosures, have to temporarily stop buying comics, but says, "Every time we lose a customer because of the economy, we seem to gain another two to replace them."
Arcane Comics, and virtually every other comic-book shop in Seattle, is gearing up for Free Comic Book Day on Saturday, May 2. FCBD is exactly what it sounds like: Comics publishers provide promotional comics to retailers at cost ("Fifteen or twenty cents a copy," says Stafford), and those comics are given away free to anyone who visits their shop—no purchase necessary. Stafford says FCBD is a "great idea," but he wishes the publishers would do more to promote the event. It'd be nice, he says, if Time Warner, the conglomerate that owns DC Comics, made "a Superman TV commercial to get people interested in the product. When we're not promoting outside the industry, we're not gaining new clients."
I've written in the past that comic-book stores can be off-putting for outsiders and neophytes. That's still true for just about every comics store in town: Even a shop as book-heavy as the West Seattle Arcane Comics still displays some statues and lunch boxes with superheroes on them. But good comic-book shops counter the scads of embarrassing action figures and various merchandising gewgaws by providing excellent personal recommendations.
In an hour at Arcane Comics, Taylor has already sold me on a new series called Jersey Gods (a weird retro cross between Jack Kirby and The Sopranos) and a book called Bad Dog (a surprisingly affecting, bittersweet comic about an alcoholic werewolf bounty hunter). Seattle has a handful of these phenomenal comics-store employees who try as hard as they can to get the right book into the right reader's hands. Aaron Tarbuck, owner of U-District comics shop the Dreaming, has to be considered a serious contender for the title of Best Bookseller in Seattle, and Erin Butler at the downtown Zanadu Comics practically bubbles with joy when she talks about books she loves. And they're honest, too: In my time at Arcane, Taylor actually talks a customer out of buying a book. The customer, awed by Taylor's honesty, buys two others that he does recommend.
On Free Comic Book Day, as newcomers brave their way past the posters of hypersexualized, spandex-clad women and wander into the dark corners of Seattle's comics shops, they should relearn the lost art of shopping for books. Internet retailers, with their endless suggestions, have diminished the role of customer-bookseller interactions, and this FCBD is a great opportunity for people to remember the weird, joyous trust exercise of walking into a store and asking a complete stranger: "What do I want to read today?"