The lines formed early in Seattle. By 9 a.m. they were around the block in New York City. Austin counted 3,000 people by midday. The masses came—and they wanted books.
Was there a break in the space-time continuum? Were we suddenly back in the ink-stained glory days of print media? No, it was just the first Saturday in May, Free Comic Book Day, when shops around the country rack up sales with promotional bait and in-store events.
Leave it to superheroes to save the dying bookstore.
“Nerd culture has shifted the pop culture needle,” explains Brian Walton, editor in chief of Nerdist.com, an entertainment hub founded by TV host Chris Hardwick. “The way we consume media in the 21st century can become all consuming, so there's a great feeling in being in a place where you don't have to worry about if people get it. Comic book shops keep nerd culture grounded in reality.”
So what catapults a graphic novel and comics store from ho-hum to a must-visit?
Style helps, as does a focused approach to stock. Quimby's in Chicago distinguishes itself in the spandex-free side of comics, showcasing indie artists, underground comix, and oddball zines you can't get anywhere else. And like America’s best independent comic book stores, its staff is eager to share recommendations with both die-hard fans and the uninitiated.
“The classic perception of comic book stores is that you have to be 'in the know' to enjoy them,” says Sebastian Girner, an indie comics editor (and researcher for Travel + Leisure). “I think that's totally wrong…there's a whole world of interesting fiction and art out there waiting to be discovered.”
Indeed, as comics shift to digital, innovative stores are remaking themselves as community centers. Meltdown Comics in L.A. is a prime example: comics, toys, games, apparel, and collectibles shop rolled into an art gallery and stand-up comedy theater totaling 14,000 square feet. Atomic Books in Baltimore opened a bar in back, pouring beers brewed in collaboration with artists/publishers.
If you're a newbie, don't be shy.
“Nerds are the most accepting people on the planet, and we love to talk about things we like,” says Walton. “Go into a shop, and there's a good chance you'll walk out with a good book to read and a great conversation under your belt.”