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The Isotope Communique
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Thursday, July 14, 2005
What Happens to Comic Retail When
The Inmates Run the Asylum?
One of the major problems with retail is keeping things fresh and keeping your finger on the pulse of what kind of experience you would like to present to your guests. Once you cross that invisible barrier that exists between a customer and a retailer it's a difficult proposition to keep your vision from being colored by the context of the realities of running a business. It's simplicity itself to fall into patterns and to continue down the ever spiraling pathway of "if it works don't fix it." But in order to provide the best possible customer service and to take care of the often unspoken whims and wishes of your patrons it is crucial to periodically find new ways to remove those context-colored glasses and see your business from the ever fresh standpoint of the consumer.
Which brings us to today, and The Great Retail Experiment.
For over four years the Isotope has devoted itself to providing the best possible customer experiences, and has kept finding fresh new ways of reinventing comics retailing. Now, right on the heels of the Isotope’s single biggest innovation to date, its successful move to the stylish new location in the heart of San Francisco, which combines art gallery, mix-media space, swank lounge and comic store into one, I am going to be stepping back from the helm and giving the people on the other side of the counter a chance to put their ideas to work.
And what better time than when my staff and I are away to let the inmates loose in the asylum? So, on July 15, 2005, as I am leaving for San Diego, rather than closing up shop as I traditionally do, I will be turning over the keys of the brand new Isotope to three hand-picked individuals, ones I have chosen not because of any retail or customer service background, but because they are all opinionated people who are utterly passionate about the comic art form.
Like most comic fans these three have plenty of theories about what makes a good comic store, but I'll be interested in seeing whether they will be able to put these theories into practice. That's when things get interesting. So it's put up or shut up time and these three will have to either sink or swim based on the value of their collective efforts and ideas. At the very least it'll make for some entertaining blogging, and who knows? Maybe I'll even learn a thing or two.
Let's be honest here. If we did this half-way, the experiment is meaningless, it would just be some Isotope staff substitutes running the register. So in order to make this experiment useful we're going to be going all the way. I've given over the keys to the shop and even my '65 Mustang and told them to do whatever they want with them. If they want to re-merchandise my shop, replace all my original art with pictures of Lady Death, have an in-door camping trip at the comic store with all their pals, raid the liquor cabinet and do doughnuts in the street, or give away one thousand free comics, they can. It's their show and as long as they don't burn down the shop, whatever retailing ideas that they want to put into action, they get to.
So who are the people who make up this hand-picked trio? Chances are, they're people you already know.
Graeme McMillan, the man behind the notorious Fanboy Rampage and the lord of internet comics snark. McMillan comes to us from a background of running one of the Internet's most infamous blogs. Few persons of industry importance have been spared his jibes.
Sean Maher, the chaotic and sometimes belligerent online personality. Maher brings with him a keen critical mind, insatiable enthusiasm, and no retail or customer service experience whatsoever.
Nora Lally-Graves, the mini-comic creator and graphic novel author, with her synapses permanently set for rapid-fire idea creation. She was brought on board to bring some balance and practical rationality to this group, but frankly, in retrospect, I can't see that happening.
Of their plans, Maher said, "When we saw those sparkling keys, we first planned to change the locks while James was gone. But that's only a stepping-stone to the REAL stuff we're planning. Everybody should keep their eyes glued to the Isotope Communique over the weekend to see us taking some risks and living the dream while we're playing with the coolest toy ever: a great comics shop of our own."
While that sounds good, when I heard the rumor that on Saturday night they were planning on hosting the DJ from Insane Clown Posse, I took a moment and pondered whether this was such a good idea after all. With one weekend to do what they want, will they reinvent comics retailing all over again or will they single-handedly bring down the entire direct market? Here's looking forward to what the weekend will bring!