By Shawn Perry
Mild-Mannered Aaron Haaland was the owner of A Comic Shop in Florida (and host of A Comic Show here on Bleeding Cool) before he was bitten by an entrepreneurial stroke of genius and became the beer-slinging pioneer of a business model that offers social engagement heretofore unheard of in the world of comic book retail. Recently, Haaland shared his experience with me about the "Evolution of A Comic Shop".
The growth of Central Florida's A Comic Shop has been covered in the recent past so I will forgo a lengthy introduction and just explain that what makes the award-winning shop special is that it holds weekly social events and operates a bar called The Geek Easy. Due to popular demand the bar is expanding thanks in part to generous support from backers on indiegogo that have raised over a third of its $30,000 campaign goal as of this writing. What fascinated me about this story is that it's not just about another high-concept capitalistic endeavor earning success, but rather, it is a spotlight on the amazing power of fandom to create a home that fulfills what is lacking in comic book culture. But perhaps more importantly, it's a place where beer and comic books go together like Batman and Robin and holy crap is that a long time coming.
In my opinion, the nature of fandom stems from the inherent compulsion to celebrate shared experience. This compulsion is like a fire that burns inside fans around the world and anyone that has ever attended a major sporting event or convention knows what a joy it is to celebrate their passion among thousands of like-minded people. That feeling can be particularly potent when it has been a long-time coming…
Personally, I was a card-carrying comic book geek for almost a decade before I attended my first convention and experiencing that environment for the first time (and twenty-first time, for that matter) is something that leaves you desperately wanting more. Owner and life-long comic book fan Aaron Haaland sought to recreate that experience with A Comic Shop by adding social events and eventually with The Geek Easy. Recently, I spoke with Haaland about a number of topics, such as how his experience growing up a comic book fan informed his decisions as an owner, how his customers have embraced social events and what he sees in the future for comic book culture and shops everywhere.
Shawn Perry: What is it about comic book culture that make fans so passionate about events and what motivated you to push for more social engagement in your store?
Aaron Haaland: Comics are an experience that you do alone. You read between the covers and you're there by yourself as opposed to music or a movie that can be enjoyed as a group. Comics are such an intimate experience and if you engage a comic its always a one-on-one thing…I just saw that there as an opportunity to make comics into a social thing for fans in a ways that conventions were already doing but shops weren't necessarily doing.
We have creator signings here and there but in terms of having something social as part of the store's DNA that encourages customers to bring their friends to engage in this thing they are passionate about it was all just under the surface and needed very little prodding. It was more just being responsive to what people wanted and what I always wanted as a comic book fan.
Growing up, I would always look forward to picking up comics all month and then I would have to read them in my car and I was like 'why do I have to give my whole paycheck to this store and then read my comics in my car?' I realize I could have driven home but I just needed to read it right then and from then on I was adamant that when I opened a comic book store it was going to have a lounge where people could get a drink and read their comics because that's what I always wanted to do!
SP: What is the Origin Story behind The Geek Easy?
AH: Well the comic store had been running for a while when I suggested, as a joke, that we add a speak-easy and call it a geek-easy. Then the joke didn't die everyone and thought I was serious so basically I had to do it because I'm very prone to peer pressure. [laughs] It was just a natural outgrowth of what our store was already doing and what we were putting energy towards with social events and the feedback we got from our customers was that they wanted more. I also think it was the right time for it as the scene had just exploded and there was this undercurrent of people that wanted to share it and I understood that because I have tattoos of favorite characters and a closet full of comics and T-shirts.
SP: Sounds like you were right man for the job! Have many relationships blossomed at the store based on shared passion? Do you often see people come in on their own to buy comics and end up making new friends at the bar?
AH: Yes, we have facilitated plenty of friendships, plenty of relationships, a few marriages…. it's hard to meet new people as an adult but at a bar with how the tables are set up everything is geared towards making connections and it happens. When you see someone reading the same thing that you love you want to engage and those barriers of awkwardness or anxiety melt away. The other thing about our clientele is that they are primarily college age people and they move here and don't necessarily have many friends so this place facilitates them meeting new friends and finding a place to belong.
SP: Has the store helped facilitate many creative connections happen among patrons?
AH: We are located across the street from Full Sail University, which is a film and animation type school, so we have a lot of creative people coming in and they start collaborating. We have had patrons film here and do photography in here. We have also published four comics of local artists that met here and also have a stage for the bar so people have come in and suggested different ideas like cherokee, improv, trivia, stand-up comedy and we have encouraged them because its fun! It's great when people can turn something their passion into something that they can use to entertain others. There is so much stuff about obsessive nerds who just constantly consume this culture but young people, creative people, they want to create themselves and take this culture that they are so into and do something with it. It's been amazing to see that happen just because we encouraged it and now its something pretty incredible.
SP: Speaking of youth culture, do you see a lot of hipsters come into The Geek Easy? Concept bars like Brooklyn's Videology and Philadelphia's Chickie's and Pete's are known to attract a lot of hip young artistic types in clever t-shirts, so is that something you see crossing over into the world of comics at the Geek Easy?
AH: Well, we sell plenty of PBR [laughs] but yes we totally cater to that it's awesome who doesn't love hip? Cynical old grouchy people, I guess, but not me! Hipster culture has definitely been a boone to comics, most recently with Image because they have what's small, what's hot, what's creator-owned and authentic…look at Rat Queens becoming a cartoon show with just the first volume.
SP: You have gained a lot from adding social events and a few kegs of beer to your store – do you feel like you are blazing a trail that others can follow? It doesn't sound like it took an exorbitant amount of effort to take A Comic Shop to the next level that it was like lighting a fire and all the wood was just lying there. What would you say to all the owners out there that are interested in adapting your model to their stores?
AH: If you're a store that is going to add some kind of social event the first thing you need to do is just hold an open forum with your current customers. Email them talk to them face-to-face have an open forum give them free snacks and food for it and ask them what they would like to see and if they would be willing to bring friends to it. Make it something where they are getting what they want out of the store and are willing to bring their friends to it. Don't just have an event and invite your current customers and expect to sell more because of that you have to target new people because that's what marketing is and when you have a product that you know people enjoy it's not such a crapshoot.
People don't have to go 'all in' and get a liquor license they can partner up with a bar or buy an amp and have events in their store. It's not that hard to get started and I feel like this model can be easily emulated. We always want to get people into the store…there is paid advertising and social media but things get much easier when you promote something that is actually social on social media. It's like saying 'hey come here and interact with people' because you are interrupting people on social media who are socializing.
It's so much different than saying 'hey I have a comic book store, it's this big, we have this many products, here is a new product' all that is fine but it gets so much easier when you put some effort into an authentic substance by saying 'here is an event we're doing that is about something that you like and you can be part of this with your friends, meet new people and engage in this culture in a way that isn't just consuming and, by the way, it is also store where you can consume because obviously you do and so does everyone here because we love this stuff.' I just think that's the missing piece to the whole puzzle of comic book retailing. Owners are already investing their livelihoods in this so I would say get feedback from your current customers and do things that they say they want to start with and then go from there.
SP: You state in your videos that you are open to consulting with other owners – has there been much interest?
AH: I've had some bites in terms of consulting. I'm not saying that I know how to sell comics any better than other stores but I am an expert on connecting social events to a retail comic book establishment and that is what I want to consult on and that is what I want to catch fire in the industry. I think when retailers hear the word 'consulting' they think 'what's this guy whose been doing this for ten years want to teach me when I've been doing this for thirty years?' Well, in terms of cycle sheets and inventory, probably not much but when it comes to events and how to schedule I can absolutely help you with that and that's what I want to consult on.
SP: What is your dream for the future of comic shops, the evolution of a comic shop if you will, not just for college-age kids that are looking for a watering hole to begin with but fans everywhere that are seeking a place to express themselves and identify with both personally and socially?
AH: What I would like to see comic book stores become is more of a place for social interaction that is not just for gaming. Gaming is fine but I would like to see them start to incorporate some of the things that happen at conventions. It is just so easy to do an open mic or cherokee at a store and events like that make the store more than just retail and I understand that stores have long-time customers who consider it way more than just retail but in some ways that can become kind of like a club house with there being an in-crowd of people that have been there forever who are like family and how intimidating or off-putting can that be to new people? Social events are a great way to incorporate new people into your community. The community already exists but this is a way to help people become part of that and when you do something as simple as trivia night its a simple formula that people can plug into and any store can do it I don't care how small.
SP: Okay, so this is going to be the hardest question I ask and I am sure you've heard it before, but what do you say to all the owners who have been in the business for years and have tried events before that did not provide any monetary value to their business? How can owners expect to make money with social events, and aside from beer profits, how has your business benefited from being more than just a store where people come in and buy books and merchandise?
AH: Well we didn't explode in making money as a side-venture until we got our restaurant and beer license but we were doing events on an almost nightly basis before then and were making money because, to be real, there are just only so many great comics and essential graphic novels and by doing social stuff based on entertainment we went against the grain and stigma that comic books are just for collectors.
I'm not saying collect-ability is bad because you can re-stock Watchmen every week and bringing in new people can and does sell the same old stuff that you might have already sold to all of your current customers. You can sell the stuff that you know how to sell, that your employees know how to sell, because people already somewhat know about them from television and movies and the people that your customers bring in for a social event are going to help you sell it. I have seen people that have brought their friends to events selling comics to them not because they want to make me money but because they love this stuff and really just want their friends to read Invincible because at the end of the second volume it just goes insane and its their favorite book and they want to share it.
If you do an event like a Walking Dead premiere that just goes directly to selling more Walking Dead as well as selling Invincible and more Image titles. These events can help target all of these things that are amazing that people would love if they just gave them a chance but they don't know about it or just don't see themselves as a comic book reader because they don't identify with the culture but if you get one of your customers to bring them in they are so much more susceptible. It's kind of like inviting someone to church – you are going to have a much better opportunity to sell someone on whatever religion you have if you get this person there in-person rather than just by talking to them one-on-one here and there. You get someone into the comic book store and it's a much easier sell to get someone to try something new and hopefully they'll enjoy it and come back.
SP: In my personal opinion, the popularity of comics and the desire to engage in its culture has never been stronger and Haaland's successful enterprise is a testament to that as well to its unlimited potential for growth. Mark my words: this culture is evolving, there is a revolution coming and those who open the doors are on the right side. Haaland will go down as a visionary for blazing this new path and a hero for providing this example of how brightly this culture can shine with the right encouragement. Or in other words, to quote the opening line of the film that sparked the last evolution in comic book culture…
"Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward."
Shawn Perry is a comic book and film enthusiast striving to be here now. He currently resides in the wonderful town of East Hartford, Connecticut. Tweet him @thesperry and email him about anything at Shawn.Perry88@gmail.com.