Yes, Free Comic Book Day was several days ago, but anyone who works in a comic book store is probably still in rest and recovery…or an afterglow…or maybe a dissociative state with a lot of crying. All of these are likely as FCBD is a marathon in all the best and most exhausting ways for anyone working the retail end of this holiday. Like me! And a dozen or so others who went to the mattresses for Other Realms, the comic and game specialty store in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Free Comic Book Day is never just a single day for retailers. Preparation usually runs months in advance with ordering the books and arranging guests. Trying to predict what will be popular about three months in the future is the norm for any store, so please be suitably impressed. Then, the night before is often a stress-fueled cram-session of rearranging the store to make it as accommodating as possible for the excess of customers and guests. In celebration of being all set up and hoping it’s done right, there is a feast of caffeine and fingernails.
It doesn’t matter when you wake up on the morning of the event, you’re already late. A line has already formed outside of the store made of eager customers and last-minute emergencies. However overwhelming it seems, it’s the sign of a good day to come.
When I first started working FCBD, I was alone in the shop. A few people would trickle in throughout the day saying they’d seen something in the newspaper about how libraries were participating and figured they’d swing by in case we were doing something, too. In case the comic book store was doing something for Free Comic Book Day, too. I was thinking about that this past Saturday as I stood about halfway down the line 5 minutes before open, shouting to be heard by the horde of people that they need to get a ticket to be eligible for the hourly prize raffles.
The way Other Realms is set up is to handle as many people as possible and funnel them towards the free issues. If that just happens to take them through our New Issues, Recent Issues, and Trade Collection areas, then that’s a happy coincidence. OK, so it’s also a bit by design, but it does give people a chance to try something new. Many people show up for the Big Two (Marvel and DC), but once we tell them they can take up to five free issues, they suddenly have a choice and opportunity to branch out. It’s still surprising to see how many people are shocked to discover that not every comic book is about a “capes and tights” superhero.
Believe it or not, this is huge. People understanding that there are specific issues that are free and that they can read all-new stories is a massive evolution from what they expected in the early days. My favorite FCBD memory is still having a customer point to our high-value display wall at the first appearance of Wolverine and, completely serious, ask if he could get that one for free.
Trying to guide everyone and answer their questions and find products and make the sales is an “all-hands-on-deck” scenario. Everyone has their post and everyone has their specialty. If ever your expertise is needed, but you aren’t within a couple of feet, things get interesting. Calling out customer questions across the store, forging a path through the crowd, and keeping the lines moving create a strange commandos-in-the-wild way of communicating that involves code words, short hand references, and spastic hand movements in the hopes of being understood.
Every store has their way of making the experience of visiting them unique. At least if they’re worth their salt, they do. How many free issues you get certainly can swing your popularity, but beyond that, what’ve you got? Sales, raffles, cosplay, and guest artists! Free stuff should be paired with almost-free stuff. Other Realms featured grab bags of 10 random back issues for $2 with a 1:100 chance of scoring a signed Stan Lee issue (a great deal and a solid way to move old back issues).
Every hour, we gave away prize packs worth about $100 made of up some of the FCBD exclusives, pieces from our guest artists, and some unique art only available at our store (we’ve hosted Stan Sakai and Skottie Young, who were super cool in working with us).
We also had cosplayers on hand to bring another aspect of the fandom to the wide-eyed kids asking for pictures. A few saw the characters reading books about themselves and I think their brains may have melted a bit.
Finally, we wanted to support the local comic book-making community with our guest artists. Indie books and their creators have a wild and unique life as the medium develops and gains new ways to market itself. Give free sketches to the kids and you’ve created a new fan; get the artists in a drawing competition with each other and you’ve got some killer jam pieces.
And it may sound cringe-y, but it really is about the community. Free Comic Book Day isn’t just a day, nor is it free – at least not for the retailer. The time and manpower costs, the guests and sales cost, and those “free” issues still cost to ship and receive. So of course we’re looking to create an event you’ll enjoy and enjoy spending money at, but we’re all fans.
Ever need a nap at about 3pm but know you can’t? That’s Free Comic Book Day. Ever eat Dollar Menu food for lunch combined with cold Dollar Menu food leftover from breakfast? That’s Free Comic Book Day. Ever see a group of people more happy to be standing in a line? That’s probably Disneyland. But in Second Place is Free Comic Book Day.
The action starts to wind down around 6pm, which makes for eight solid hours of comic book marathoning. In total, Other Realms saw 725 people come through the door, handed out 3000 free comic book issues, and hosted 7 artists who created over 100 sketches. It was a good day.