The comic book shop. If you’re a comic book fan, it’s where you must make your weekly pilgrimage. Sure, some people can get their books from a chain bookstore, but you’ll lack selection and must fight the manga kids reading their books backwards in the aisle. There is also a noticeable lack of the camaraderie of comic geekdom in those large stores more interested in selling the latest young adult romance series involving emo vampires than the latest monster smashing Hellboy. Comic shops are for more than just selling you something and pushing you out the door. They’re about interacting with a niche of society in love with a medium well over 70 years old.
I will be the first to admit that not all comic shops are splendid realms. Comic-book-guy isn’t a popular Simpson’s character because of some sense of irony. I, too, have endured the over-opinionated comic shop owner who would question my selection as he’s taking my money for it. I’ve had to sift through terribly disorganized long-boxes, navigate through cramped spaces, and endure the stench of unwashed Warhammer 40K players (Seriously, guys, there’s no way you’re unaware of your own gag-inducing BO). At one time, I purchased my weekly four-color crack in a building with a crack in the wall so large that I could see the passing traffic outside. There was once a time when I had to go into a damp basement of a building in a terribly unsafe neighborhood just to get the latest issue of The Flash.
With all that said, there are actually good comic book shops out there. I have seen them. Clean. Organized. Friendly. Yes, all these things are possible in a comic book shop. It’s possible to have a comic shop owner who’s passionate about the medium and material without being overbearing and dismissive about his/her (Yeah, that’s right, ‘her’.) clientele’s purchases. I am lucky enough to live in a city, Hattiesburg, MS, with such shops, and I’d like to introduce you to one of them today. It’s name is Southern Fried Comics. And I have been impressed by not only their love of all things comic book and their professionalism in presenting it to their customers, but also in their eagerness to engage not only the comic fan community but the community at large. I sat down with Barry Herring, owner and manager, for a talk. His wife Jamye (See, folks, I told you there was a female involved.) also joined us for a bit of the discussion.
Mighty Geek: Why open up a comic shop? Especially in this economy.
Barry Herring: I’ve always been into comics from an early age, so it’s just something that I eventually figured out that I wanted to do. You think of a dream job, and that’s it. So that’s why a comic shop: a love of comics. Now, they say the best time to start a buisness is, you know, in this type of environment. Whether it’s true or not, we’ll see. I actually had the opportunity to do it now. So I took it. This is something that I’ve been planning on doing for years. This is not something that I’d thought I’d do a year and a half ago and do it. This is something that I’ve been trying to do for a long time and just finally go the opportunity.
MG: How did you choose this style of shop? And how would you describe your choice?
BH: This style is a couple of different things to me. The way we’ve kind of I guess invisioned it is kind of an art gallery. That’s why the walls are white so that the colors, the art… everything pops. Everything just jumps off the wall. Nothing blends in. It’s very… it grabs you. How we arrived at this? I think it was just… Jamye, it was kind of organic the way we came up with this.
Jamye Herring: Well, the space was already completely white when we came in; so it kind of had that art gallery feel. We figued ‘what better way to present comics than as art?’ We kind of took that theme and ran with it by keeping all the walls white and presenting the comics face out so that each of them look like their own stand alone piece of art. And then bringing in regional artists to display along the art ledge along the top.
BH: But it wasn’t always that way. When we were first talking about doing it, I wanted everything seperated by publisher. So DC, Marvel, and independents. I had this idea to make the wall for DC blue. As you see the DC logo is blue. The Marvel logo is red, so make the wall where the Marvel is red. A lot of the independent titles, their logos are black; so make the wall where the indepent books are black. So it would be very colorful. But when we got in this space, that’s what it felt like (an art gallery), so that’s what we went with.
JH: It kind of fits in with the downtown atmosphere right now. A lot of the stores are kind of doing retail and art gallery. Bring local and regional art somehow into their retail store or resturants. So we thought it was kind of fitting for the area as well.
MG: Why downtown?
BH: We did look at other places. We didn’t just find one space and say, “This is it. Let’s go with it.” We looked everywhere. We looked all over Hattiesburg, and there were a couple of places… we had,I think, a top three…
JH: After a very exhaustive search.
BH: A very long, exhaustive search. And this one really just fit.
JH: Practically speaking, there is, of course, a budget issue. It’s more cost effective to be downtown. But, more than that, it’s being part of a community and having neighbors that you can kind of reach out to for support. The downtown events, which kind of have their natural draw. So all of those things together, I guess, kind of helped us go through the final three to choose this one.
MG: Please explain more about the downtown community. How do you work with your neighbors and the downtown events?
JH: It is a community down here, so it’s nice to get to know the other owners. You get to know the employees at the resturants. You get to know a lot of the people who live and work down here. We’re always looking for opportunties to work together for the greater good, I guess. If we have an event here, we try to feature some sort of food, drink beverage, whatever from some of the local resturants. Bianchi’s (a gourmet pizzaria next door) has done a few things for us. I just makes it more organic and kind of fits in with the community and the idea that we want people to be able to come downtown not just to come to Southern Fried Comics but maybe grab a slice of pizza or a cup of coffee or get their girlfriend something next door. You know, kind of a stop-and-shop-and-browse and enjoy the atmosphere. And with more and more places opening that’s becoming more of a reality now. So it’s not people just stopping in front of the one store they want to go in, going in, getting out, and leaving. It’s more of strolling around downtown. It’s becoming much more common. And that’s what we were hoping for. That being said, these two spaces next to us were empty when we moved here. So it was kind of a gamble, but we felt that the owner who redid this building had such good vision that we felt he could find some people to fit those plots. And it worked out really well.
BH: Very well because we do work with… You wouldn’t think that we’d work so closely with a women’s boutique. It’s not even necissarily working closely with it. It’s just we…
JH: Match up.
BH: We do.
JH: If we want to do an event, we’ll talk to them and see if we can figure out the same night. That way all the stores are open late one night, and that kind of creates more of a fun environment.
BH: And it also goes against the stereotype of a comic shop. Because the stereotype of a comic shop is there are no women, so why would you want to plan an event the same night as a women’s boutique? That makes no sense at all, but there is crossover appeal. We have customers from there come in here with their bags. They come in. They look. They spend actual time here. They don’t walk in, see what it is, and then leave. They walk in. They’ll look around, buy things. It fits. Somehow it works.
JH: And it makes it easy for guys to find presents for their girlfriends next door. One thing guys hate to do, so that works out for our customers well.
MG: (To Barry) So it’s a good place for you too. You can just pop out next door whenever you need to.
BH: (laughing) Yeah. I literally pop out quite a bit.
JH: They pop over too. We’ve got the bottled Cokes, so it’s like their thing. They love to pop over and get a Coke just to get out of their store for a couple of minutes and chat with Barry. You’ll see all the owners of businesses and resturants running into each other on the sidewalk, stopping, and catching up. Or popping in and saying ‘hi’. It’s really a common thing. We’re always looking out for what’s going on, what we can do to help each other and create that bigger, aggregate draw downtown.
BH: Plus, I can poke at them by finding things and posting on Facebook. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that I’ve sometimes put women’s clothing on our Facebook page.
JH: With a little suggestion.
BH: Yeah. “Click should carry this.” You know, just random, absurd things. Tasteful.
JH: It’s fun, and they do that kind of thing to us as well. It makes it fun.
MG: Everybody plugging everybody else’s stuff.
BH: It is.
MG: What kind of events do you do? It seems like almost always something going on here. What else are you doing, other than selling comics, to pull people down here?
BH: One of the last things that we did… or we did at the end of September because DC had the New 52 launch and just to get a feel for what people liked, at the end of the fourth week, the last week of the 52, we had a… What did we bill it as?
JH: Discussion night. I’m sure you had some kind of name for it.
BH: Yeah… Anyway. We did. It was a discussion night for what people thought about the New 52. What worked. What didn’t. “State of the DC Union.” That’s what it was. And that was a lot of fun. People had gripes about what didn’t work, praised what did; and we tried to come to a concensus about what was good and what wasn’t. And we do want to do it with Marvel and also Independents. We’re waiting for Marvel to put out some really strong titles. Marvel’s going through kind of a weird phase right now. So instead of a session about what is wrong with Marvel because you want good and bad and what can be better instead of just a gripe session. So we’re waiting for the perfect time with Marvel. We’re going to do the same thing with Marvel. What’s working, what’s not, and a lot of praise for Marvel.
JH: One of the things you have to do if you open a small, local business is you have to create an atmosphere. It’s more about an experience. You want people to not think about going to the comic shop just to buy their comics. You have to think about it as a place they want to be, a brand they want to be a part of, relationships not only with Barry and Taylor, but with the other customers. We have to build that community and make it much more of an experience. With the events, that’s what we try and do. We always try and get away from any kind of high pressure sales or that focus on the sales. For a lot of them, it’s more about just coming in and having fun, talking to other people about comics, and things like that. We try and add value through the events instead of focuing on getting people to actually make a purchase. We think that will come if people enjoy it and want to be a part of what we’re doing. We’ve tried all kinds of events. Since we’re so pretty new, we try all anything. We’ve done kids’ events, which is a lot of fun. I can’t wait to do another one of those. For the Owly comic they did a story time. We had a store full of kids. They were listening and acting out Owly. It was super cute.
BH: Decorating the Munnies.
JH: Yep. The Munny decorating parties. And that’s a lot of cross-over with the Munnies. We had more of an adult theme where we worked with Click, and they actually invited all of their customers to an event. So it was more of an adult night. I think they even had cocktails. The last one we had was all ages; so we had kids, adults, and families. That’s a lot of fun. We enjoy it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a good way to get to know our customers better and have fun as well.
Part 2 of the interview will be up next week with promises of some cool pics that you won’t see in your own comic shops. Until then, Mighty Geekers, we ask that you start to consider what makes your own local shop so cool and worthy of internet glorification. There may just be some swag in it for you.