Shop Interview with Benn Ray of Atomic Books
August 25, 2017
Name: Benn Ray
Shop: Atomic Books
Year Established: 1992
QRD – What is the first comic you ever bought?
Benn – I think it was probably a Richie Rich comic.
QRD – What the one comic book that would be the crown jewel in your collection... the comic equivalent of the holy grail for you?
Benn – I don’t know how much monetary value it has, but my signed copy of Eightball #1 means the most to me.
QRD – What is currently your favorite comic on the market & why?
Benn – Noah Van Sciver’s Blammo. It’s heelarious.
QRD – When did you first start working at a comic shop?
Benn – August 1993. Geppi’s Comic World. Inner Harbor, Baltimore.
QRD – How did you come to own your own shop & what do you wish you’d known beforehand?
Benn – It was 2001. My friend Scott Huffines, who started the store was packing it in, & me & my partner Rachel Whang didn’t want to live in a city without an Atomic Books in it. So we continued it with Scott’s blessing.
I wish I knew the Great Recession was coming. Not that there’s much I would have done differently to get through it. Or maybe that e-books & e-comics were never really going to be a thing. It would have saved me a lot of embarrassing fretting.
QRD – Have there been any particular trends in the comic book market that you’ve found especially exciting &/or troubling since opening your shop?
Benn – I would say that in the past several years, there has been a huge influx of people coming either back to comics or coming to comics for the first time, looking for some really good comic books to read. Image seems to be the only publisher taking those people seriously. There are more people actively looking for good comics than there are publishers putting out good comics.
QRD – Have you always focused on comics exclusively or do you find it a necessity to stock toys, games, etc. as well?
Benn – We don’t think of ourselves as a comic shop, we think of ourselves as a bookstore. We just happen to carry as many comics as we do books. We’ve always stocked a small selection of goofy tchotchkes. We’ve also long carried art toys. We don’t carry much in the way of licensed sooper-hero products. We do carry a few games, but not many. Basically, like the store itself, we only focus on carrying things that we are into or that’s interesting to us. We don’t really stock action figures or Warhammer or Magic cards or Naruto or whatever. That’s not us.
QRD – Would you be interested in diversifying your inventory or do you think your store has successfully developed a personality that needs preserving?
Benn – Both. Atomic Books is an extension of what those who work here are into. Hopefully, that will continue to change & grow. So we may try things like stickers or pins or things, but at our core is printed matter.
QRD – How much of a factor do you think the personality or atmosphere of a shop plays in establishing a customer base?
Benn – For us, it has been a rather important factor. We have a very bright & open atmosphere. We have as many women buying comics as men -- largely because we discourage that den of stunted testosterone that some other comic shops embrace or aren’t interested in shaking.
QRD – How active of a role does your shop take in social events like release parties, movie outings, etc.?
Benn – We have multiple in-store events every week. We are currently planning a large neighborhood festival in September called Hampdenfest that we organize every year.
QRD – Do you do in store events with local comic creators or ones doing a book promotion tour? What do you feel has to be done for those events to be worth it to you?
Benn – We do both. We need to feel like we’ll get a turn out before we schedule such an event to make it worth everyone’s time.
QRD – Do you believe these types of events create new readers?
Benn – No. They gratify existing readers.
QRD – Have the comic book summer movie blockbusters & Free Comic Book Day been a boon to your store?
Benn – Sure. I’m not sure I see a direct correlation between a new Spider-Man movie & an increase in Spider-Man sales, but it has contributed to a culture that is more accepting of comics as a medium. For a long time, comics were a marginalized medium, but not so much anymore.
Free Comic Book Day is a big deal. I have some issues with it conceptually, we have to pay for the free comics (which in some cases are little more than sampler catalogs from some publishers) & we’re expected to have a sale in our store. So it costs us, but we’re now at a point where the benefits outweigh the costs. We’ve even been publishing our own free comic book day comic, Mutant, for the past 10 years.
QRD – What advice do you have for publishers, writers, artists, & distributors that you think would create more sales?
Benn – I can’t stress this enough - publish your books on a consistent basis. Every time a title takes a break, stalls, runs late, that title reverses any growth momentum it may have had. You ship late, you lose readers.
QRD – Do you do things to try to cultivate local comic talent?
Benn – Our free comic book day anthology usually features a lot of local talent. We have a drawing club. We consign comics from people. We’ve been talking about starting our own comics festival called B.A.R.F. - the Baltimore Arts Reading Festival.
QRD – When a new customer comes into the store with little experience in comics or having left comics for a decade, what do you to cultivate their interest in comics in general & your store in particular?
Benn – Well, if they’re looking for something to read, we do what we’d do with any customer. We’d talk to them about what they’ve read recently that they like or, what movies/TV shows they like & then try to pair up a book with their tastes.
QRD – When people walk away from buying comics, what do you usually here as their complaint for leaving the hobby?
Benn – With the big publishers, it’s usually a start over/revamp. Yes, restarting the DC/Marvel Universe is supposed to be a starting point for many people, but it’s also a stopping point for some.
When creative teams change on a title, sales can drop.
Also, when Marvel starts doing all sorts of weird things with its regular titles, changing numbering, changing title names, etc. - people frequently get confused & realize it’s not worth trying to figure out & quit.
QRD – What are your thoughts (as a business & as a fan) on digital comics?
Benn – I don’t read digital comics & I don’t see any way or any demand for me, as a business, to carry digital comics. It’s just one more way for publishers (or content creators) to cut out stores & to cut out a secondary market. I suspect that many major comic book publishers would like to do to comic shops what video game publishers have done to video game shops & what record labels have done to local record shops. If you buy digital comics, whether you intend to or not, you are supporting a market constructed to create the demise of physical comics & comic shops.
QRD – Can you tell us your opinion on Diamond Comics Distributors in regards to their exclusive deals with some of the bigger publishers... is it a monopoly?
Benn – I worked for Diamond from 1993-1999. I’m not thrilled about their exclusives & I’m not thrilled about their non-returnability policy (it’s hurt industry growth over the years). The exclusivity is really only relevant on single issue comics (graphic novels are available through other bookstore distributors). & I think the combination of Diamond exclusivity & digital comics really don’t serve comic shops well at all.
QRD – Do you feel like the quality of service Diamond provides would keep you from trying a legitimate competitor if one were to spring up?
Benn – Ha-ha-ha. Sorry, the phrase of “quality of service Diamond provides” is pretty funny. As a bookstore, I already use a number of distributors & always have. If a viable competitor to Diamond appeared, I would be inclined to try them.
QRD – With the rise in Kickstarter comic projects, do you look for comics for the store on Kickstarter?
Benn – No, I don’t go looking for things on Kickstarter. I do have friends who have Kickstarter projects that I support & there are publishers we are friends with that Kickstart projects & as long as they have a retailer level, we usually back them.
QRD – When customers say they can get something for a better deal on Amazon, how do you react?
Benn – Fortunately, we don’t have customers rude enough to say something like that too often, but should someone say that to me I have several responses prepared to go to:
1. Then you should leave here & go to Amazon to browse the things you feel are worth less than the prices publishers print on their books.
2. Then go buy it. They need all the help they can get.
QRD – What do you think about CGC & the other professional grading companies? Are they a benefit or detriment to the hobby?
Benn – I don’t think about them. I used to be the editor of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. That experience has left me with an uncomfortable feeling about the supposed “collectibility” of comics. Look, if you are looking to invest in something, try stocks. Or gold. Comics are for enjoying. That said, if the way you enjoy a comic is to pay to have it graded & sealed in lucite so you can hang it on your wall, who am I to judge?
QRD – Do you think the drastic overhauls like DC’s New 52 are fundamental for the big two to stay relevant?
Benn – Yes, but there’s a trade-off. As I said above, when a publisher reboots a universe, it is a great starting point for new fans, but it’s also an ending point for old fans. When they negate their history, they undermine the sacrifices those characters have made. The Killing Joke & Crisis now feels relatively less significant as do the characters of Batgirl & Flash (& Hal Jordan too) when their history gets wiped out.
However, asking a new customer to pick up Action Comics #9?? for the first time - that’s hard.
What I thought comics companies should do is move to a number/volume system. So in January, on the front cover there would be a #1 on every title (with a smaller parenthetical volume number somewhere) & to make a point at starting new story arcs at the #1 - sort of like a TV season. But on the inside, in the indicia page, keep the consecutive numbering - that way you get the best of both worlds - the new #1 starting points for new readers & the continuity is still there for the old school readers that don’t want to see everything they’ve read & loved wiped out.
QRD – How well do small press & local comics sell at your store?
Benn – That is our focus. So, they sell pretty well. In fact, never better.
QRD – What do you think of the “wait for the trade” mentality?
Benn – It’s real. & in a binge-watch culture, that’s not going to change. Also, some comics are paced so poorly that it makes more sense to read them in trade format. There are certain titles I read on a monthly basis - Descender, Black Hammer, etc. But there are books like Walking Dead that read so quickly, part of the fun is feeling immersed in that universe - that it makes sense to read the trades instead.
We don’t have much room for back issues. So when the trades come out, I typically get rid of any single issues I may have lingering included in those books.
QRD – In the coming years do you see monthly comics or the trade paperback/graphic novel format being the dominant form of comics?
Benn – Nope. There was the prediction a few years ago that between trades & e-comics, the end of the floppy is nigh. Right now, I sell more floppies than I ever have & to a wide diversity of readers - many new. In fact, there are a lot of people looking to read good monthly comics.
QRD – What “extra” content do readers look for in “deluxe” edition collections that actually makes them buy a book for the second time?
Benn – Not sure extra content does as much as price point - some people just want the book on the shelf - which you can’t do with a comic book.
QRD – Do you buy high-end stock (e.g. hardcover deluxe editions & statues) on speculation for your store or only by special order?
Benn – There are certain customers I do buy for like that, & there are some special orders for deluxe editions -- but I don’t sell statues nor do I get asked for them. & with the archival deluxe editions -- well, I generally don’t stock them largely because those books are designed & priced to appeal to collectors of a certain age -- & they seem to prefer to get those books at 40% off cover price at Amazon. I sometimes pick up collections with those books in it & they sell very well to a handful of older collectors at a discounted rate. But my younger customers generally aren’t paying $50-$100 for a deluxe archival hardcover collection of 30-50 year old material.
QRD – Does your store exhibit at comic book conventions? Do you think having a presence there is a crucial part of bringing in new customers?
Benn – We sometimes publish our own books, like Julia Wertz’s Fart Party & Emily Flake’s Lulu Eightball. When we do, we’ll set up at Small Press Expo. But since we don’t really deal in “collectibles”, I don’t generally see a reason at setting up at mainstream comic conventions.
QRD – If fifty years from now all comics are digital, do you think there will still be shops where people go to buy the physical relics that we all read today?
Benn – If that happens, 50 years from now the comic shop environment will look a lot like the record store environment - selling mostly used & the occasional newly printed thing. Not sure why anyone would root for such a situation. Plus, we’ve seen a resurgence in self-published mini-comics & zines by kids. So if superhero comics went away tomorrow, if DC & Marvel packed it in with regard to publishing actual comics, it wouldn’t really effect my store much.
QRD – If you weren’t operating a comic book shop what would you be doing instead?
Benn – Drinking.
QRD – Do you have bargain bins & what are the prices of things in them if so & where do the books in them come from?
Benn – We have a quarter bin. We have $5 grab bags. We have a $5 & under cart of graphic novels. & then, in the record store next to us (Celebrated Summer Records), we have a section of used, clearance & sale books (simply because we don’t have space in our main store).
QRD – What makes your store special to your community that another store transplanted from another city wouldn’t have going for it?
Benn – We’ve been here for 25 years. So we have a certain institutional knowledge of the area. People come to us looking for more than books -- where to eat, where to find other things. When people move to the area, they often connect with us to meet other people through our different clubs as well as through the bar in the back of the bookstore. We lead the effort to fight a Walmart from opening in our area almost 10 years ago. We co-sponsor many events. I’m the president of the local business association & I’m on the board of directors of the Hampden Family Center which is a community resource center for those in need. We believe the role of the local bookstore is to be a community hub.
QRD – What do you think is your store’s all time bestseller & why?
Benn – Mainstream comics-wise, it would have to be Coates’ Black Panther. It was an interesting pairing, plus Coates is from Baltimore. I think his sister bought maybe half our initial shipment up to give to the family. Ha.
I was rather disappointed & miffed to see Marvel’s comments about “diversity titles” recently, as they sell better for us than their traditional titles do.
QRD – How has owning a store effected your own fandom?
Benn – I am not a fan of fandom. I could write a long essay about my issues with it, but to keep it brief, let me say this: Fandom seems to suggest an uncritical dedication to something. I’m only interested in things that are good. So where someone might be an Avengers fan, they will continue to consume any Avengers-related crap product & enjoy it. One of my favorite superheroes is Batman. But if a Batman series is crap, I don’t read it. I don’t feel the need to wear a Batman t-shirt.
I have also noticed a level of entitlement that comes with fandom. Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of great press & included on a lot of good lists, like “Best Comic Store in the Country” type of lists. What happens is someone sees that list, slaps on their under-sized, pit-stained Wolverine t-shirt & comes to the store expecting to find Jack Kirby Valhalla. We are not that kind of store. We are the kind store that stocks Los Bros Hernandez comics. The bar in the back of our shop has a bartop made from Dan Clowes’ Eightball comics, & it’s called “Eightbar.” So you can see the disappointment on their face when they walk in & realize there are no Marvel action figures, there are no superhero logo t-shirts. & they are not just disappointed, but somewhat confused. How can this store be on such a list when it focuses on these weird, self-published, alternative comics instead of sooperhero books. They think comics means one thing & we mean something else.
We are a bookstore that concerns itself with what we think are good & interesting things (which is how we’ve been lucky to end up such lists), which means you won’t find any variant cover Star Trek comics here, but I did just pick up a signed Robert Crumb portfolio you can take a look at.
I also argue (ha, & I said I was going to keep it brief), that most people who like superhero comics don’t actually like comics & those who read e or digital comics don’t actually like comics, they just like their characters, they like their stories. But then don’t actually care about the object (aside from collectibility which is something else entirely) or the medium.
I worked several years in a mainstream comics shop in the early ‘90s. & we would sell 100s of copies of X-Men titles. & we’d also carry a few copies of books like Acme Novelty Library, Black Hole, Eightball, Hate, Dirty Plotte, Peep Show, Palookaville, etc. (because I would insist on it). Best case scenario, I could hand sell a couple copies of those books, but by & large, the people buying 100s of copies of X-Men were not willing or interested in non-superhero fare. Why? Because it’s not about comics as a medium for them, it’s about characters. Genre. Brand identification.
Having Atomic Books now, I see more customers reading a book like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home & are more open-mined to give something like Bitch Planet a try, moreso than someone who collects Spider-Man is willing to give Maus a try. So, superhero fans - most don’t care about comics. They care about characters.
QRD – Would you ever sell the store?
Benn – How much are you offering?
QRD – Anything else?
Benn – I think I’ve said enough. Probably too much.