In my earlier post, I tried to be as honest as I could about my impressions of the shop I visited, and I tried to be very clear that I didn't harbor any bad feelings about the shop or anyone working there. Just speaking as someone who's been to more than a few different comic shops over the years, talked to a number of retailers personally, and has a Masters degree in business, I tried to list out what struck me as poor decisions (or possibly a lack of decisions at all) with regard to how they run their business. "These are things in the shop that could/should be improved."
Alverson's post, by it's very nature, is decidedly more positive in tone. She notes that she'd had enough bad experiences in comic shops to not go in them at all for two decades, but she focuses the piece on what she would love to see in a comic shop. It's her "ideal" -- meaning it doesn't actually exist that she knows of, but wouldn't it be fabulous if it did?
I was originally struck that my post generated any comments at all. I have a track record of not getting much feedback, so I was pleasantly surprised that I got a pair of responses. What surprised me even more, though not so pleasantly, was that both commenters apparently thought I was being wholly unreasonable, one calling me a "condescending prick." Because I held the opinion that a particular comic shop was run poorly. A shop which, by the way, I went out of my way to NOT name because I didn't want any chance of them losing business because of me.
This afternoon, I started reading the responses to Alverson's post. She had more comments (no surprise, given her and my relative statures in the blogosphere) and they were invariably more positive (also no surprise, given how much more positive her initial tone was). But she still got one commenter calling the post "offensive" and another suggesting that she had no real right to complain because some people don't have ANY comic shops that they can get to.
My first thought was, "How can anyone reasonably argue that some people have bad experiences in comic shops, and they think that shouldn't happen?" Because, first, you have to completely discount the other person's impressions or feelings. And then, you have to deny that anyone else feels the same way. And THEN, you have deny that anyone ever COULD feel that same way.
As I worked through my disbelief at the 'rationality' that has to be in place to make these types of arguments, it then struck me. "Wow -- that is the EXACT same thought process that people use to discount racism in comics!"
Granted, racism is clearly a more significant and important concern, and I am not calling anyone racist. But the reasons people are generating to excuse the continued existence of bad comic book shops follow the same logic as the reasons people are generating to excuse the continued emphasis on the "superiority" of Caucasians in comics. Don't believe me? Here are The Double Standard's "2010's Top 10 Excuses for Racism" with the language slightly tweaked to direct it towards how comic shops sometimes operate...
10. It's just good marketing. Their target audience is male, so what do you expect?
9. Anyway, spas, hair salons, etc. do it too! They don’t let men in and that’s reverse discrimination.
8. It’s always been like this. What’s the big deal?
7. I mean, I can’t think of any women who want to go in comic shops anyway.
6. Who cares? Anyone can walk into a comic shop.
5. We’re all human. So what if they only cater towards men?
4. It’s a private business. If you don’t like it, just don’t buy it. Go somewhere else.
3. It’s a free country. Comic shops should be able to say or show what they want even if it’s insulting to women.
2. It’s sexist to point out it’s sexist.
1. Stop being so politically correct. It’s annoying.
You might note that some of those I didn't change AT ALL.
Without getting into a long, storied history of comics, I think it should be suffice to say that it's been a boys' club for many years, and it scares the hell out of some guys to think that their clubhouse might be overrun with women. As if making a comic shop "female friendly" means turning it into something men despise. As if it's a 1950 sitcom and having a woman around meant there were nylons and panties hanging all over the place. That guys need a collective "man cave" (Oh, thank you ever so much for popularizing that notion, Mr. John Gray!) to the complete exclusion of women.
Not to mention that "female friendly" is the wrong phrase to use anyway. How about "customer friendly"? For as much as women don't all fit the stereotype of shopping all the time and talking about hair and shoes, men don't fit the stereotype of slouching around all the time scratching themselves amid a pile of empty beer cans and pizza boxes. I'm not a female; I'm not a neat freak; I don't have OCD. But that comic shop I mentioned earlier was JUST PLAIN UNCOMFORTABLE. Physically uncomfortable. It was poorly laid out and cramped; titles were hard to find; and it just made for a poor experience. Even though I wasn't female and even though I didn't have any lude, crude or otherwise offensive language directed towards me.
Where was I? Oh, right: scared guys.
So what these comic shops are -- these lousy ones that make women especially feel uncomfortable -- are essentially what these scared guys will tolerate for the sake of keeping women out of their club. Their in-group. They don't want to disrupt the group dynamic within their in-group too much, so they only allow one or two people in at a time, and then under close observation. If a comic book shop suddenly became "female friendly" over, say, a weekend, then they'd theoretically have a huge influx of people who previously were not part of their in-group. They wouldn't be able to teach all of these newcomers to conform to their in-groups norms and mores. It would change their group dynamic.
And THAT is really scary.
See, this in-group that frequents comic shops? They probably had a significant say in what their in-group at their local comic shop feels like. They contributed to that shop's vibe. But if they suddenly represent a much smaller proportion of that in-group, they have less of a say in what the group likes overall. They're liable to lose control over that vibe. And people who are likely to be less secure and more afraid in general. And who wants that?
(Side note to tie things together. Racism generally stems from that same insecurity and fear.)
Now, a lot of this falls back on the shop owner. It's their store, after all, and they're the one who does a lot to set the mood of the place. The layout, the colors, the music (if any) that's playing. And a lot of these guys opened shop not because they thought it was a good business move, but because they just thought it would cool to be surrounded by comics all day. So, instead of applying some business common sense to the store -- like, say, making it comfortable for the customers -- they simply make it a reflection of themselves. The colors they like, the music they listen to, etc. Whether or not the customers like/respond to it is immaterial, as far as they're concerned.
So when I criticize a comic shop or when Brigid Alverson lists things she'd love to see comic shops do, that will likely scare people. It scares people who don't want to give up whatever control they have over their little neck of the woods. We learned in what I refer to as "The Tao of Grover" that fear leads to anger (pop culture kudos to those who get the double-reference) hence the negative responses.
Which suggests that the only way we're going to get good comic shops across the board is to drag all of these scared individuals kicking and screaming into good comic shops to show them how much better it can be. Or just leave them by the side of the curb; I'm okay with that too.