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Feature Wed Jun 02 2010
Longtime manager of Chicago Comics Eric Thornton has seen his share of sequential art trends, changing demographics, and many, many comics. Talking through issues of publishing and demographics revealed something of the institution's lasting appeal: carry a wide selection, carry a lot of it, and have something for everyone.
Name: Eric Thornton
Job: Chief Executive Operating Officer of Chicago Comics, coming up on 14 years.
Education: Southwest Missouri State, which no longer exists.
Location: Humboldt Park
Hometown: Jefferson City, MO
Favorite place in Chicago: The lakefront.
Did you grow up wanting to run a comic book store?
What was your first comic book store?
Horrible store. It was called Prince Mark's Comics, in Jefferson City, Missouri. Most of the year it was flooded, so parts of it were usually underwater. The guy who ran it, total Android's Dungeon dude. But if I organized comics for him, he'd let me take whatever I want. I'm 12 or 13, and I'd be like "I'm taking all this porn home." and he'd be like "Gooooo ahead."
Eric in his earliest comic reading days
Nice. How'd you get from there to Chicago Comics?
It wasn't until I left college, moved to Chicago, had jobs here and there. The first time I walked into Chicago Comics, I went, "Holy shit. This is the greatest store I've ever seen. I love this place." Every week I'd come in and be like "You gotta job? You gotta job? You gotta job?" When Eric bought Quimby's, he needed extra staffing, and so they brought me on board doing basement work, and then I'd man Quimby's at its old location.
What wisdom would you pass along to people wanting to open their own store?
I would say open it in a town that doesn't have a thousand stores. There are towns where there's nothing. The problem is...I think the direct market is going to keep contracting. Just with digitization, it's going to completely change the landscape. The economy's just not at the place to get into printed matter.
When you say direct market, you mean?
The direct market is the term for actual brick and mortar stores.
What have you seen stores that are successful do? On the flip side of that, what have you seen stores do that made them go under, or helped?
The worst thing to do is think you're always right. This is fatal. If your identity is I'm a pissy guy who doesn't like anybody and has piles of comics that I don't organize, I'm old school, that's not a good identity.
But, I think every store's got to have its thing. Challengers has got this friendly, we're just gonna talk vibe. And Chicago Comics is like if you can't find it at a store in Chicago, we're probably going to have it. We've got a lot of stuff. We're also into the small press, and the zine, and stuff like that. But the problem is, business has to be good, it has to work. And what works at one point doesn't always work. This is an endurance thing.
Always think about how I can change this, how I can make it better. And also, what do people want?
You have to pay attention to them.
Definitely. That's just respecting your customers. That's the problem with a lot of comic book store owners: so many of them are following their own dreams, that they forget basic business practices.
How do you feel Chicago Comics has evolved over the years?
We're more dependent on mainstream now than we were 10 years ago. When Chicago Comics first started, it was first and foremost an independent small press. there was a golden age in the 90's that doesn't exist. You're not gonna be able to walk in and go okay, here's a new issue of Maus, here's a new issue of Eightball, here's a new issue of Acme Novelty Library. Now, if you're a small press person, you can come into a shop every six months and there's not going to be that much of a difference.
Why do think that is?
Independent comics are hard to do and hard to make a living off of -- even if you're a famous small press artist. I'd say 10 years ago, we were relatively snobbish about superhero comics.
Do you like superhero comics?
Oh yeah, I always have. Well...in the 90's, I didn't. The only superhero comics I read were Peter David's Hulk, and I would say Doom Patrol, Animal Man, the Grant Morrison stuff. That was it.
Have you noticed any trends in who's reading comics?
People start later...there's no kids that read comics. Really, it's not until somebody gets out of college nowadays, that I get people who are honestly coming in with that hunger. That's happening now in like mid- to late- 20's, which is weird.
Earlier, we were talking about how warm weather brings the crazies out. Any particularly out there events happen during your time?
We had, I think it was a Bowen replica of Thor's hammer. $500. This dude comes in wasted with his girlfriend, asks is that the Thor hammer, asks how much it is. We tell him 495. He says he'll take it. We said uh, okay, we'll go get the box for you. He was like no, I don't want it. I'm just going to carry the hammer. This guy buys this $500 statue hammer, walks out the door stumbling down the street with it.
Getting back to your normal, non-hammer wielding customers...it's easy to rely on people's love of superheroes or love of Dan Clowes. I buy Batman anything, even when it's not that good. How do you try to get people interested in other stuff? What's the best way to get people to expand their horizons?
Usually through the team -- the artist and the writer. Because I mean, nobody stays on the same title forever, but you get somebody who's just like oh, you know, I'm a huge Avengers fan. I love Avengers, Avengers, Avengers. And you say, you know, the guy who's writing that is also writing Powers. Perhaps you should check that out.
What are other ways comic book stores can keep people coming back?
I think you've got to evolve into not just being a comic book store. I think you've got to be a comic-pop culture-memorabilia-whatever. Have shit in the store that's not just paper. Whatever. But just a lot of something that's not comics. Because if you bring a non-comic reader into a comic book store that's all comics, they're not gonna stay. A good third of our customer base doesn't read comics. That's huge. So diversify, diversify, diversify.