Top Shops Features Page 45, Nottingham, England
Retailers are the bricks and mortar of the comic book industry and deserve ongoing support and patronage. Our “Top Shops” interview segment is designed to help readers get acquainted with the owners of some of the best comic book stores around the world.
Sequential Highway is happy to introduce you to Stephen L. Holland, owner of Page 45 located in Nottingham, England.
Peter Howard: Why comic books? What led you to being a comic book retailer?
Stephen L. Holland: Why a comic shop? Because I’m passionate about this medium and care about its creators. Its curators, if you like. So much insight, so much beauty! Artists and writers with something to say, and the skill with which to say it! And, having fallen into the industry by mistake, eighteen years ago I was appalled that in the US and UK the very finest comic book material was being drowned in a stifling slurry of toxic, regurgitated corporate waste. Unlike in France where the medium thrives, all the inspired straight fiction, autobiography, travel, politics, sci-fi, comedy and crime that would appeal to the average person on the High Street was being ignored by other retailers in favour of their childhood superheroes prancing about ad nauseam, filling up the shelves and putting off women in particular. Mark and I looked to Europe, loved what we saw and decided that enough was enough: time for a beautiful book shop full of alluring graphic novels which we could personally promote on the wide-aisled and tidy shop floor to all the new readers we’d lure in through artfully designed window displays.
PH: How would you describe the type of environment you have created for your customers?
SLH: Cosy, warm and welcoming. Particularly to women. We’re the only shop in the US and UK I know of with a 50/50 male/female customer base.
PH: What incentives do you offer your customers?
SLH: Honesty, informed eloquence and hugs on demand. We do hugs on demand! We will, on the other hand, utterly wallop your wallet. Our till is rapacious.
PH: Would you point to something in particular that sets Page 45 apart from other retail stores?
SLH: The diversity of our stock and our passionate to promote it. We have over 7,000 different graphic novels and I love giving extemporised, shop-floor show-and-tells to anyone asking for recommendations. We ask what they love in this or other media and take [it] from there. There’s so little discerning information about comics that we’ve also taken the time to review the majority of our books online too (weekly reviews go up on Wednesday nights at http://www.page45.com/world/ and are then added to our website shopping area for posterity). Also, the consistency of our stock is pretty impeccable, maintained so that a book’s always there when you need it. I’ve been into comic shops before where they have only volumes 3, 7 and 10 of SANDMAN, for example. How can you expect customers to get into a series that way?
PH: What’s your customer demographic? Young, old, male, female, and so on?
SLH: All of the above. Famously we once sold a copy of Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat to an octogenarian, blue-rinsed Tory lady who walked in on his first of many signings here. Never read a comic before in her adult life. She recognised the Lake District watercolours, loved what she saw and bought the book on the spot. She then had a beautiful rat sketched in it and returned the next week to thank us. Result!
PH: Does your shop support and/or promote independent comics and small press?
SLH: Of course we do! What on earth does the publishing status of a comic or graphic novel have to do with its quality or sales potential? We promote comics regardless of who they’re published by. Mark was famous for being “The John Peel of Comics“, discovering fresh talent with new voices, then making them stars in our shop. I adore lovingly handcrafted artefacts, and quite often creators like Lizz Lunney, Marc Ellerby, Dan Berry, Adam Cadwell, John Allison, Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson will sign and sketch in them for free! We want the best comics to reach the widest possible audience – full stop. Oh wait: and we want to make as much money as possible whilst doing so. If you limit your horizons, you limit your income. You limit your attraction as a shop. And you limit the benefits you bring to the industry.
PH: Are your customers attracted to alternative comic books and graphic novels? Are they primarily fans of Marvel and DC?
SLH: Oh, we have plenty of both. I’m grateful for every single sale and buzz off other people’s enthusiasm. We’d never want to stop stocking superhero comics. When they’re wittily written they’re tremendous fun, and we make an enormous amount of money from them. We make substantially more money, however, from all the other genres mentioned above because they are what’s lapped up by the real mainstream – the average person on the street – in other media. They are what’s lapped up in comics on the Continent and at they are what’s lapped up at Page 45 simply because we take the trouble to stock and promote them. We just keep the superheroes at the back so as not to put off the women.
PH: Do you sell equal numbers of comics and graphic novels or a greater volume of one category than the other?
SLH: Graphic novels, collected editions (call them what you will) now make up 80% of our sales. Periodical comic sales are still strong (Fatale, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is through the roof here, outselling every Marvel and DC comic) but the graphic novel is now king. It makes perfect sense: you don’t buy the first ten minutes of a film on DVD. In fact these days you don’t even buy DVDs in episodes, you buy them in whole seasons!
PH: Are any titles favoured among your staff?
SLH: See Always Recommended on our website and Page 45 Comicbook of the Month. That’s the only way to answer that question without listing 200 titles! On the other hand each of us did list our favourite graphic novels in this Page 45 interview by Matthew Dick, and if you want to know what my own top five favourite graphic novels from 2011 were, the answer is Habibi, Big Questions, Daytripper, Nelson and Criminal: Last of the Innocents; and my favourite new series was Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising. My all-time favourite body of work is the autobiographical Alec Omnibus by Eddie Campbell, comics’ finest raconteur!
PH: What are your best sellers?
SLH: Off the top of my head: Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Brubaker & Phillips’ Criminal, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Jeff Smith’s Bone and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Our biggest-ever seller was Cerebus: Zero by Dave Sim and Gerhard, followed by Nabiel Kanan’s Exit. I think for 2011 it was a tossup between Daytripper and Habibi. I’d have to check.
PH: What is important for you to offer your customers?
SLH: The credit card terminal.
PH: Does your business currently embrace digital comics? Do you see digital as a threat or a business opportunity?
SLH: We’re on it, but not behind it. We’re on it because if that’s what you really want, we will sell it to you. We’re not behind it because we, personally, love art objects. The day I prefer to curl up on my sofa with a chunk of cold metal rather than the tactile feel of an organic graphic novel is the day that I will shave my head and…oh, wait.
PH: If you were magically granted the power, would you change anything about the comic book industry and retailing in general?
SLH: Yes: in the US and UK it would all look like Europe where the best-selling books each year are so often graphic novels, and their finest creators are given their due respect by the wider general public and reap the financial rewards. Unfortunately I don’t have a magic wand so instead of merely wishing for it we’re trying to do something about it in order to make it happen. Seems to be working so far!
PH: Who are your top five favourite comic book creators of the past twenty years?
SLH: Pass. I can’t list five without missing out so many others. It’s no coincidence, however, that I head-hunted Nabiel Kanan to illustrate the front page of our website! Looks exactly like the shop.
PH: Do you have a favourite Canadian comic book creator?
SLH: In all honesty, I don’t know who is Canadian and who isn’t, but Cerebus` Dave Sim and Gerhard rather stand out; don’t you think? Cerebus is such an important body of work I went back and reviewed every single one of those books before launching our website. Is Seth Canadian? Seth is amazing. George Sprott blew me away, and then when I saw his physical, three-dimensional cardboard city in Palookaville #20… Wow! Scott Pilgrim`s Bryan Lee O’Malley has to be Canadian, surely. He and Hope Larson broke off their honeymoon to sign with us in 2006, then Bryan insisted on leaving London during the height of the film’s publicity to return once more. Such loyalty, so very kind…
PH: What writers, artists and publishers do you believe have made particularly strong contributions to the comic book industry?
SLH: To the industry? Oh again, Dave Sim. There wouldn’t even be a Page 45 without Dave Sim. He campaigned vigorously, eloquently and persistently for a healthier and more ethical US and UK publishing, distribution and retailer industry, and selflessly helped promote so many current comic book stars. That role has since been embraced by Warren Ellis, half of whose energy, it seems, is devoted to helping other creators reach their potential audience. Again, such generosity. Scott McCloud obviously was another key proponent of creator rights, while Larry Marder is quite possibly the wisest man in comics. As to the publishers, we are all forever in our debt to Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics and Top Shelf and so many self-publishers like Terry Moore at Abstract Studios. Over and over again they put their money where their mouths are. I think, however, you’ve missed out retailers. Without the finest retailers choosing to stock the best comics so that the public has access to them, all is lost, and my favourite peer in the UK is Gosh! in London. Josh at Gosh! and I work together whenever we can.
PH: What types of products and titles are currently absent from the market that you would like to see a publisher producing for you to sell?
SLH: I can’t think of any area in which the best publishers are now falling short. So much straight fiction, autobiography, politics, travel and crime. So many unique voices to discover every single month. The fantasy side’s thriving, the comedy’s covered… There really is something for everyone!
PH: Is there something that you would like potential customers to know about Page 45 that has not been covered in this interview?
SLH: No, you’ve done a magnificent job and I am eternally grateful whilst terminally tardy. Sorry, and all that. The one thing I would emphasise is that we really are here to help: come in and ask questions! Or, if you’re too far away, we’ve tried to make the website experience as close as possible to visiting. You can even ask for personal recommendations from our website! From Tibet! http://www.page45.com/world/about/want-a-recommendation/ Whenever someone walks past the counter, I try to say, “If you have any questions, just ask.” So often that provokes a question which would have gone unasked and therefore unanswered. There is no such thing as a stupid question. Just ask!