Thursday, March 20, 2008

Interview: Andy Graves, owner of the Happy Bookseller

The Happy Bookseller is Columbia's largest independent bookstore, a fixture in the city for over 33 years. While graphic novels are not the cornerstone of the business, they do sell respectable numbers for the store. Although I failed to discuss this in the course of the interview, the Happy Bookseller does not report numbers to Bookscan.

I conducted this interview with Happy Bookseller owner and manager Andy Graves on March 10, 2008.

Q: Mostly you're stocking graphic novels here, instead of the traditional format comics.

A: That's right.

Q: About how many of those do you keep in stock at any given time?

A: Probably 30 to 50, in that range. It varies with the time of year; towards the holidays, we might ramp up inventory a little bit.

Q: What kind of stuff do you think you have the most success selling here?

A: We do best with what you might call the mainline stuff, the stuff that's published by Random House, like Pantheon does the Maus stuff. Most of the major houses now have realized the viability of the literary comic, if you will. Norton distributes Drawn and Quarterly, von Holtzbrinck, which has just been renamed Macmillan, has First Second. So they're clearly catching on with most of the major houses, they're realizing there's commercial viability in mainline bookstores like ours.

Q: So you're doing better with the more literary, artistic graphic novels than other things which chain bookstores do well with, like manga.

A: Yeah, we can't give manga away. We've had shelves and shelves and shelves of it, and it just sits. But I understand that the Books-a-Million, which is like half a mile down the street from us, blows it out the door. I think it's probably just a question of established customer patterns. If they [customers] think that's where they go for it, it's really hard to change people's minds.

Q: How about what dominates the American comics industry, the superhero genre. How do those do here?

A: Well, it all depends on the bookseller. If we have a bookseller here who's particularly into Batman or whatever, then they can sell them, but if we just put it on the shelf it will just sit on the shelf. Like Compton, who's on staff right now, he's really into Batman, so he can push that stuff. But left to its own devices, it wouldn't move.

Q: So it's the literary comics which the casual customer browsing the shelf picks up.

A: Exactly.

Q: Which titles in particular are doing well here?

A: Persepolis does very well, like I said earlier Maus does very well. Pretty much anything Speigelman does does well. Daniel Clowes has done well, Chris Ware has done well. The usual suspects, who you would think.

Q: What are the kind of things you look for when you're ordering books? Like if a title you're not familiar with is being offered for the first time.

A: Comics, as you can tell from this interview, is not my cup of tea, so we lean heavily on somebody on staff, or if it's [an established author] we keep up with those guys. Also, the publisher's reps, they'll tell us if it's a much more commercially viable title. Comics are like a lot of things, some things have to percolate in their subgenre before they're ready to come over into the mass media. Usually our sales reps have a pretty good idea if it's something is at that tipping point where it's going to start breaking big.

Q: You hear that other bookstores, particularly something like Borders, find that graphic novels are one of their few areas of growth. Have they done better here over the past few years?

A: They're clearly doing better. I can't speak for Borders, but when something has traditionally done nothing and all of the sudden does something, that's huge growth. Certainly I wouldn't say it's something that's has a huge impact on our bottom line, at least for now. But we're always on the lookout—independent bookselling is all about finding a niche market and mining it. It seems like graphic novels will be one of those.

Q: Do you ever look at more obscure presses, like Bodega or Picturebox, or publishers who release more art-driven comics?

A: Well, we wouldn't intentionally not look at those things, we just really wouldn't know about them. Unless one of our employees were to say, "hey, you really need to look at this thing." Those guys, as far as I know, don't have any kind of outreach to us. No emails or catalogs, and that's basically how we do most of our buying, especially if someone doesn't have a sales rep they send to us. If we don't get an email or catalog, we don't really have any way of knowing about it.

Q: What kind of advice would you give to a publisher wanting to get more business in the independent bookstore market?

A: I would just contact us. I think most independent bookstores these days realize there's a market there, and I think we all would have seen substantial enough sales on the books we've been talking about that we'd be willing to take a chance on stuff. What most booksellers are going to need is to be educated, though. I'm pretty young in the realm of independent booksellers, and I can tell you most of the older folks, with all due respect, they're not going to have any kind of notion about any of this kind of stuff. You've got to educate them, tell them if they're selling Persepolis or Acme Novelty Library, this might be something they may want to take a look at. Also, I think distribution of comics—I think Diamond was the big distributor? They've been kind of really hard for us to deal with. I don't know if they're just set up to deal with comics shops or what they're deal is. If we wanted to order something from Diamond—I mean, we could do it, but we'd pay full retail. And you can't make any money buying stuff at full retail. It's been a long time—maybe they've changed their policies.

Q: Plenty of people who operate stores that just sell comics also have complaints about Diamond, too, like they're a monopoly.

A: Monopolies are never good.

Q: So you're doing most of your ordering through Baker & Taylor for comics, or….

A: Well, we restock occasionally through the wholesalers, like Baker & Taylor or Ingram. As an independent bookstore, I really believe we should trade with independent publishers. We should do as much direct business as we can—and that's not to say that Baker & Taylor or Ingram don't have a place, but we do try to buy directly from the publishers as much as possible. I think that's the most direct way to express your support for them.

The Happy Bookseller is located at 4525 Forest Drive, Columbia, South Carolina. Its website is here; you can also visit its MySpace page.


Johnny Bacardi said...

Out of curiosity, have they always been in that building? It looks like it used to be a bank branch or something...

ADD said...

Great work, Dick!

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

Johnny, I'm not sure. It's been in that building for several years. A couple of the store's employees read this blog. Maybe they'll tell us, assuming they know.

Eric Reynolds said...

Cool piece! Love the pics. FYI, tho', Norton actually distributes Fantagraphics. D&Q is with FSG.

Steven Rowe said...

it's been in that building a long time - I cant say Ive bought any comics there, I do buy plenty of "books of local interest" - histories, etc there. guess I'll look at the comics not time I go in

Anonymous said...

The building was constructed in 1988 for the Happy Bookseller, and at the time it was the largest bookstore in South Carolina.
-Dick’s brother

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the Fantagraphics slip up. I knew it was Norton, just misspoke. Thanks, again, for coming to chat. Andy G.

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