Aberdeen City has some well established comic book stores and over the festive period I managed to get in contact with Asylum Books and Games, which is a local comic book store that was established in 1999.
Over the past week I have met up with the owner, Mike McLean, and got to know the in’s and out’s of the store and it’s customers. Since it’s inception, ‘Asylum Books and Games’ has become well known within the local comic book scene in Aberdeen, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet up with those who work there.
When I first arrived at the store, I must admit that I was nervous. Despite being part of a marketing team before for a university project, I had never really been by myself when I went to conduct an interview. However, once I had arrived at the store and introduced myself to the owner, I felt much more at ease. For my first ever interview with a comic book store in Aberdeen, this was a warm introduction to the Aberdeen comic scene.
Can you tell me a bit about how the history of your store?
Where would I start? I have been a comic fan all my life, my earliest memories are reading comics. Starting with all the kinds of things you would expect, Pippin and Playland, Beano and Dandy. As I got older I got into things like Victor and Hotspur, and then I got into Marvel Comics. I couldn’t find a store that was doing what I wanted out of comics locally, so I did it myself. My first job was working in a comic shop, Parker’s on King Street. I got to the point in my life where I had done so many dust jacket jobs that I thought it was time to do something that I wanted to do. The only job I had ever really been happy with was that.
What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face as a business owner?
Initially I would have said the rates, but the small business rates relief has killed that so, just cash flow. Cash flow, because whilst I have the product, somebody says they want the product and I have it for them, do they pick it up? So, just the normal thing that you would expect from any retail business.
Originally how did you come up with the name for your store? Is there a meaning behind it?
There is a meaning behind it, and I was reasonably sneaky about it. I went to someone far more creative than me. I went to Colin MacNeil, he came up with Asylum and the logo. For the committed collector was my pun. Colin’s far more creative so I went to him, and he also pointed out that “Asylum” doesn’t just mean a lunatic asylum, there is also the sanctuary aspect to it. So, for a lot of people it’s where they come to work and hang out, and it also means we’re early in the phone book. You go into a search engine and generally lists them alphabetical, which puts me at the top.
How would you describe your main customer base?
I don’t know. People who like to read, I guess. Our crew aren’t so much bothered by toys and action figures, we’re more the people who want books, which is if you look around the room the place is full of books. So, yeah, the story-orientated fans tend to wind up here, and if you’ve been downstairs they’re always lurking and looking for this back issue and that back issue, or that trade and this book. So yeah, people who like to read.
So, would you say that is what sets your comic book store apart from the other comic book stores in Aberdeen, or would you say there is something else?
I would say we are the ones with the biggest range. If you are a reader, nobody touches me in this city with trades or back issues. Nobody is even close.
As a business owner, do you have a particular strategy that you’ve adopted?
Try to be the best at what you do? I very much focus on finding what people want. For example, one guy Scott, who should be in later, now has all the issues of Daredevil. The only reason he is missing that one issue is because it is issue 1, and it’s about £900 and he doesn’t have that money right at this moment and time. So yeah, I am the guy who is constantly always looking at a spreadsheet of things people want and hunt them down this issue or that book, speaking to other dealers and wheeling and dealing. We’re very much customer service orientated.
Do you think that there are any difficulties for anyone who is looking to get into comic retail themselves?
In this city, we are already pretty well subscribed. I don’t think a fourth shop would really meet much traction. Plan 9 are very good at the collectible side of things, Forbidden Planet are very good at the toy side of things, and we are the comic side of things. So, there’s not really a niche left, I would have said.
Yeah, it’s all kind of been catered for?
At the moment, what would you say your bestselling comics are and why do you think that is?
Let me just look that up. I have a database here, so I can tell you what sells best!…I think different things sell for different reasons. Your major characters are always going to be big selling. Things like Batman, Superman, Spiderman are always pretty big. Historically, our biggest selling title was Garth Ennis’ “The Boys”, which was more of a parody than anything else, but because it was taking a light-hearted look at comic in general and made it very accessible outside, as there were a lot of people who didn’t read comics before that who were quite interested in “The Boys”. The Walking Dead is pretty big. Saga is pretty big, that’s largely because Saga crosses so many genres. You think of a genre and it’s probably in Saga somewhere. Romance, swords and sorcery, science fiction – it’s all mushed into one kind of homogeneous story. Historically I can sell more of Barry Ween than anything.
Barry Ween, Boy genius. I sell more copies of that trade paperback than I do The Watchmen.
I have not read Watchmen in years.
You can imagine I still sell Watchmen even after all these years. I’ll sell 20/30 copies a year, and more like 40 copies of Barry Ween. It’s just a particular sense of humor that appeals to a lot people across a lot of different genre’s. Even people who are not into comics per say will find Barry Ween’s potty mouth and dark humor quite amusing.
So, you were saying Batman and Superman are the obvious ones that are big sellers, what advice would you give to somebody who isn’t really into superhero comics?
There’s loads and loads of comics out there in different genres. Everybody sees comics and thinks superheroes, but that’s just a success of the big 2 (Marvel and DC). Bear in mind there are companies out there like Image and Dark Horse who do a lot of things that are non – superhero. My advice is always what kind of genre do you like in movies, and then if you can tell me that I can probably match you to the kind of comic you’ll like in that genre. So, if you like crime movies, there is loads of crime comics I can direct you to. Or if you like horror movies there is loads of horror comics. Just pick a genre.
Ok, last one. Do you think the independent comics struggle to compete against the bigger 2 Marvel and DC?
Two words; Walking. Dead. Hit TV show, how many pieces of merchandise, how many t-shirts have you seen Walking Dead? So, no, not necessarily at all. There are some that will struggle but then there are some that just find their own audience.