May 11, 2011

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Free Comic Book Day Done Right: Atomic Books in Baltimore

Atomic Books Free Comic Book Day in Baltimore

I had the pleasure of finally getting to participate in Free Comic Book Day for the first time this year, at one of my local stores, Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD. While I am a huge comic book fan, something has always come up on FCBD that prevented me from going, whether it was the opening of an amusement park or a once-a-year chance to see a friend. I’d almost come to believe I’d never get to be a part of one, but this year the stars aligned for me and I was able to get out to the store and see what the publishers were pushing, possibly to a non-comics audience.

Atomic Books is one of those awesome stores that did not limit picking up comics, asking only that you pick only those you really wanted and that you take only one of each book. They’d even taken pains to keep a knowledgeable person by the comics to talk to people about them and organized them so that the kid-friendly books were all together, making selection easy for parents. In addition, they ran a sale on all comic-related items and put out some older books (a few of which had links to FCBD material) on a deep discount.

Any person walking by was greeted by free books and a friendly face, with compelling reasons to at least look deeper into the store. From my limited time hanging out at Atomic Books, this setup was working quite well for them. People were attracted to the table, the small store had quite a few folks inside, and it seemed like their cashier stayed busy just about the entire time. Folks were poking around the new release table, seeing what everyone from Kodansha to Drawn and Quarterly had to offer. (This store is less heavily focused on superhero comics.)

I know that my experience with FCBD is limited, but my feeling is that this is how FCBD should work. I don’t think I could be bothered if I had to ask permission for certain free comics or bring a demo copy up to the desk for retrieval. If I was new to the idea of a comic shop, barriers like this would be an extreme turn-off. Casual interest needs to be met at the door. Think about having an open house. Would you wander in if the door was shut, the punch was under glass, and it required running a gauntlet just to eat a cocktail wiener and see what the party was about? Now imagine yourself as a parent, staring in at a store with Adam Hughes busts, doing its best Spencer’s impression? Why would you even try?

Though it seems like Free Comic Book Day has morphed into an event where hard-core comics readers come out for free samples and signings, I think that is generally a mistake. Sure I love free comics, and yes, I took my share. But this event shouldn't be about me, or, quite frankly, about most of you reading this. It should be a chance for people who haven't touched a comic in years to see what's out there, from the newest Spider-Man storyline to a variety of books for all ages, with characters both new and familiar. Those are the people FCBD needs to hook, not us.

By being friendly and welcoming, Atomic Books might just have the right idea. If every story tried that approach once a year--or even better, once every few months--there might be some extra customers gained, and publishers would look at what they want, not just what the usual 30,000 or so people who buy the same story over and over want.

Publishers, retailers, and readers would all be better for it.

Thanks again, Atomic Books. You did a great job, and I'd love to see people follow your lead. See you on my next visit. I hope I see some of those new faces next time as well. We gain when we grow, not when we are insular. Let's keep that in mind for next Free Comic Book Day.