Obsessively arranged comic shop Phoenix Comics knows how to give customers their superhero fix.
For a store that consistently tops Fast Forward Weekly’s Best of Calgary comics shop category, Phoenix Comics on 16th Ave N.W. is certainly unassuming. Sun-bleached posters for cross-title Marvel and DC events prevent anyone from looking through the iron-barred windows, and the Batman-logo shingle hanging above the door shows the same weather.
Inside, reasons for the shop's popularity become more obvious. The store is bright and clean, with titles organized logically across tall, thin racks whose arrangement leaves just enough room to navigate. As customers come in and look around, the man and woman behind the counter grin and say “Hello” before returning to their reading. It's a relaxed yet professional environment that welcomes browsing and rewards repeat visitation with the unspoken camaraderie that exists between members of all niche subcultures. I might have gone and introduced myself even if I wasn't there to write about the store.
Michael Bower, the owner of the northwest location of Phoenix Comics, is a sunny fellow who gives the impression of owning a vast collection of old T-shirts. He's only too happy to discuss the relative merits of Kurt Busiek and Warren Ellis (two big-name contemporary writers) before launching into an interview, and the verve and focus with which he'll tackle a customer request suggests something of the obsessive organizational skills required to devise Phoenix's tight, Tetris-like shelving arrangements. I know without asking that he loves his job.
“I opened the store in '94, right when the big bust hit,” he says, referring the bubble bursting on comics collectability in the mid-’90s. “I was 21 and I didn't really know what I was doing. Which is, of course, the best time to start your own business.”
There's been much ado about the decline of comics readership and the flagging industry in general from both comics creators and commentators. Modern comics series tend to mimic the television-production model: If it drops below a targeted number of readers, cancellation is imminent. Some ideas have emerged that provide some hope for the industry — using the page as a place to hash out new ideas for stories and set pieces that may one day migrate into one of Marvel or DC's film divisions — but for the most part the future of mainstream comics remains uncertain. Bower, however, thinks the worrying is unwarranted.
“In the ’90s, that huge decline in sales numbers had nothing to do with readership,” he says. “It was the speculators leaving the market. Too many people were collecting and so, suddenly, comics weren't worth anything. We see collections from the ’90s with 20 of one issue in them all the time.... The Death of Superman sold 1.5 million copies, but definitely didn't have 1.5 million readers. It was just that everyone who bought it bought 10 copies.”
Though Phoenix stopped carrying back issues a few years ago as a result of lack of collectability, Bower says the decline isn't hurting his business. When he got rid of the back issue long-boxes, he made room to carry more anime and Magic cards — two geek items that have seen a precipitous rise in popularity over the past few years. Between their constant reappraisal of what they need to do in order to continue catering to their consumer base, as well as the extra bodies a second location on 17th Ave. S.W. adds, it's no wonder Phoenix continues to win Fast Forward Weekly’s reader vote.
“We know our customers either by name or by face,” Bower chuckles. “We have a small staff, too, so people get used to who's here. And people know that if they ask questions here, they'll get answers. We're always happy to give out recommendations.”