Over March break my family was traveling in Ontario and I had an afternoon available to check out four local comic shops. I did an internet search for comic shops and came up with the four locations quickly; putting them on a map I decided my best route and put the four addresses in the GPS. This is a far cry from the old days of getting to the hotel and rifling through the yellow pages under “Books, Used” and then trying to find the addresses on a city map.

I wanted to stay as anonymous as possible since some of the shops participate in our Retailer Q feature, plus we’ve been mulling over a secret shopper kind of comic shop review and this gave me some things to look for. Before starting I made a list of things to look for: Canadian content, range of material, access to merchandise, knowledge of staff.

Personally I was looking for old or discounted hardcovers: material that’s out of print or off the beaten path. You know, the kind of thing that’s been sitting on a shelf for ten years. I’m earnestly trying to track down Graphitti Designs hardcovers from the 1980s and 90s; great material and relatively low demand. If the store has been in business that long there’s a good chance you’ll come across some real treasures.

Back to the shopping criteria. As I went from store to store it became apparent these shops had evolved to serve their markets; small minimal store to behemoth packed with everything you could think of. At the end of the day I realized access to merchandise is a big deal.

When I say access I mean just that: if you’re a consumer browsing a store then you want to be able to see, scrutinize and possibly handle everything for sale. One location had their back issues behind the counter in thick stacks: there may have been over one hundred books there but I could only see the top of each pile. Another store had a third of the store behind the counter, loaded with all kinds of wonderful looking things but customers weren’t allowed in that area. My favourite shop had everything I could want in a comic store but the lighting was dim and the wall comics were so high up on the wall I was straining my neck to see what was there and had to request each be taken down to get any idea of condition. If I can’t get to it as a customer I can’t buy it.

Be assured every retailer asked me what I was looking for, and since I wanted old and obscure hardcovers told me that they didn’t have it, but targeting only specific requests eliminates a lot of sales opportunities. When I arrived at a shop that had a well staged large selection I was able to browse away, picking up a stack of books I didn’t know I wanted.

Back to secret shopping and rating comic stores. Is it worth it? Or should we stick with highlighting the cream of the crop in our Progressive Comic Shops feature?