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Where are America’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror specialist retailers?

I spent last week in London on business. I love London, even in chilly, misty, drizzly January. One of the reasons why is because it is home to Forbidden Planet, the world’s largest and (to the best of my knowledge) only chain (though technically a pair of chains – see update below) retailer specializing in science fiction, fantasy, and horror products. The London megastore sits on two floors, stocked to the gills with action figures, comic books, graphic novels, trade and mass-market books, and DVDs: if it is genre, odds are you can find it there. Split between two somewhat-related separate companies (Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International), the Forbidden Planet brand name offers twenty-five different locations in the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom – home to sixty two million souls – can support twenty five chain outlets, why can’t the US – with five times the population – do the same?

UPDATE: Just a word of clarification since the above might not be clear: Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International are in fact two separate companies. The former has nine stores in the UK, while the latter has thirteen branded outlets in the UK, one in Ireland, one in New York, and two other associated (though not branded) stores in the UK. While the two were related in the past (per Wikipedia), they are now operated as two completely independent companies. However, this fact does nothing to detract from the main point of this post: where are our genre chains in the United States?

Both countries have their share of general media retailers: the United States is home to Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy. The United Kingdom is home to W.H. Smith and Waterstone’s. Despite the ever-present moans of indie media outlets (whether booksellers or comic book shops), both have reasonably vibrant indie communities. I find it unlikely that the UK has a larger number of genre fans as a percentage of the population than the United States. If that were the case, then the UK would host a far greater number of genre publications (pro, small-press, and amateur) than it does.

Forbidden Planet (at least the London megastore, which admittedly may not be a representative sample) knows the genre business far better than its more general counterparts. The store is clearly divided by product type. Action figures, novelty items, and gaming are in one area. Anime, graphic novels, comic books, and regular books are in another. The book section is impressively stocked and organized along broad genre lines. Each section is consistently sub-divided, with its own “New Releases”, a “Chart” section where top-sellers are shown face-out with shelf talkers, and a general stock alphabetically arranged by author. This structure makes navigating the shelves a downright pleasure. Identifying what is new, and spotting what is performing well within a given category is very easy – whether you’re familiar with the genre or not.

This type of organizational scheme would be unimaginable at a general retailer. However, it is not a product of the stocking teams’ deep knowledge of the genre. Instead, it is the product of solid operational management. While visiting the store on a Tuesday mid-afternoon, I got to watch shelves being re-stocked. The stocking teams used netbook computers with bar code scanners to control inventory and shelf placement. This makes it possible for even new employees without genre familiarity to stock shelves properly. Forbidden Planet earns a gold star in shelf management in my book, especially when compared to recent experiences at (the admittedly beleaguered) Borders.

Several weeks ago, I was looking for a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. I went online, and the Borders web site told me that it was “likely in store” at my local retailer. I drove on over, and proceeded to check the in-store computer. It told me to check in the graphic novel section, where I was patently unable to identify any organizational method. Seeking help from an employee, I was told that it was in fact in stock, and that it would be in the criticism section. Of course, it was not. I checked with a different employee, and was told it would be in with the art books. And of course, it was not. Contrast this ordeal with the simple process of stopping by Forbidden Planet, wandering through the graphic novel section, and finding it precisely in the “M” section of independent graphic novels. I would expect to find this title in both stores, but the operational management of Forbidden Planet left me a satisfied customer while Borders failed me.

The United States has its share of specialist booksellers. Whether it is Borderlands Books in San Francisco, or Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, many offer a fine selection and deep understanding of genre style and history. However, as a general rule these bookstores are independent one-location operations. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. With so many genre fans in the US, perhaps we, too, could support a chain of specialist media stores like Forbidden Planet? Economies of scale would help with profitability (the interminable lament of the indie bookseller), while technology would make operations and quality-control easier across a network of locations. On an early Tuesday afternoon, the London store was reasonably full of shoppers and needed two cashiers to service the line of customers waiting to buy. Why doesn’t America have something comparable?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Does Best Buy sell books? I’ve never noticed them when I’ve been in there. I thought they were strictly electronics/home appliances, music CDs.

    February 2, 2011
    • Best Buy doesn’t sell books, however they do sell eReaders and many, many DVDs (genre and otherwise). It was partially in response to Best Buy’s growing popularity that Borders and Barnes & Noble introduced DVD and music selections into their stores a couple of years ago. It’s all a converged media landscape out there. 🙂

      February 2, 2011
  2. Oh right, right. The Borders in my area have had music for years, it’s just the last few years they started been cutting back, almost eliminating music. I haven’t seen music at B&N, but they’ve sold computer software for a long time. Maybe it’s regional, they introduce different offerings in different areas.

    This area (Portland, OR) has loads of comics book stores, and stuff like TFAW which has 4 stores here in OR, and one in CA. Maybe this is Geek Land. 😉

    February 2, 2011
  3. This is a good question. The last time I was in London I was surprised there were as few specialist stores as there were for a city of its size. Some of them I had to ride the tube for nearly an hour to get to. Especially when compared to a relatively small city such as Portland Oregon which seems to be jam packed with them and typically just a short MAX and Bus Ride away.

    This is something I’ve noticed in general though happening in my area. That being the Metro Atlanta region. Over the last decade, we have lost effectively all of our specialty stores. We’ve lost probably a dozen comic book stores, both of our Games Workshop stores, both of our Anime stores and virtually all of our generic Gaming stores are long gone. The City of Athens, home of the University of Georgia, with a student population in the 10’s of thousands you would imagine could boast many specialty stores. 10 years ago you would have been correct. It used to have 5 comic book stores, 1 war-gaming store, and a gaming/anime store.. It now has 1 comic book store and 1 gaming/anime store. I’d be hard pressed to talk about causes for this, but I figure it’s likely the same thing thats causing the Postal Service and the Book retailers so much grief. The Internet.

    I’d rather give my dime to Powell’s who almost always has what I want in stock, be it used or new, than to Borders or Barnes & Noble who stock no out of print material and barely stock back catalog stuff thats still in print. If I wanted to wait 2 weeks to get it, I’d just order it online!

    So with that said, I imagine it would be immensely difficult task to try and establish the sort of retailer your discussing.. Though it would no doubt be a great experience to shop in a store where they actually had some clue as to what was in stock and where it was. Though a few places in the US do have stores that specialize in the Mystery genre, and I think a few that specialize in the Horror Genre. But I can’t think of any that specialize in Sci-Fi/ Fantasy.. let alone just one or the other… even though they have a vast footprint in every book store I go too..

    May 11, 2011

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