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?