TAG. YOU'RE IT.
Our store lives on a main thoroughfare in the heart of an active city. Over the years, I've watched the neighborhood grow, change and grow some more. Corporate buildings going up, houses being built, storefronts expanding. With the growing diversity of infrastructure comes the growing diversity of our neighbors. Race, religion, political bent, wealth, destitution. All are well represented on the streets around us. Our quiet, developing boulevard has evolved into a true melting pot. And from this pool comes our customers.
Because of where we're situated, we play host to movie stars and rock musicians. Famous artists and comic-book creators. But there's an orphanage right down the street as well. A juvenile detention center 15 minutes away. A stream of transients being pushed closer to us by the onset of gentrification. And an altogether different kind of "dealer" than myself flagging you down on a quiet street corner.
I quickly befriended all of our local police officers when we opened. I give discounts to the police force, firefighters, members of the military and EMT workers and their families. In return, they give me their personal phone numbers to call should incidents arise. They know who we are in the neighborhood, because they know that, more often than not, their kids are hanging out in the store with us!
We need to be prepared for any scenario in retail. I'm grateful that, so far, we've had very few scary incidents. There was that one night, the first week we opened, that I threatened a would-be robber with the Hammer of Thor (true story!), but that's a tale for another column.
When we first moved in, the previous tenant was quick to warn us about the local "taggers." They roamed the streets at night looking for somewhere that provided open areas to ply their craft. Walls, windows, signage. "Canvas," you might say. Their art tools of choice? Spray paint, colored sharpies, keys. As long as they left their mark behind, it was worth using.
To prove his point, he showed us the tag etched into the glass on the front door. He'd actually replaced it once, at great expense, only to come into work one day and find it tagged again. By the same person.
I expected we'd have a constant fight on our hands, but the lease was signed and it was our home. For better or worse.
Year after year, I've watched our retail neighbors struggle with this problem. I watch them pull their hair out in frustration as they repaint and replace. Repaint and replace. Repaint and replace.
Some of the tags are plain old names in black lettering. Pseudonyms that cry out, "Here I am! I dare you to ignore me!" And, others? Others are downright, well, beautiful.
Obviously, it's destruction of property. Obviously, it's unfair to the tenant or the owner. Obviously, it's a criminal act. But, it's hard to deny that some of it is artistic. Emotional. Complicated. As complicated as the artists themselves.
How do I know this? Because they're my customers. That's right. They frequent my store. They spend what may or may not be stolen money. They eat at my comic-book table.
Now, I can't be sure about just which ones they are. I have deep-rooted suspicions, but no solid proof. I've never heard them talk about their hobby. Never heard them brag about their latest midnight massacre. But, I know it's them. They know I know. And, you know what I do with these kids? These "hardened" criminals that terrorize the streets? I welcome them. I thank them for coming in. I give them a place that's safe. A place that has art that speaks to them. I share my store and make them feel at home. I give them the very thing that their spray paint shouts out for. Respect.
They usually come in late at night, traveling in packs. They've got their boards and their backpacks and their cigarettes that they have to leave outside. They're loud and angry and unafraid. They roam the streets, itching for a reason to fight.
But, when they come through my doors, they miraculously calm themselves. They treat the product around them with reverence. They marvel at the art and the work that goes into the comics and graphic novels. They pore through the art book section and ask questions about this "Moebius guy" or scratch their heads at how sequential art is constructed.
They stay for what seems like hours and after many moons gracing my doorway, they've come to understand that it's proper etiquette to make a purchase (however small) before leaving.
On one occasion, the usual crowd came in. But, there was a new face among them. He was angry and hostile and had a beer bottle in his hand. He pulled a book from the shelf and looked as if he might hurl it across the shop. And then, the leader of the "wolf pack" grabbed his hand.
"Put the book down," he said calmly.
The angry kid glared at him, stunned at the order he was just given.
The leader spoke again. "What part of the sentence didn't you understand?"
The angry kid stood transfixed. His entire clan as well as everyone in the store stared accusingly at him. All the wind went out of his sails and he gently put the book back on the shelf.
"Now get out," his leader said. "Until you learn how to act right, you don't come in here, understand?"
The angry kid spouted off something foul and left.
The leader sheepishly turned to me, "I'm really sorry about my friend, Jud. It won't happen again."
"I'm sure it won't," I said. "Because if it does, none of you come in here again. It'd be a shame for one person to ruin it for all of you." We stared each other down. He nodded his head and went about his business. It's important they understand I can be as tough as they are. And as unafraid. Keeps an even playing field.
The angry kid stood outside the entire time, staring jealously into the front window. I think he wished he'd played out the scenario differently. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun!
I like these kids. I really do. Maybe it reminds me of my childhood. Maybe I recall the feelings of anger that I couldn't understand. Maybe I see in them the confusion between what's art and what's destructive and hope they'll find the answer in the things I sell. But, I talk to them in their language and occasionally, they talk to me in mine.
Is that wrong of me? Am I aiding and abetting? Am I enabling these kids and telling them it's okay to destroy other people's property? I don't think so. Because that's not my place. That responsibility belongs in the hands of their parents, their teachers, their families, their friends. My responsibility is to provide a safe haven for my community that welcomes everyone. Everyone.
I guarantee that some of my most upright and mature customers do things that are questionable as far as morality is concerned. Some of them even take the time to tell me about them! But it's not my place to judge. It's not my place to preach to them about their choices. Denying someone the right to buy because of violence or foul language in my store is one thing. Denying someone the right to buy because of something they may or may not have done outside my doors is another.
I'm a humble bartender and everyone is welcome. Of course, if you get rowdy or start destroying my bar, I'm going to reach behind the counter and run you out of Dodge with the Mighty Mjolnir.
Who you are and what you do is your business. I have opinions about what you tell me and what I see of your actions. My beliefs may differ from yours drastically. But, when it comes down to your strong opinions and your own moral compass, I'm Switzerland.
As for the taggers, we enjoy a steady truce. One that's lasted for years and seems to be passed down from one "wolf leader" to the next. In all the years we've been in our building, we've never been tagged. Never had to go through the turmoil of feeling violated by someone else's anger. Or be forced to be the bearer of someone else's artistic expression.
I don't think it's because there's some kind of unspoken law among them that my store is off-limits for tagging. It's because they see me, my store and everything in it as their own. They're not a part of my neighborhood. I'm a part of theirs. And, we share a passion. Only difference between us is that mine's legal. Theirs isn't.
And the tag we inherited from the previous tenant all those years ago? It's still on the front door. Every time those "pack of wolves" walk in, they see it. Every time they walk out, they see it.
The guy who put that tag on my door is long gone now. In jail? In college? Who knows.
It's MY tag now. Respect it.
Jud Meyers is the co-founder and co-proprietor of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, California, the 2007 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. Visit them online at: www.earth2comics.com