Welcome to Store Tour, ROBOT 6’s weekly exploration of comics shops, and the people who run them. Each Sunday we feature a different store, and also get to know the person behind the register.
This week’s store is Asylum Books and Games, located at 29 Adelphi Lane in Aberdeen, Scotland. We spoke with Mike McLean, who describes himself as Asylum's manager, founder and scapegoat.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Mike McLean: I reached 30 with what the publishing industry would refer to as a string of dustjacket jobs under my belt, including tax collector (believe me there's nothing you can call me there I haven't said to myself first), hyberbaric archivist and agricultural librarian. I needed to do something I actually wanted to do. So I started my own business.
The location simply came down to what was affordably close to the city center. The name has something more of a story. I struggled for weeks to come up with something suitable. I knew it needed to be near the start of the alphabet, for common-sense advertising purposes (top of listings, etc). Eventually I reached out to my mate Colin MacNeil (the Judge Dredd artist); Colin has more creativity in his pinky than I do collectively. He came up with Asylum for two reasons: Firstly, you can make all the obvious jokes; you'd need to be mad not to shop here and so forth. Secondly, it suggests a place of shelter, which it has been for a variety of gaming groups, book groups and other such ne'er-do-wells over the years.
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?
It was my first-ever job; I worked in a comic shop when I was an undergrad. It was the only job I had ever really enjoyed, as opposed to just needing to make a living. As a former librarian it wasn't a million miles away from what I knew, but was also fun.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing? Has it evolved from when you started?
My philosophy is a simple one; find what the customers want and get it to them. I'm the guy constantly trawling the web and bugging fellow dealers to fill holes in wish lists. Also, we're about comics, first and foremost; any other form of merchandise is a distant second. You were looking for a toy shop with some books in one corner? Sorry, that's not us. It has evolved in as far as I use a custom database to run my standing orders rather than scraps of paper, so I guess I screw up a little less ...
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work it out?
We have a section for the new releases of the week, split by Marvel, DC and independent. There are then three separate sections for the last two months of issues in the same categories. Older issues then make their way downstairs into the back-issue archive (which, unlike most U.K. stores, is huge). There is a large section of trades and graphic novels, which are simply alphabetical by title/character. We experimented briefly with sorting by author but it's simply not practical on this scale. The rest of the store is just crammed with games, apparel and other merchandising.
What are your current bestsellers?
Mostly the usual mainstream bestsellers that you'd expect. There will tend to be unusual spikes for books by particular authors and artists. Garth Ennis' The Boys sold crazy-well for us. It outsold the four X-Men titles by a factor of three! Our bestsellers will also be a function of me sitting down and reading most of what comes through the door every week (which, believe me, isn't as much fun as it sounds). By doing that I can make customers aware of books that might otherwise slip under their radar. I'm not always right, but I do my best.
My favorite book that went largely unnoticed was Boneyard by Richard Moore (published by NBM). Anyone who enjoyed Jeff Smith's Bone, look at this; it's very similar in both style and tone. How can you say no to a demon that has been kicked out of Hell for being a Trekkie and afraid of socks?
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
Aberdeen is a student town, so they make up a good chunk of our customer base, and naturally, it's always changing in that respect as they both arrive and graduate. Other than that, the customer base has certainly evolved in a much broader sense, with the recent success of comic based films and TV shows making the medium more mainstream. I think the really rewarding part of the process though has been watching second generation fans come to the store in their parents' footsteps since we opened back in 1999.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise?
We tried print advertising initially, but since the demise of dear old Comics International it has not been very cost effective. We have listings in all the kinds of online directories that you might expect, and a couple of our guys maintain a Facebook and Twitter presence.
How do you feel your online presence supports or supplements your store?
Our previous website was pretty basic and didn't do much more that list what we have. The technology has moved on a long way since then now, and our new site is much more versatile. By allowing customers to search not only by character, but by creators, by story arc, and even by age (e.g. Silver Age), it has made our stock much more directly accessible to the customers in that sense.
Do you have events or any kind of programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
We run signings as often as we can find a creator we can drag through the door. And we're not limited to the big publishers (though obviously we love them too). We promote our local indie books and other independent books from anywhere we can find them. We have close ties with Sloth Press and promote a lot of their books. (They have a lot of great stuff; I particularly recommend Penny Blackfeather, Academy of Super Heroes and Steamhammer). Coordinating them? As any dealer will tell you, working with creative people is not dissimilar to herding cats. That said, how many people get to meet and work with their heroes?
Does your store attend conventions? Does it benefit from them?
We still attend our local shows Granite City Comic Con and Inver-Con. We used to go much further afield, but we have so much stock now the logistics of transporting enough of the right stock to make a show financially viable became trickier as time wore on. We love attending them, but as the U.K.'s northernmost store, sadly we're kinda remote, so it makes it difficult.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
We are in an industry that is very much trend-orientated. I had a good selection of Daredevil trades before the Netflix show appeared, but not so much in the aftermath (not that I'm complaining). So I guess keeping up with the current trends and trying to predict the next one.
What is the industry's biggest asset that is helping you be successful?
Its history. You get into Game of Thrones, for example, then you've got what? Say, a decade of books and merchandise to check out. You get into Batman or Spider-Man? Well, now ...
With all of the people that come through your store, I imagine you must have some great stories. What is the funniest or most memorable moment you've seen in your store?
The people who don't get what the store is can be priceless. In the space of half an hour I once had a woman insisting that I run a sex shop demanding to know where the toys were, and a skinhead demanding to know why I couldn't sell him a copy of Mein Kampff. That said, nothing compares to watching the delight of seeing another customer watch me die in almost any book by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli.
Anything coming up at Asylum Books and Games that is a good excuse for someone to stop by?
We have over 6,000 trades and 100,000 back issues in stock, as well as statues, artwork, apparel and merchandise, so I hope we have something to meet your needs. We're happy to order in what we don't have where we can. We have signings and other events as often as possible, and if all else fails, you can come in for fuzz therapy. I work with my dachshund Vesper.
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.