Store Tour | Gosh! Comics in London

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 Gosh! Comics, located at 1 Berwick St. in London, England. We spoke with manager Andrew Salmond.

ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?

Andrew Salmond: The store was started back in 1986 by Josh Palmano, who is still the owner (and still puts in a full week at the shop). He had worked in comics in one form or another, from dealer stalls at shows to retail outlets, since he was 13. When he was 18 he started up Gosh! in the unit it operated from opposite the British Museum right up until 2011. At the time that area, as well as having the kind of crowd pull that the museum attracted, was known for its range of booksellers, particularly of the antiquarian variety. So Gosh! was able to find an audience there, and has happily traded successfully ever since. As for the name, there’s no great story to it beyond it being a peppy, fun, British-sounding name for a comic shop. Short and snappy, and suited an exclamation point.

Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?

I’ve been a lifelong comics fan, from random purchases on spinner racks at the local dairy (New Zealand speak for a convenience store), to a standing order at our local bookshop, to frequenting a comic shop once I got to university. I’d been a bit of a Marvel junkie all through my youth, with a foray into the speculator side of things in my mid-teens when I’d be mail-ordering stuff from the American Entertainment and New England Comics ads. Once I hit university I started reading more expansively, introduced to a lot of new stuff through the .comics Usenet groups (this is back in 1991), and having the range of a decent comic shop available. So my reading and knowledge base were pretty broad, and I was devouring any histories or academic works I could find. That set me up well as I was finishing up at university without any idea of what I was going to do afterward, when the shop (Comics Compulsion -- now called Graphic - in Wellington, New Zealand) needed a new staff member, and knew that I knew my stuff. So I took a job there and haven’t looked back. Worked there for five years before relocating to the U.K., where I intended to travel for a couple of years and then head back to New Zealand. Got a job at Gosh! doing mail order from a cold email that hit at just the right time, and 15 years later I’m still here managing the joint!

Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing? Has it evolved from when you first started?

My main philosophy has always been a customer-centered focus to retail. Good retail is about friendly customer service, comprehensive knowledge and the ability to sell your product. Excellent retail is about empathy, about putting yourself in the shoes of your customer and attempting to help them based on their needs and what they might expect of the experience. It’s about knowing when to sell and when to step back, and responding to their questions and concerns in a manner which shows that you’re considering their point of view. I’ve no time for arrogance or impatience in customer service. If you’re the expert, be secure in yourself that you’re the expert; don’t feel the need to rub people’s faces in it, or scoff at someone’s lack of knowledge. I only mention this, because of course the traditional comics seller stereotype is awash with it. Stores on the whole are much better than they were with this kind of thing, but those guys are still out there.

And then of course effective comics retailing is about exploiting that thing which allows us to distinguish ourselves from other outlets that sell comics and graphic novels: knowledge. It’s important to have a breadth and depth of knowledge that can help you find the right choice for each customer. Over time this has become something which is ever more important, the only real footing we have as a means of competing with online sales and large chains offering deep discounts. Having the ability to tap the general interests of a customer in order to find the right book to keep them enthused (or enthuse them in the first place) is vital. And again, empathy is key: Find what they will like, not necessarily what you want to sell them (though the two often dovetail nicely). Thankfully in the comics market today it’s easier than ever, with the range of material available broadening all the time. There is a market of non-comics reading people out there which is massive, and the more we can tap that the better.

Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work it out?

We moved into our current premises after 25 years in a much smaller unit near the British Museum, and the combination of doubling our floor space as well as taking over a completely empty unit allowed us to create a layout from scratch. We did this in collaboration with designer Callum Lumsden of Lumsden Design, who had previously worked on the bookstores for the Tate Modern and the British Museum, among other projects. We wanted to do more than just dump our old fixtures and fittings into a new location, so we figured it was worth the investment!

Gosh! is always striving to bring comics to a new audience, and so our upstairs space has been designed to create an attractive bookstore feel, spotlighting graphic novels that we feel reach out beyond just the traditional comics audience. A central feature table greets customers as they enter the store, stacked with a diverse range of releases focusing particularly on contemporary fiction, biography, reportage and young-adult graphic novel titles. Around the store categories are separated into Crime, European, Classics, Genre (science fiction, fantasy and horror titles), General Fiction, Biography and Non-Fiction. Our all-ages graphic novels are also located here, alongside our curated selection of children’s books. Upstairs also features illustrative gift books, a section of animation-related titles, and a selection of reference and instructional titles, as well as our expansive collection of self-published titles.

Our downstairs is designed as a classic comic shop, albeit a pleasant, light, well-organized one. As a customer descends the stairs, an impact wall of new releases -- both periodicals and trades -- jumps out from the back wall. The central floor is dominated by back-issue units, as is the upper-wall space, but along the right is our superhero trade section, alphabetized by title, with two rows of spotlight face-out titles running the length of the shelving. On the wall opposite are three bays of manga, and a final bay of classic strip collections.

We took a bit of grief for putting the superhero stuff in the basement when we moved, including accusations of sidelining or ghettoizing that material, but it’s worked out fine. The audience for new releases knows where to find it, and we still love it and happily communicate our love of it. In the meantime we’re regularly drawing a new audience into the medium, which should ultimately be the goal of any decent store.

What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?

In terms of new comics, obviously the top Marvel and DC titles still do well (Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man, Batman and so on), as do the Image titles you might expect (Saga, The Walking Dead, etc.). We do very well out of the odd indie periodicals that are still published, such as Berlin and Optic Nerve. Our audience is very creator-focused (and predominantly writers), and we can reliably copy orders across titles for certain writers and artists, which means books like The Fade Out, Paper Girls and Black Magic hit the ground running, sales-wise.

In terms of books, we do very well with the Image line (Saga is one of our strongest-selling trade series ever), the First Second YA titles (such as Battling Boy, Anya’s Ghost and This One Summer), the classic Vertigo books and biography and nonfiction titles such as Persepolis, Maus, Palestine, etc. Superhero trade sales are strong, particularly on Deadpool, Ms. Marvel, Batman and the various Marvel event titles, which Secret Wars has definitely given a collective boost to. We also do a line of exclusive bookplated titles to give a push to books we believe in, and they traditionally do very well, as do titles we support with events.

In terms of titles I wish would do better, Stray Bullets is one of my all-time favorite series, and happily its recent return didn’t skip a beat on the quality front. Don’t get me wrong, it does respectably enough for us, but I wish EVERYONE was reading it. I’d like to see Manifest Destiny catch more of an audience as well, as it’s a lot of fun if you’re into frontier fiction with a side of horror.

What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?

Varied, and has been for a long time. The whole philosophy of the shop has always been to create a clean, welcoming atmosphere, and that has long paid dividends with a diverse customer base. Obviously with the increasing range of graphic novels available and the coverage they receive, we’ve seen an influx of people curious about the medium, which means we get the same kind of demographic as pretty much any decent bookstore you might wander into, particularly since going into our new premises.

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