My first comic book was given to me by my father when I was 2 years old. The Adventures of Asterix. I have learnt to read drawings first, then letters, but it was love at first sight, a love that I have never betrayed so far. I have recently met a man who told me laughing: “In Asterix you will find all the answers...” so, after Asterix, I have been reading anything I came across over the last forty years. Some comics I liked, some I didn’t, but it’s a habit that I have never lost and hope I never will.
When I entered the wonderful world of publishing and the mysterious universe of distribution – because to make books is not enough, you also have to sell them (and #DAMMIT you have no idea of how difficult it is) – I found it normal to wander around and take a look at bookshops and comic shops, the two typologies of shops that are supposed to sell #logosedizioni titles, and I have discovered the existence of many parallel worlds that never meet just like parallel lines, even when you think that they are likely to meet somewhere on the horizon. And with regard to one of these worlds, the comic shop, I am going to write about the LUCKY encounters I had between November and December 2014.
The first encounter I had was with Alessandro Pastore, who has given his name to one of my favourite comic shops in Bologna.
The second encounter was with Peter Birkemoe, the present proprietor of Toronto’s The Beguiling, a benchmark comic shop in Canada, but above all the creator of Little Island Comics, the first comic shop for children in the world (maybe).
I hope that the following lines may be read not only by those who love illustration and comics like me, but most of all by booksellers, publishers, distributors, newsagents, and all the people who work with books like me. I do not want to preach anything to anybody, and I don’t possess absolute truths, but it’s in the questions and the manifold answers that sometimes you can find a solution or maybe just a cue.
“I have started by collecting comics, when I was 11 years old, and my first comic book was Diabolik. In my family nobody used to read comics, but I liked to. In Bologna we had a library at the Giardini Margherita, a white house, it’s still there, and it served as a library. I used to go there and read” this is how Alessandro starts telling the story of his life and career. “I liked comics. To read them, to own them so that I could read them over and over, to collect them, but I couldn’t afford to buy everything, so I found a way to buy at a lower cost. I used to go to papermills and paper’s collections, where I could buy kilos of books. At that time people used to throw away any kind of stuff, now they are maybe more attentive, they try to recycle somehow. After Diabolik I have started to collect anything available. Collectors start from the love for something: the cartoonist, the plot... and take an interest in all that is available about that particular author or scriptwriter. Subsequently they go over to the genre, then range in all directions, but everything is born from limitless curiosity and pleasure.” At the age of 18, he established his first comic shop, in via del Pratello in Bologna, with no money nor any economic support except for his – well-defined – ideas, and a fondness for his job. After two years he had to find a larger place. And after ten years he created the wholesale shop. “I have never stood back at work” he tells me, and I believe him, as the resoluteness of his look reveals that he is not accustomed to playing around. “In 1981, when I created the distribution, in Bologna there were twenty-five comic shops, but they all sold only second-hand books. If you wanted to buy new items you had to go to bookstalls or bookshops but there you could find only big publishers such as Mondadori and Rizzoli. There were no comic shops selling new comic books because there were no publishers producing comic books and using both channels: either you went to the kiosk or to the bookshop. So when, in the 1980s, I started to import French and American comics, and realized that not even bookshops worked well with comics, I contacted publishers releasing comics for newsagents and started to sell them in my shop, and other shops decided to do the same, and within a few years the number of comic shops increased and publishers started working with them.” In a short while Alessandro became a specialized comic shop, publisher and also a distributor for other comic shops that opened in Italy, until in 1996 he had thirty employees and, having chosen not to have children, he decided to sell the distribution to Panini. “I wanted and still want to keep on working” he tells me “because I like it, but I also want to enjoy life. I have been working for forty-three years now.”
“Panini figurine has existed since 1964” he explains “but Panini Comics in 1994 and Star Comics even earlier were born here, in my offices at the upper floor. They were from Bologna, they had to organize, they asked me to help them and I did it for free.” After he has told me his story and – although briefly – part of the history of comics in Italy, I am aware that, thanks to this man’s experiences in life and work, this is a crucial encounter to understand the dynamics of the publishing world in Italy, especially for the willingness and clarity he shows in expressing his vision. The reason for the things, as I love to say. “Why are comics read by such a few people in Italy?” I ask him. “There are two problems in Italy. First of all comic books used to be expensive. The first Mickey Mouse cost a fortune, who could afford it? Only few wealthy people – in Italy there was a high-ranking class that could afford to buy them – nowadays comic readers are university students, professionals. Not masons... And secondly: prejudices. If my parents caught me reading a comic book they used to tell me ‘Stop reading that stuff, you have to study... you are wasting your time... do something more useful... ’ because in Italy comics have always been associated with leisure time, even when talking about work, but most people don’t know what comics are. The most cultivated think about Mickey Mouse, Tex, Diabolik, but the vast majority doesn’t think of anything at all because they have never even opened one comic book. In France it’s different, as figures show. Asterix for example: when there were both authors each new episode used to sell 20/30 thousand copies in Italy, which are best-selling figures, but the same book in France or Germany used to sell 2 million copies… the difference lies in the fact that in France you can find comics at school, in the school library, and if you go to Angoulême, the – although much better known – equivalent of our Lucca Comics, you find the government because politics at their highest level participate in the comics festival, and national televisions are there all day long ascribing it an importance that it doesn’t have here, and this is unavoidably reflected by the figures that I have just mentioned, or by the worth of the cartoonists’ original plates, a market which doesn’t work in Italy. Furthermore the bookshops’ assortment is very small, it consists of material distributed by distributors for bookshops, and they treat it only as novelties, and comic shops, that are bookshops after all, are not served by distributors for bookshops. There have always been two parallel ways, one for comic shops and another for bookshops. Moreover, nowadays most new, young comic shops are opened by manga collectors and collectors of other gadgets linked to the world of manga and Japanese anime, and these young people unfortunately pay more attention to the number of copies they sell than to the profit margin of each of them, while if it is still true that they do actually sell more manga than “arty” comics, because they are a lot cheaper, you have to bear in mind that the profit margin is different, and they have to sell much more manga to get the same profit that an arty comics would guarantee them, not to mention the problem of a reduced assortment and the fact that they leave out a whole share of readers who could visit their shops and are willing to spend a greater amount of money. Just as the ones who only sell arty comics and no manga leave out a lot of young people who could get in and maybe change their horizons over time. I start from a simple premise: why should someone from Palermo, Lecce or Turin come to me when there are so many bookshops and comic shops out there? The answer is: because here you find everything. Is there a comic book that doesn’t sell, I must have a copy of it, in this way I am always one of the first ten results you get when you search on google. I keep everything, but I also have 1500 square meters at my disposal, and I am starting to feel a bit tight in here, but for the others, those who don’t have just as much room, I started the distribution, of both new and second-hand items.” Here I have to point out something really important, essential to the success of any commercial activity: Alessandro is not just a book lover and a collector, he is first of all a pragmatic and intelligent man with a fondness for mathematics. “Figures are very important to me and it comes to me naturally to try and understand where losses can be found. I have always worked well with figures, I have never worked with banks, even if I had no money at the beginning. What is most important is to work well. And how do I know whether I have worked well? If I have, I must get some profit in the end. If there’s no profit it means that I have done something wrong. But I know from experience that it is rare to find someone who both loves our product and knows how to work with figures. Booksellers are either familiar with figures or with books.” At this point I took advantage to ask him why, since women generally stand out as readers, in the field of comics they are far less than men? Why do women buy fewer comics than men? Why is comics considered a genre for men? All questions I had never wondered about till some months ago, when I got surprised by discovering that #logosedizioni comics were not selling well and that the main cause was that they are more suitable for women than for men. And how could I imagine it? I was introduced to reading comics at such a young age and regardless of gender – it was my father who gave them to me and he chose the comics that he liked – that I have never suspected that comics could be gender-related, and day after day I have to face the fact that I often take for granted that my small world must necessarily be the same as other people’s, and it is on this world that I base my analysis, observations, prospects and dreams, in a state of total, presumptuous ignorance, but at least it gives me the chance to have good encounters. “A female public appeared with Japanese comics: there were very few women spending their time in comic shops, but their number has been increasing since the 1980s thanks to TV anime cartoons. Comics published in the pre- and post-war period were more about adventures, and therefore less suitable for girls, then it was the turn of superheroes, that were not much loved by girls as well. Later came books – hard-covered, more suitable for both genders, and this led to an increase in the number of female readers, but it still wasn’t enough to catch a good share of female readers. But when the Japanese anime cartoons broadcast on TV were converted to paper and translated into Italian, girls began to enter comic shops, and, in the field of manga, the public actually consists of more women than men. Now there are girls who like to read about superheroes, and some of them have also gone over to other genres, even though manga remains their favourite. This kind of female public includes readers up to 40 years old. And then we have to say that the comics market is suitable for collectors more than readers, and boys are collectors by nature – girls not as much. Girls read, analyse, but they rarely collect, and when they have the possibility to do so, they resell. Boys do collect instead, they assemble stuff – sometimes bordering on fanaticism – and they want everything to be in mint condition. In a comic shop you end up seeing all kind of things. However, the number of rabid collectors has decreased over time, maybe due to the higher rents. Houses are smaller, and therefore there is less room. It’s quite common to see people forced to sell their collections because they are moving to a smaller place. Fortunately there are still many collectors, but I can’t tell whether there are more readers or more collectors. I know for sure that collectors are generally older, people who work and start to possess significant collections, whereas younger people just search for what they like. People between their twenties and thirties are readers, whereas many over 30s buy and collect, but read less.”
I would like to thank Alessandro for the time and the experience he has shared with me on the 25th November 2014.