After several minutes of trying to sort out a deal on a recent afternoon, Comix Experience owner Brian Hibbs tells a prospective seller with a box of old comic books over the phone that it sounds like a waste of time. Leave it at that, and Hibbs may sound jaded after nearly 30 years of running the Divisadero Street bookstore, and five years of owning the Comix Experience Outpost on Ocean Avenue.
Although Hibbs worries about the comic book industry, he can’t hide his enthusiasm for it and the cultural moment it’s in. Whether that benefits his stores or not, he just wants people to see this medium for what it is: an innovative art form unlike the rest.
“Comics are a medium, not a genre — superheroes are a genre,” Hibbs says to the skeptics. “It’s a uniquely American way of telling a story.”
Three years ago, Comix Experience began exposing people to the best of the medium with two graphic-novel-of-the-month clubs, one for adults and then one for kids. For $25 a month, members are sent a book of the staff’s choosing — and about 80 percent of the time, the author comes to the store so readers may ask questions and discuss the work they just consumed. If a would-be audience member can’t make it in person, the talk is streamed on the store’s YouTube page.
The roughly 450 members drive most of the 30 or so events Comix Experience hosts each year. Hibbs feels that kind of community fostering open to all is dwindling on Divisadero Street, which houses an increasing amount of fitness studios and restaurants.
“It’s literally, right now, the difference between life and death,” Hibbs says. He launched the book club to offset minimum wage increases and after a friend, who wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about comics, told him, “If you put a book in my hand every month, I would buy it.”
So he did. Some recent books from the adult club span genres and include: Western adventure Coyote Doggirl by BoJack Horseman production designer Lisa Hanawalt, hockey comedy Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu, and epic fantasy Mage by Matt Wagner.
Kids belonging to the club recently dove into Brenna Thummler’s Sheets, which Hibbs says challenges them by approaching death in a sweet, brave manner without scaring them away — yet it appeals to adults, too. Comics and graphic novels geared toward children have taken off, which is a turnaround from the past 20 years when the industry chased them away.
Nonfiction books are also big sellers as of late and have their own wall for “people who think that comics are too juvenile,” Hibbs says. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution is a consistent favorite, as is historical comic Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor.
In October, the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development chose Comix Experience as one of 11 independent bookstores to receive a total of $103,000 in grants to remain competitive with online retailers. Hibbs says he’ll put it largely toward growing the monthly book clubs, especially as bringing in kids instills a spirit of fandom among a new generation.
A fair amount of comics’ newfound popularity is owed to films and television. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a behemoth that boosted shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, plus a horror revival of Archie Comics that includes the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina — all of which has led to a “microbump” of new visitors seeking the original source material.
But Hibbs worries about corporate executives from the top comic publishers Marvel, D.C., and Image riding that demand too far by producing a glut of mediocre or subpar books that will turn fans away in the next couple years. He doesn’t bother ordering many of them because no one wants them.
“They’re killing the golden goose,” Hibbs says. “It’s not right or fair to the consumers.”
The superhero genre ultimately accounts for roughly 15 percent of what Comix Experience stocks. Sorting through all the comics and graphic novels can be daunting, and that’s where his staff, not a deluge of Amazon listings, come in.
Much of the store’s activity centers around the Divisadero Street location since the Outpost on Ocean Avenue is hardly centrally located, though worth visiting alone for the “We’ve got issues” tagline. Despite public doubts about what would become of the Outpost as the five-year lease was set to expire in December, Hibbs recently signed a three-year extension.
As long as Comix Experience Outpost breaks even, Hibbs intends to keep it open for the precise reason he took over ownership of the store in 2013, then called Comic Outpost: “No one wants to see a [comic] store close.” His ownership of the Divisadero Street store will reach the 30-year mark on April 1, 2019.
“I was a small child who didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was doing but it worked out,” Hibbs says of being 21 at the time he started out. “You don’t make money owning a comic book shop — you do it because you love it. It’s stores like this that are the lifeblood of the community.”
Comix Experience, 305 Divisadero St., 415-863-9258 and Comix Experience Outpost, 2381 Ocean Ave., 415-239-2669, comixexperience.com
This profile of Comix Experience is part of our Dec. 6, 2018 small business issue. Check out our other pieces:
Fiat Lux Seeks to Outlast the Hills: What started as a tiny, 199-square-foot jewelry shop has evolved into a gathering place for makers, with a world-class selection and a cult-like following.
Hyperlocal Tenderloin Shop Fleet Wood Respects the Hustle: From its ‘100 Under 100′ group art show and beyond, Nico Schwieterman’s boutique and screenprinting business keep it real.