Atom! Freeman and Winning the Spirit of Retailing Award

Talking with Retailer Atom! Freeman

Atom! Freeman is a retailer that I respect, if nothing else for convincing the world that he needs an exclamation point in his first name. He and his wife, Portlyn, are the owners and driving force behind Brave New World Comics, 22722 Lyons Ave. #6 in Newhall, Calif. Brave New World is the recipient of this year’s Will Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award, a sort of hall of fame for comic-book retailers. Atom! and Portlyn bought Brave New World in 2000; the store had existed since 1990. I feel something of a kinship with Atom! — I bought my store, Speeding Bullet Comics of Norman, Okla., in 1998; the store existed under previous ownership back to 1989. Atom! and I recently talked about his Eisner award, and about generations of comic-book retail.

We’re in the same generation, one that Atom! calls the “third generation.” This generation, for the most part, entered the industry at an incrediblydire time and fueled the graphic novel explosion.

Click here for Brave New World'svideo entry for the award.

Newsarama: First off, congratulations on receiving the Eisner. What do you think worked in your store's favor this year?

Atom! Freeman: Great question. Several things. It doesn't hurt that our store model nearly completely mirrors the qualifications for an Eisner Award winning store. Things like community involvement, innovative design, and diversity of inventory are our daily focuses. So, having the most prestigious award in comics based on those criteria helped more than a little bit. Aside from that, I've been studying this award and submissions of the winners for a few years so that when the time came tha t we felt ready, we submitted a packet and video that addressed all of the concerns that past judges had brought up. I'd like to think it was the content that made their decision, but the presentation likely didn't hurt either.

NRAMA: Tell me about how you got into comics retail.

A!F: When I was a kid, my father was involved with the growing innovation in restaurants we now know as fast food. So, I spent most of my weekends with him traveling around to the chain of restaurants he was a partner in critiquing them and motivating the staff. I was listening. So, it probably came as no surprise to anyone that when I finally let the film-making dream go, I knew that I wanted to open my own business. I didn't know at the time what that was, but comics retail was always on the list (along with bed-and-breakfast, antique shop, various 'concept' restaurants, etc.). And, when I look back on this time, I see that I always made the choice to work for the single-owner start-up than the corporate chain. And the lessons I picked up from those jobs just stuck.

Eventually, I landed a job managing photography studios in amusement parks, which led me here to the lovely Santa Clarita Valley (and to my wife and partner, Portlyn). On the same week that I told Portlyn that I wasn't getting anything out of the photography studio anymore and I wanted to start looking for a new job, my local comics shop explained that they were expanding and did I want a job managing their first location? Add in a stint as a sales rep for a publishing company and as a columnist for the local edition of the Los Angeles Times and you get me to the point that I was when they offered to sell us the original location. Eight years later and here we are.

NRAMA: We discussed this weekend being part of the same “generation” of comics retailers. Break down for me your theory of these generations, and what characteristics do you find common in this generation?

A!F: Here we go with the crackpot theories. Okay, as I see it, the First Generation of comics retailers happened just after the direct market was created. They were creating stores that reminded them of the newsstands and drugstores that they bought their stores from and for them “collectibility” was very important. This continued until the booms of the 80s and 90s.

This Second Generation was quickly defined by the words “investment” and “discount” and as a group were quick to chase and shape every fad including comics, Pokemon cards and pogs. Think Android's Dungeon from The Simpsons. This generation grew very quickly and contracted nearly as quickly. This lasts un til the late 90s when the last of the 'investment chasers' was chased out of the market. They also began embracing the graphic novel format to collect and keep stories in print. Making room for the Third Generation.

I usually count Brave New World as a Third Generation store even though we were created in the Second and we try to keep up with the Fourth. Our generation tends to be very leery of anything smacking of speculation though we're still very much in love with American super-heroes. Our stores tend to be much cleaner and more 'citizen friendly' than the generation before (who were in turn clean er and better organized than the generation before them). And though we did the lion's share of helping create the graphic novel section in retail, for the most part, we didn't get off the dime to help push the manga explosion. Which gives birth to the Fourth Generation.

These guys are very interesting, because they tend to come from two different camps. There's the suburban pop culture comics shop (closer to our model), and the Urban Art Comics Shop. Both tend to be beautifully merchandised and their level of customer service has come a long way. Wanna know which one you're in? Look for UglyDolls and a strong manga section. If you see them, you're in a pop culture store. Otherwise, they are a lot alike in how they treat western comics with respect and reverence.

Wow, what a long-winded response? Who knew I had thought that much about it?

NRAMA: What are some positive changes happening in direct-market comic book retailing right now?

A!F: One of the best parts of comics retailing in the past year is the general rise of professionalism among my retail brethren. Three years ago, ComicsPRO the trade organization for comics retailers was formed. That in and of itself was a quantum leap for us and how we are perceived in the industry at large. And while I don't know that ComicsPRO is directly related to the increase in quality of stores, it certainly doesn't hurt. After seeing all of the other videos that were submitted for this years award, I am proud to report that the image of the comics retailer as a guy who wants his personal comics cheap and enough sales to afford supersizing his dinner are a thing of the past.

NRAMA: Where do you see comics retail going in the next five years? How about the next 10?

A!F: More tough questions. Next five years? I imagine we'll all figure out how to get customers excited about Original Graphic Novels in a way that they aren't now. I also think you're going to start seeing regional stores being able to license their names and good will to online stores. If our national economy doesn't start picking up, I'm beginning to think that stores are going to start playing with discounting again to keep customers living off of unemployment in the shop each week until they have a job again.

In the next ten years is anybody's guess, though. The first time someone announces a digital reader that behaves like Amazon's Kindle but has a 4 color display, there will be a lot of people playing with the business model so that it's not so dependent on the weekly series reader. I have my theories on how to guard against that, but to see them in action, you're just gonna have to come by the shop.

Matt Price blogs daily at Nerdage ( and is the co-owner, with his wife, Annette, of Speeding Bullet Comics ( in Norman, Okla.

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