Subculture Spoken Here! (Hint: They read! You can sell them books!)

by Jas Faulkner

Invisibles_Vol_2_19Fifteen years ago I was browsing in the graphic novels section at Media Play, a now-defunct retailer in Madison, Tennessee.  I had just picked up a trade paperback of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, when a young girl who had stepped up to look through the same shelves said, “That’s a good one.”

Before I had a chance to respond, she was joined by four friends, all of whom expressed their approval was Grant Morrison’s quirky metaphysical spy comic.  They asked me if I read very many comics and I told them I had as a kid, but then rediscovered them many years later when a boyfriend recommended Watchmen and from there it was on to the rebooted Swamp Thing and the other adult-oriented titles that were available.

The scene probably looked odd: A fairly conservatively dressed woman in her mid-thirties talking to a bunch of teens who seemed to have chosen their clothing for its ability to suck in light. The spiked hair, the black eyeliner on both the boys and the girls, the dangly, mismatched earrings…they could have passed for my classmates from my Bay Area art school period over a decade ago.  They probably scared some of the home folks.  Frankly, I thought they were adorable.

Then the first young’un asked me if I’d ever read The Sandman.

I paused for a moment.  Of course I’d read/was reading Neil Gaiman’s series.  It is an almost complete Myth 101 survey in the form of a comic book. I’d loaned the paperbacks into the hands of some clients while others had occasionally pushed dog-eared issues into mine because they were sure I’d love it.

And this little girl was dying to tell me about Dream and Death and the other  Endless siblings how much she loved those books.

You know you would have smiled and shaken your head, too.

She started off talking about Death. (For those of you who have never read the books, Death is like a cool, smart sister who seems to fit in with everyone and is comfortable enough with herself to be completely unashamed to geek out over a chance to watch Mary Poppins.)  This started a ripple effect of enthusiasm as each kid was dying to tell about Death and Delirium (“Who is so based on Tori Amos!”) and Rose and Lyta and, and…


A quick aside here.  If you ever want to get a spiritual recharge, let a kid talk to you for a few minutes about what they love.

They loved talking about those books and I got a chance to point them to some books they might want to try (Angela Carter’s fairy tale collections, Jack Zipes’ Grimm anthology, and the delights of Sabine Baring-Gould.)

Like many book lovers, when they found something that really spoke to them, a lot of them were doing that semi-hug hold where you press the book against your sternum and keep walking and talking.  We ended up back over at the comics section when a clerk(? manager? butt-kissing trollboy?) strode over, looked straight at the girl who had initiated the conversation and said, “You don’t belong here.  Get out.”

Another aside here.  Out of the five kids he could have addressed, he focused on the one big girl. Given that he looked like a Jenny Craig  “before” picture, he probably knew from experience  who and how to attack and he managed to momentarily destroy this girl who was brave enough to start talking books with a grownup.  It was chilling.  He was way too good at it and managed to make her feel that verbal gut punch in six words.

death“You don’t belong here. Get out.”  He didn’t look at the sweet walking wall of a guy in his Misfits t-shirt or the whippet-thin girls in head to toe pleather.  He focused on the big girl with the big black hair and Death’s Sigil penciled around one eye.  He aimed his animosity at her and she crumbled.  That happy, bright glow that comes from being around people who get you disappeared.  Her friends seemed to instinctively cluster around her. One of the whippet girls side hugged her and the boy, in a gesture that could be described as gallant, took her arm.  Yeah, they got what was happening, too.

As they set their books on one of the tables near the shelves and walked out, Mister Bully ignored protests from me, my mother and a friend, all of whom were with the kids the whole time.  Were they stealing?  No.  Were they swearing or being disruptive?  Other than the being a little noisy and boisterous about loving fables and legends and Neil Gaiman, no.  (And my mother, who self identifies as someone who does not enjoy children would have been the first to turn in a kid who was misbehaving.)

The kids were gone.  I told Bully Boy -okay I told his retreating backside as I did a sort of fat version of Holly Hunter angry fussy quickstep after him because he was determined he wasn’t going to talk to me- I told that guy he what he did was not only nasty, but those kids were prepared to buy at least five or six books and now they would go find the same books at their library or a used book store and that was bad business and he should be ashamed.  We were nearly to the front of the store when Bully pointed to me and my mother and buddy and snapped his fingers.

I -who had managed to get through almost twelve years of school without a visit to the principal’s office*- and my sweet, genteel Southern Belle of a mother and my lovely sorority belonging, cotillion attending friend were escorted out of Media Play by their security guys.**

So why am I telling you all of this?

It was brought to my attention by a friend who follows businesses and business trends here in Nashville that a book shop had taken to showing kids in Steampunk and Goth-y type gear the door.   Maybe they’re scaring other patrons.  Maybe they’re stealing or destroying merchandise, but I kind of doubt it.   I also doubt that I’ll be able to change the mind of whoever is doing this sort of thing.  What the heck.  I’m going to try anyway.  (I know you regular readers would never do this.  Just think of this as info on an untapped market you might want to consider.)

If you are seeing oddly dressed young (and not so young) people, you might be alarmed.  You might want to ask them to leave.  Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Some of them are young.  Not all of them, though.  Think about it.  The first generation of punks and goths and lovers of Steampunk are now in their late middle age years all the way up to qualifying for senior discounts at the local grocer.   This subculture is not a passing fad and it is not something that suddenly came into currency with the kids you see.  There are long standing traditions and a burgeoning heritage of arts and letters associated with what may look to you like so much playing dress-up.

dark victoriaIn the cases of these aesthetic movements, the people involved -especially the young people involved- have a real desire for connection to the past in the form of revivalist interest in the material culture of the nineteenth and twentieth century.  It goes beyond linguistic affectation, black nail polish, and brass goggles.  (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m running some very different movements together.  Thing is, there are some overriding similarities and they’re getting cognitively smeared into one group.  Bear with me, okay?)

They will settle for ebooks if they’re pushed to the point of using Whispernet to get a copy of Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, but why should they?  They would prefer the feel of paper pages and the lovely old book smell or the heady whiff of a spanking new volume of an old story.  You’ve have copies on your shelf.  Wouldn’t you rather sell it to the polite kid who just wants to browse than eventually stick it on your bargain table or your sidewalk free bin?  I already have a collection of Lester Bangs’ essays; so who do you think might buy it?  That’s right.  The kid you felt like giving the side eye to could be the customer who coughs up eight bucks to see why everybody thinks Bangs was the last word in rock criticism.

Is it part of the image?  Of course it is.  But it is also the start of creating a deeper, life long impulse for loving books.  These kids read.  They read copiously and they read to expand their minds and explore an entire world that exists on your shelves.  They want to buy what you have, but they also want to be welcomed.  It’s good customer service and it’s even smarter business.

Carrying the works of Poe and Wells and Verne and Kipling and Carriger and Watasin might just be a gamble that pays off, and even more to the point, you might help nurture a lifetime of reading accompanied by decades-long customer loyalty.


*Every Friday morning of my senior year was spent explaining my editorial cartoons in the school paper to the principal.  He said they hurt his feelings, which was odd, because I never did a cartoon about him.

**Welcome to my late-blooming bad ass moment. Strong-armed by The Man for the first time at the tender age of 36.