December 31, 2012
CR Holiday Interview #13 -- Jason Grimmer
imageJason Grimmer is the manager of Librairie Drawn And Quarterly, the bookstore run under the wider Drawn And Quarterly umbrella. That a few publishers are running retail establishments is an intriguing story of the last several years in comics. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be a good idea for a publisher, not all of them vague buzzwords like "branding," and we get into a few of those below. I'm also generally happy to talk to members of the D+Q team because that's an important comics publisher with only a few, vital cogs.
Grimmer I don't know at all except as a presence in the comments threads of Facebook threads fostered by various other D+Q employees, alt-comics' go-to source for cheap, barely-penetrable, on-line entertainment. Google revealed very little other than he was once a prominent employee at Vancouver's Zulu Records, a model indie music store. I got a bunch more information from fellow Drawn and Quarterly people, but I'm still unclear how much of what they told me is true. I tweaked the following a tiny bit for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Jason, I know very little about your background. I'm told that you went to school for broadcasting, were one of the prominent employees at Zulu in Vancouver and that you even once called stock car races, but I'm not sure how much I'm being messed with. Can you talk about your background, how you ended up in retail? Was comics a part of your background?
JASON GRIMMER: Once I'd graduated from high school I figured I should go to school for something and so I chose radio broadcasting. I realized pretty soon it wasn't for me. I liked the news-gathering, copy-writing, and voice-over aspects of it but not the cultivating of a wacky on-air personality aspect -- which was encouraged. [Spurgeon laughs]
Though I barely remember finishing the two-year course -- indeed, I only discovered I'd actually graduated two years ago -- I did get to do my practicum at a radio station in Calais, Maine and loved it. I was given free-reign to write copy, produce and voice commercials for local businesses, and it was a blast because I could create characters and use their library of sound-effect records anyway I wanted with absolutely no one over my head judging my work. When that ended and they couldn't hire me because of my Canadian citizenship, so did my broadcasting career. I knew it would never be better than that. After that, yes, I accepted a job as stock-car race announcer but I quit after one shift when I realized they weren't joking when they told me the pay was "all the hot dogs you can eat during your shift."
SPURGEON: Yeah, that's... [laughs]
GRIMMER: After a succession of short-lived bad jobs in various blue-collar towns: a bartender and DJ at a scummy biker/ dive bar (which I quit mid-shift one night after one particularly terrifying patron asked me "are you gonna play 'Witchy Woman' or do I have to take you out back and beat the shit out of you?"), at a car wash run by an ex-NHL player, and the overnight shift at a 24-hour video store, I picked up and moved across-country to Vancouver, B.C. where I eventually got a job as a manager at Zulu Records.
As far as comics go, yes, they were a very important part of my youth -- as important as movies and music were, anyway. I spent grades one through through as the sole Anglophone in an Acadian village and the Peyo and Hergé I found in the tiny library at my school taught me how to read French. Also, my mother would bring me to used bookstores on a regular basis and I would stock up on whatever comics were there.
imageI remember liking Conan the Barbarian, Justice League, Heroes for Hire. Man-Thing, horror comics and MAD magazines. MAD was definitely a huge thing for me and I loved the weirdness of the humour and art -- which I found pretty subversive (Dave Berg creeped me out particularly). I kept thinking "I shouldn't be reading this," but was happy my mom let me. Loved Don Martin. I also read the comics in the Playboy and National Lampoon magazines my dad kept around. Dirty Duck kind of blew my mind and it was also where I first noticed [Harvey] Kurtzman (I was happy to discover of his stuff through MAD reprints, later).
A couple years later I got into the Spider-Man [Steve] Ditko-era reprints but, even though I found The Inhumans fascinating as a concept, I found Kirby's art to be too impenetrable for me, at the time. Later I discovered the difference between DC and Marvel and chose to make mine the latter (except Legion of Super Heroes, which I found fascinatingly bad). I kept up with Marvel until John Byrne's Alpha Flight and then lost interest in super-hero comics completely.
imageI was always pretty aware of first-generation underground artists -- knew their names and some of their work -- but I didn't pay much attention to owning anything. Mostly read some stuff that my friends' pot-head, older siblings had laying around. Much later, a friend lent me some issues of Eightball and I started to pay more attention to comics again. A couple of years before I started at the bookstore, I started reading all the D&Q books I could find at my local library and the two that stuck with me -- and remain two of my favourites -- were Seth's It's A Good Life and Gabrielle Bell's Cecil and Jordan. Those, along with Chester Brown's Louis Riel (which I read much earlier) were my real entry points into D&Q.
SPURGEON: The Zulu experience seems like it would directly relate. Do you still use anything you learned in those days in the management of the bookstore? How do you look back on those experiences now?
GRIMMER: I worked at Zulu for around seven years. It was there that I discovered that, even though I believed my taste to be discerning, that I also loved researching and immersing myself in stuff that I thought I should at least find some appreciation for, in the hope that it would take. You know indie-records stores (and I would imagine this goes for comic book shops as well) are not always considered places that hire open-minded people, but that's how it really is and should be. The people who work there and the patrons that support them have invested themselves in knowing what's good about everything. These types of shops are, in many ways, the most important places in any city and can help shape the cultural life of the city or town they are in, if handled correctly. You can spend days searching for things on the internet but if there's a place in town that narrows it down just enough so you can get a foothold, it can change your life.
We stock things we love and can get behind but we also bring in things that our clients consider important. Generally, if it's in the store, there's a reason for it and we should be able to explain why it's there. We have a chance to alter the cultural landscape of our city and we should recognize and embrace that responsibility. We need money to stay open, sure, so we need to sell books, but in that regard we are also incredibly fortunate. Our clientele likes and buys the books we bring in so we don't have to worry too much about stocking huge amounts of million-selling books that we don't care about. This is the difference between Amazon and a Zulu, between Amazon and a Librairie D&Q. When I was a kid with hardly any cash, I depended on the clerks at certain record and book stores to steer me in the right direction. Not necessarily tell me, "You have to have this or you're not cool," but if they could explain to me what something was about, where it fit in and why it was crucial for me to at least know about it, I was sold. If you can do that, you can consider what you do is important, in my opinion anyway. A knowledgeable, interested and approachable staff is integral to the success of this kind of business.
SPURGEON: I know the store celebrated its five-year this Fall, and I understand what they were thinking when they started it, but I'm not sure when you became involved. In fact, I'm not even certain how you went from Vancouver to Montreal. How did you end up with the gig?
GRIMMER: My girlfriend, Kathy, and I played in a succession of bands in Vancouver and none of them were really satisfying experiences for us -- besides the obvious camaraderie and drinking. I knew that I liked being creative and liked -- to an extent -- the business of music, but we just didn't find the hard work it took for such small returns to be worth our while -- especially now that we were in our thirties. We figured that if we stayed there, we would be stuck in the same rut forever -- forming a band, gigging, recording, and then suffering through yet another band break-up.
Once our daughter was born, it gave us a reason to look eastward, partially because we kind of disliked Vancouver and partially because all our family was back-east and our parents would have better access to their grand-child. A lot of our friends were talking about buying apartments and flipping them and, since we had no interest in that, we decided to visit our family for vacation and not return. A month later we were living in Montreal. We had neither jobs, nor substantial savings, but I was fortunate enough to, right-away, find a part-time job at a record and used bookstore that barely supported us while Kathy went to school for Early Childhood Education. It was a tough couple of years, I knew some French and Kathy none.
Our daughter, Addie, became friends with Tom and Peggy's daughter, Gigi, at pre-kindergarten (Chris and Marina's son, Charles, also attended) and our resulting friendship with her parents led them to offer me the management job at the bookstore when the position presented itself a year or so later. Tom, Peg, Chris and Marina are amazing people and have been very good to my family. Gigi and Addie still hang out almost every weekend, Tom and I drink together at our monthly comic book club meetings, Peggy and Kathy are in book club together, and we have a lot of shared friends, so we're pretty close. I'm the only person in this city that Tom seems to know who he can have really deep discussions about the Velvet Underground or Pavement with, so I have a huge responsibility in that regard.
SPURGEON: You're in a comic book club with Tom Devlin? I think I need to know as much about this as you're willing to tell me. Is there anyone else in this club? How does it work?
GRIMMER: Yeah, it's me, Tom, Joe Ollmann, Pascal Girard, D&Q managing editor Tracy "Hamcups" Hurren, store staffer, Marie-Jade Menni (who, incidentally, did her thesis on the Hernandez Bros.), and our good friend Howard Mitnick. Matt Forsythe used to be in the club as well, but recently moved to Hollywood, I believe. We meet in the store after it closes. We all get a chance to choose a book for each meeting. We've done Death Ray, Acme Novelty #19, My Friend Dahmer, Dungeon Quests 1 & 2, The Voyeurs and maybe a few more that escape me right now. We don't all always like all the books but there's always someone in the group who does and so we end up reading stuff we never would usually. We try to keep the conversation focused on comics but that can be tough sometimes as there tends to be a lot of beer involved.
imageSPURGEON: You know, I'm not even sure I know the size and scope of the store. Can you break it down in terms of things like the size of the space, the size of any and all storage you might have, how many people work there, how many hours the store's open and what that means in terms of employee hours, how many events you run, that kind of thing?
GRIMMER: The bookstore is somewhere around 800 square feet. There are two shelves near the back and by our stage where we store overstock and there's some space under the shelves for overstock as well. Honestly, everything we have is pretty much all on display, which is to say a lot. Right now, we have tons of boxes filled with Building Stories all stacked neatly at the back waiting to be opened and shelved as the ones on the floor sell. The store is packed, but organized. It's a lot like my apartment in that way. As I mentioned there is a stage at the back and whenever we have an event we move all the tables to the side and put out chairs. This year we re-shelved the entire store so now we have wooden shelves that reach the ceiling and are better able to showcase some of our more beautiful and interesting books, whereas before they were all mostly spine out on black metal shelves. It's a beautiful space, really.
There are six staff members currently on the payroll. Myself and five others, but I'm the only full-time employee. The staff share most responsibilities but also has distinct duties as well -- French book buying, graphic novels etc. -- and I hire people based on their particular strengths. I'm fortunate because a lot of my hires come from a pool of the best former D&Q interns. If someone worked especially well in the office, Peggy will let me know and I interview them. The final decision is mine but if Peg and Tom and Chris have spent time with someone and suggest them, a lot of my work is done already. During regular season (that is, non-holiday season where we're open everyday from 10 AM until 9 PM) we open at 11 AM and close at 6 PM Sundays to Wednesdays and 11 until 9 the rest of the week. I'm there for two hours before we open so I can get ordering and other work done before we open. I don't have an office and am at the cash all day, so that time is necessary for me. I do a lot of researching books and booking events while having a coffee.
Events-wise, I'd say seven or eight events a month. More during the fall. One of my mandates when I took the job was to open the space up more for the Montreal literary community's use. We are constantly hosting launches by Concordia and McGill professors and students and I think this was the reason we were the only bookstore featured in Time magazine's article on the Montreal Literary scene... Next fall I plan on starting the Librarie Drawn & Quarterly Reading Series where we'll host a few big-name authors off-site and then readings with other, lesser-known or emerging authors throughout two weeks in the store. I have a wish-list of big authors I'm always trying to get and I start really working on it in February so we'll see how it goes.
imageSPURGEON: How much of the store is D+Q-related material, how much is from other, similar publishers. How much is comics vs. prose?
GRIMMER: One wall and shelf of the store is dedicated to D&Q, so -- and I'm really guessing here -- maybe 15%? People come from all over to see the "D&Q" store so we carry everything, of course. Besides that, the store is -- and please excuse the word, but it actually applies here -- curated, so we really only carry what we consider the best in almost all genres of literature. While we have lots of comics and graphic novels we also have a nicely maintained literature section. We have a small, but growing, poetry section, a theory section, art books, our favourite magazines, and probably the best English childrens' book section in town. We focus a lot on publishing houses that we consider to be D&Q kindred spirits: McSweeney's, Anansi, La Pastèque, Conundrum, Nobrow, Granta, Toon Books, New Directions, Melville House, Semiotext(e), Koyama, Fantagraphics, and more I'm forgetting right now. It all meshes pretty well with the D&Q aesthetic, so it works well.
SPURGEON: The anniversary article I read made a big deal about the exquisite way the store is curated. How much of the store's feel is you, do you think, maybe independently of a broader D+Q aesthetic?
GRIMMER: I inherited the shop so a lot of it was in place beforehand, and Tom and Peg and Chris' aesthetic is close to mine. I mean, I believe that was a big reason why the hired me and entrusted me with their store. What I've done is take what they started and kept moving in the right direction without having them feel like they always have to worry about it. They knew I had the right kind of buying experience and they knew what I liked, personally. We use Book Manager as our POS and that's a massive help. They've been great and I do around 85% of my buying through that. I can track what sells and where and source out things from different suppliers pretty easily.
The office still plays a big part in the stocking of the store. They suggest stuff and the store staff does some buying as wellâ€¦ they all have great taste so if they consider something worthy, someone else is going to appreciate it as well. I don't question a lot of their choices, I learn from them. I could probably stock a whole store myself based on what I like and know about but you could also stock one based on what I don't know, so it's hugely advantageous to have this resource. There's also Peter Birkmoe from The Beguiling whose brain I'll pick on a fairly regular basis. Besides buying, if any really big decisions are being made, we figure it out together and make things work. This is what makes the store as good as it is and the job so satisfying. I get to do what I like and enjoy a huge support system while I do it. I think it's working well.
SPURGEON: I will understand if you want avoid details, or maybe avoid the question entirely, but I hope you'll bear me out. Is the store profitable? You guys were quite up front in the anniversary article about grant money making it possible, and people in North America sometimes think everything in Canada is supported by the government forever.
GRIMMER: Oh yes, the great Canadian myth that everything here is funded by grants! Here's how I understand it: the office was able to secure a grant for the opening five years ago so they could fulfill the mission of providing comics, art and literary workshops and events to the public, which we still do. Tom does a graphic novel course and Pascal Girard does them in French. The amazing Leyla Majeri does screenprinting workshopsâ€¦ I know this much: the store hasn't received any funding ever since, we are even unable to quality for library & institutional sales due to some bureaucratic red-tape. We are pretty much following the trajectory of any small business. I was told we were in the red for the first four years, and now, finally, we're in the black in our 5th year. Are we profitable? Well, it's an independent bookstore, so I think we all know the answer to that one. It's always a break-even affair. When you don't make any money the first four years, it's hard in the 5th when you come out a bit you hesitate to throw the word "profitable" around, as you can well imagine.
SPURGEON: I was wondering if you could talk about a couple of D+Q books, maybe a non-D+Q comics-related book, and a prose book with which you've done well. What are some of the distinguishing factors in terms of something that sells pretty well in the shop. How many would your best-seller for a year sell in a year?
GRIMMER: Since I've been there I'd say the best-selling newer D&Q titles by a pretty wide margin were Hark! A Vagrant, The Death-Ray, Paying For It and Jerusalem. As far as non-D&Q goes, the [Chris] Ware, [Alison] Bechdel, [Art] Spiegelman and Clowes back-catalogues in general are pretty huge and never stay on the shelves too long.
imageOtherwise, this year Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her was big for us, which is a pretty cool for a hardcover fiction title as they can be hard to move in great quantities. It usually has to be a title that both the staff and our clientele embraces that makes a hard cover break out. Of course, we've had great success with local authors as well. Rawi Hage, Jonathan Goldsteinâ€¦ and this past year, mostly due to out very successful launch events with them, both David Byrne's How Music Works and Miranda July's It Chooses You were huge and we sold through hundreds of the books. What are great quantities in a year? I'd say a hundred or two, more in some cases. Quality of the title and the staff's love of the book definitely play a huge part in driving our sales.
SPURGEON: Does geography play a role in your store? I don't know where you are or anything about Montreal, but I know that bookstores can sometimes anchor a neighborhood. Are you a neighborhood store, too? Which neighborhood?
GRIMMER: We're located in the Mile End, which has been a pretty hip area for the last decade. I guess the Arcade Fire hitting it big played a part in that. So did the cheap rent. The rent's gotten steeper now and as the younger students, artists, writers, and musicians all move north to the even-cheaper environs of Parc Ex and Petit Patrie, families are king. These families are mostly made up of McGill and Concordia professors and writers and artists and their children who are very invested in books and art (and mostly Anglophone) and so the store has become a kind of hub for them. The literature and children's section expansion is testament to that.
SPURGEON: Is there anything you wish you hadn't done, a step that maybe wasn't so fruitful, in the years you've been there? How do you feel you're still learning? Do you have room to try things and fail?
GRIMMER: Honestly, I've only been at the store for something like 18 months and I've been busy the entire time so I haven't had a lot of time to look back on anything I've done wrong. I don't think there's anything we've done yet that I would consider a failure. I put a lot of time into the store and I definitely have an amazing support system here so I have faith that any problem that may come up could be figured out. I'm a pretty careful person, generally, and everything I do with the store is worked out and thought through but I'm also aware that great things can't happen if you don't take chances. We would never let a great idea die on the vine.
SPURGEON: With the events, is there something that's key to making sure the events drive business to the store, as opposed to just being awesome events? I worked in a gallery once that threw amazing parties, but did so in a way that never led to people buying stuff off of the walls.
GRIMMER: Obviously, you can't sell 50 books at every event, but we always look at every event we book as potentially successful or we don't book it. There are a lot of considerations to take into account. A few months back, store staffer Julien Cecceldi did an amazing job when he decided he wanted to bring author Chris Kraus to Montreal. Her books sell well enough for us and she's a store favourite, but we needed the resources to bring her here and book sales were not going to cover it so we partnered with Concordia University and did two events with her. One in the store and one at the school and they both did great. It was important to show people that we were willing to bring someone we thought was worthy. Sure it cost us a little but we knew it was culturally important. She had a great time and did two wonderful readings so that was, to me, as great a success as our 600-people sold out Byrne and Miranda July events. Yes, book sales at events are important, but future book sales are just as important and if you work hard and are trustworthy, people will support you.
SPURGEON: You mentioned people making a destination of the "D+Q store" -- do you get tourism attention? I know that was a factor in Subpop doing retail, that it's the kind of thing that gets listed as a city attraction and you get some business that way.
GRIMMER: Sure, especially in the summer. A lot of people think -- and hope -- that the publishing house is in the same building, but it's not. Soon after Paying For It came out I had a young lady from California who told me she was a sex worker and that she just wanted someone at D&Q to know that she and her colleagues thought that Chester's book was tremendously important and that they really appreciated him for it. She knew we were a bookstore but she knew I'd pass it along. When authors are in town they generally always come by, and recently we had a customer get pretty excited when Peggy brought Guy Delisle in. And Tom Devlin's usually by a couple times a week to drop off books or borrow my tape measure, so that can be a bit of a thrill. Kind of like if Eddie Vedder stopped by the Sub Pop shop to visit Mark Arm and maybe borrow his guitar tuner while he was there.
imageSPURGEON: Is there a customer you think you should have more of you don't yet?
GRIMMER: I think we could probably reach out more to the other Anglophone communities in Montreal as well. We've started to do that a bit and I think its working. I see more people from Westmount and the West Island than I did last year. We need to beef up our French content as well. There's a lot of great stuff out there and it would be nice to be able to showcase it. We've had more requests for French childrens' book recently as well. I think that would be nice. I hate to turn people away when they are looking for beautiful books we could carry.
SPURGEON: How do you fold in children's material into a wider-range bookstore? Is there any key to attracting that kind of business, or at least being able to serve that kind of customer?
GRIMMER: The children's books fit perfectly. It's seamless, really. We do a lot of research with them and I'm confident that we are on top of getting in the best of the best. Aesthetics and content guide us and the quality of the illustrations is as important as with our comics and graphic novels. Matt Forsythe, Lilli Carré, John Stanley, Isabelle Arsenault, Frank Viva, Alain Grée, Julie Morstad, their work adorns our walls and we love it. Like I mentioned before, the Mile End is home to a lot of families and so our kids section is well-perused. My daughter comes to work with me once in awhile if my girlfriend and my schedules don't work out and she just sits in one of the little chairs in amongst all those gorgeous books with a pile of books and reads for hours. Lots of kids from the neighbourhood drop by and just sit and read. I pay attention to what they like or what their parents like and I stock accordingly. Childrens' books are great fun to research and stock.
SPURGEON: Are you settled in, do you think? Do you imagine what the shop might be like in five, ten years? How ambitious are you, and what might happen that we might read about that tells us you're on your way to making those goals?
GRIMMER: I'd say, yes, we're settled in. Our significance is felt, I believe and my job is to make sure that continues. We're more able to get authors to Montreal then we were when we first started because we're not Toronto and I think that will only get easier. I'm working on it anyway and I feel positive about it. As far as the future, yeah that's hard to predict. On one hand I think the need for thirst for great, beautiful books you can hold in your and shelve in your home will never abate but who knows how the E Book biz will affect graphically driven literature? I mean, maybe someone knows, but not me. I worked in record stores for so many years, I saw when MP3s changed everything but yet, there a so many great little record stores still around, and them seem to be doing OK. I mean, they have my business, anyway, for what it's worth. I still buy books and records on a weekly basis and my daughter is growing up in an apartment surrounded by them, but how many of her friends have the same thing? A significant number of them probably won't feel a need to cultivate that kind of environment in their homes when they get older. Maybe my daughter won't either. In cases like that then our store and stores like ours are even more crucial as we represent something that people know in their hearts is important but may not think about all the time. I can tell you this, I deal with people on a daily basis who tell me how relieved they are we exist. It's symbiotic: they exist so we do too. Buy a kid a book, will you?
* Jason Grimmer on Twitter
* Jason Grimmer on Tumblr
* Librairie D+Q
* photo of Grimmer and the store by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* Bobby London's Dirty Duck
* from Cecil and Jordan
* photo of anniversary event by David Smith; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of store interior by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of books racked by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of David Byrne appearance by Richmond Lam; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* a best-seller when it comes to prose at the store
* photo of window of store by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of Matt Forsythe's bookstore postcard by David Smith; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly (below)