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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Profile: Mike Van Houten, comics store proprietor

click to enlarge web-fall_profile_52.jpg

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

Mike Van Houten, 39, has been running Oxford Comics since he was 13 years old, originally as part of the beloved (and sadly, defunct) Oxford Books. The store’s busiest day of the year is Free Comic Book Day, held this year May 3.

What’s Free Comic Book Day like?

It’s a carnival atmosphere. People come in costume, and we have artists signing their comics and doing sketches for kids all day. It’s grown each year and brings people from all over. It’s our biggest day of the year.

I’ve got 5,000 comics from each of the 20 publishers waiting in boxes that we’re gong to give away. All the major publishers sent at least two titles, one for a general audience and one for children.

When did Oxford Comics begin?

Oxford Comics grew out of the old Oxford Bookstore. It started in 1980 when I was 13 years old. [Oxford Books owner] Rupert LeCraw was a very open-minded man, and he was impressed that a 13 year-old wanted to open a comic shop in his store, so he said, ‘Go ahead, give it a try.’ I did it all through high school and college, and when I graduated from college, the business had expanded enough that I could do it for a living. Due to various factors, Oxford Bookstore had to close, and I combined the three shops into a standalone comics superstore on Piedmont Road in 1996. Based on our square footage and number of titles, we’re one of the largest comic shops in the nation.

Are there any misconceptions about people who shop at comic book stores?

A big change in the last five years has been a huge increase in the number of girls and women.

I’d say that 25% of our customers are women now, and that wouldn’t have happened without their interest in Japanese animation and anime.

How has your selection changed over the years?

It has expanded dramatically. In the beginning, all that we carried were American comics and titles that would be considered superhero comics. Now we carry a true international sampling of all-world comics, Japanese manga, comics from the Middle East and South America. We carry them, and we carry them on a timely basis.

How much has your selection expanded beyond comic books?

We started carrying all the ancillary merchandise because the customers demanded it. It’s all related and it all meshes together. We rent and sell DVDs, we carry the toys of all the comic book characters, clothing, lunch boxes and high-end statues. People use them to decorate their cubicles or define themselves. We also have life-sized cut-outs of characters. Right now in our front window we have cut-outs of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Ron Paul. Our bestsellers are Obama and Paul.

What role does a comic book shop have in the community?

A comic shop is on the cutting edge of popular culture. Everything you currently see in the mass media has appeared in a comic shop one to three years earlier. If you go to the movies, you’re 1-3 years behind. That can be art house movies like Persepolis or big-budget movies like Iron Man or 300. What’s going on culturally is found in comic shops before it’s in mass culture. If you go to the movies, you’re 1-3 years behind. I always say that if you want to know what’s really going on in the Middle East, you need to watch Al-Jazeera and read Haaretz, and if you want to know what’s going on in American pop culture, you need to go to a comic shop once a week.

How many of Oxford Comics’ customers are adults, and how many are kids?

The vast majority of our customers are age 20-35. The number of kids is about 20-25 percent. Kids recently have become disenchanted with video games and become more interested in comics. They like the printed word more. Anything that gets kids to read is extremely valuable – that’s one of the reasons behind Free Comic Book Day.

What’s the most memorable request you’ve ever gotten?

In the age before the Internet, I had a request for Action Comics #1, which had the first appearance of Superman, but I couldn’t find one. These days I can find anything.

What do you think of the Comic Book Guy on “The Simpsons?”

I’m the total opposite of him. But stereotypes are always accurate, right?

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