We are exploring and sharing user stories from the world of indie book publishing to discover and showcase creativity, inspiration, knowledge and the details behind the stories that make them remarkable.
Meet Josh Palmano, owner and founder of the independent bookshop, Gosh! Comics London, which is located in the diverse and vibrant area of Soho. We sat down for a talk with Josh about his passion for graphic novels, running a bookshop, being a publisher and how to market and sell your work.
Hello Josh! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Could you please walk us through the story of Gosh from the beginning till today.
Josh: Well, I opened the shop when I was 20, which was back in 1986. By then, I’d been working in the industry for about seven or eight years, buying and selling myself for much of that time. We opened largely as a back issue shop because there weren’t many graphic novels at that time.
Will Eisner was producing books like Contract with God back in 1978. Then throughout the eighties, a new wave of comics hit, many produced by American publisher Fantagraphics; people like Daniel Clowes, who had been very influential in that scene and Julie Doucette with “Dirty Plotte.” All that modern movement of independent comics, built a bridge between underground creators such as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton who’d been published back in the 60’s and 70’s. Suddenly these new, exciting people came on the scene and they really captured my imagination. Very much so, the Hernandez brothers, who had been working through the 80s, on their comic book series Love and Rockets. When I was young, growing up during my formative years, I wanted to look like the men; I wanted to date the women.
The shop was located in Bloomsbury for 25 years, and we grew there. Very difficult start. I was quite young, didn’t know the business. Knew comics, but not the sort of backroom stuff. It was, the first Tim Burton Batman film, which was, I guess, 1980, that gave us a spike in turnover and took us out of the red, into the black, and we were secure after that. Bloomsbury was really interesting at the time. You had the British Library, which was still within the Museum, the British Museum, was just across the way from us. So we had a really eclectic mix of people coming through. Lots of people studying at the library would come to the shop. Over the years, once the British Library moved to its new site down by King’s Cross, the area slowly got duller and duller. You would get coach-loads of tourists coming in, going to the museum, loading back onto the coaches, and be gone. The interesting second-hand bookshops moved out because they didn’t have the people studying at the museum anymore, and coffee shops and gift shops moved in. Slowly the area lost its identity and became what those areas around a big museum become: a bit dull. Then, I think it was 2011, a change in our landlords, which made me think we had to look for a different location, we couldn’t really stay there anymore. So, in a way, it was serendipity. It was “This area’s dying anyway, we have to leave.” Looked around and found the unit we’re in now, which is really open and airy, very unlike the property we were in before. Great big plate glass windows so you could create an atmosphere that both felt very exciting but really open, and that’s always been a bit of a problem for comic shops. They’ve often been very much associated with a male market, and so with this premises we wanted to create something that felt like an open environment. One where you could look into the shop from outside, but also you felt like you could look out easily when you’re inside. So there was no impression of being trapped in a cliquey world.
For the most part, I have always had the freedom to slightly develop the shop in my own interests so with this, the children’s department grew when I started having children myself. But it was also really closely curated because one, the things I was putting in there had to be beautiful, but they also had to read well, and be of interest to me and my children, we thereby built up a body of very beautiful and exciting books.
When we moved it was a great opportunity to redesign the shop. I was a bit lost for who could help me with that so I scoured the Web, looking for interesting designers. I hit upon an article by a guy called Callum Lumsden, who was talking about his philosophy of interior design, which I totally agreed with. Had a look at his website, and his clients tended to be the V&A; Warner Brothers; British Museum, and I thought, “I’m not going to get far with this guy,” but I phoned him anyway. And I think he took me on because it sounded like a sort of fun detour from what he usually did, which was great. It meant that I got someone who designed the Tate Modern bookshop, working with me at a rate I could afford. So I think that possibly he was quite kind to me on the price, as well. And it has given me what I think is a beautiful shop, but with the space that he created, I’m able to run events, which is great, and other than the usual sort of book launches and signings, we’re able to show short films, have live drawing etc. We run three clubs at the moment: a book-reading club; Comics Goship. Process, which is a meeting for comic creatives to help them with how to put comics together, and to put them in contact with other writers and artists. There is also a monthly event called Capers, which is a social gathering, discussion event, and they’ll pick one superhero and go through their history, their psyche and what part they play in the philosophy and understanding of superheroes.
What does a typical day look like for you in the bookshop?
Josh: I tend to get in early and wade through emails. It’s funny how things have changed now. I used to get in and deal with my mail. Hardly get any letters now. I publish as well as have retail, and that seems to take up progressively more of my day. I publish with one guy who’s been publishing for years, and that stuff tends to be older creators such as Alan Moore and Gilbert Shelton, people that are now in their 60s and 70s. I also publish with a couple of young guys, and what I publish with them tends to be for a more young and hip market.
What is your role as a publisher?
Josh: Well, small publishers kind of do everything if you know what I mean. I make sure that the bills are paid, that our print run’s are realistic, and that our storage is affordable. Also, I have a role to play editorially and in the whole artistic direction side of things.
We’ve also got a program of bookplates and prints that we are developing, so it’s wonderful the way we can bring art in immediately from other places and make new pieces available. We’re trying to find ways to give exclusivity to the shop, so if there’s a book that’s coming out that we want to get behind, we’ll work with the artist, create a signed bookplate. It gives us a way to say, look we’re giving you something extra that you won’t find elsewhere, at various discount, online establishments. But it’s also a way of saying, “Look we really think this looks great and maybe you should take a look. In addition, it’s also very lovely to work with some of the creators we’re friendly with to create prints that we think are wonderful. These could be either as screen prints or giclee’s, just to give something that feels a bit more quality than a lot of what’s produced in many of the periodicals, which is a very cheap way to print art. Graphic modern art books have really lifted that. It’s nice to recognize it more for what it is rather than just put it on pulp paper.
The process of finding new books: where do you buy them, and which qualities does a book need to have in order to get shelf space in your bookshop?
Josh: One of the rules we follow is that we want the words and art to work in unison. I’m not so keen on books that are very pretty but have a dull story but when the two do work really well, then they weave a wonderful tale. Now, we obviously are pragmatic in our approach, as well. We manage our stock very carefully. We monitor what’s selling and what’s not, and we have regular clear outs of stuff that just doesn’t work.
We have a large central table on which we put books face down that we really want to call people’s attention to, and on there you should be able to find a book for pretty much any age group that you would want to fit. I would hope that from the selection on that table, if you came in and described a person and what they’re looking for, then something would be represented on there for them. I think now that we’ve reached a point in the market where that is true. Before there was so little available, and now creators are being given a voice for such an incredible array of material. It’s as rich as it ever has been in comic books, which is really exciting.
The artists that are represented in the bookshop are they mostly from the U.K., U.S. or?
Josh: Wherever, I mean, that’s opened up a lot. I think a lot of the great stuff that’s published around the world is now available in English, which it wasn’t necessarily before, and we’ve got a knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff that are always out there looking for new material. They’ll go to expos and shows and spot stuff there. They will follow websites and blogs and find out about things there and just come into work and say, ‘I think we should be looking at this’. We often find things that way. I’m really lucky to have staff that are, in the back of their minds, working all the time. Moreover, customers will point things out to us; regulars will say, have you spotted this? Also, people are coming in off the streets saying, “Look do you carry this? I read an article on it,” or, “a friend showed me this, and I’m looking for it.” And, rather than saying no, we’ll say, “Oh, tell us more about it. We’ll Google it, and make a decision on what we discover.” So there’s lots of ways to find out about new stock, and if there’s something, if someone’s created a brilliant small press comic from New Zealand, then we’ll import it from New Zealand.
There’s certainly people, say animators, who will put out small runs of books that they’re just selling through their website. We’ll contact them, and if it’s good, we’ll seek it out. Some of those books we don’t make a great return on because it’s so expensive for us to source them but, it adds a lot of pleasure to the job; putting those disparate things from around the world into one place.
What defines your audience at Gosh?
Josh: Well, I guess we have three quite distinct audiences. We sell periodical comics, which is still a fair amount of our trade, and we will have regulars that ask for those, which is great, signing orders, for the regular American comics; Superman, Spider-Man, they come out every month, more frequently sometimes. So you’ve got this permanent audience for that, which is great. We’ll see those people month in, month out; lovely. We’re in Soho and get passing trade from the tourists that are coming by when visiting the area, but Soho also has a massive creative industry. A lot of film production companies, animation production, and special effects companies are in Soho, and they employ a lot of young, creative people on fairly decent wages. That is a real boon for us, and that’s really useful to us and a lovely new thread of business that we didn’t have at the old location.
One thing we were concerned about when we moved was that we had developed a children’s department that was doing quite well and had grown a lot of years, and we felt “We’re going to Soho.” I remember the third time I came to look at the shop, it was evening and there were, I think, nine red lights shining down from the buildings opposite and I thought, well maybe this isn’t an area where we’re going to sell those kids’ books. But actually the atmosphere, we’ve created, provides plenty of space for everyone. We put in seating so the kids can come hang out if they want to, and it was actually the children’s department that grew the most out of all the departments when we moved. Every year there’s a Free Comic Book Day, which is an industry event to promote the medium. And we’ll turn one of our tables into a drawing table for kids. We usually have, for the afternoon, about ten visiting artists and each will dedicate half an hour to the tables, just to draw with children. It is so lovely to see small children watch someone wave a pen around on a piece of paper and suddenly something is created, and I think it’s really inspirational, and although the artists are asked for half an hour of their time, most of them just hang around for the afternoon because they really enjoy it as well.
And finally, which market and sales channels do you use at Gosh to reach out to your audience?
Josh: I guess the same ones everybody uses these days. Facebook seems a bit old now, but it’s still a great way to promote events. We also use Tumblr, as it is a good way to stick the photos up and useful as a scrapbook of what’s been going on at the shop. Further, I’m eternally grateful to Twitter. I remember when we opened in 1986, basically I was on street corners flyering outside public marts or on Oxford Street just trying to get the message that we were open out there. Whereas, when we moved, we put messages out on Twitter. We got a little above 10,000 people following us, which is not a big base, but then being re-tweeted by a few people had an enormous impact. Neil Gaiman re-tweeted us to his 2.1 million followers and a few other people who with around the 500,000 to a million followers, and suddenly about 5 million people saw our message.
We don’t spend very much on advertising. We will maybe advertise in small and interesting magazines that are trying to get off the ground to help them a little bit, but every time I try a campaign, I’m often feeling that I’d have been better just to have gone to Expos or spent money on promoting what we do at the shop ourselves, rather than advertising. Just by banging our drum and relying on word of mouth; creating a vibe in the shop that hopefully will make people want to say: actually this is a nice shop, you should try this. So word-of-mouth and friendly journalists is what I end up going for. It would be lovely to find that affordable silver bullet that would do that for us advertising wise, but I haven’t found it yet. Have you found the secret to that?
To learn more about Gosh! Comics London and experience
their universe and books
go visit: www.goshlondon.com