The comic book and graphic novel world is growing, and according to the co-owner of Page 45, it isn't going to stop anytime soon. Stephen Holland talks the history of his comic book shop, the growth of the industry and their work with school libraries.
If you take a wander down Market Street in the heart of Nottingham, you’ll come across a mysterious little shop with book shelves for walls, filled with beautiful art work and storytelling from all over the world. Behind the counter you’ll find Stephen Holland, who will gladly help you find the perfect graphic novel or comic book for you, and maybe he’ll even help you with your dissertation.
Twenty years ago two guys working for a chain comic book shop decided that they could do it better. Co-owner of independent comic book shop Page 45, Stephen Holland said himself and Mark Simpson had been “campaigning for a couple of years about creator rights, diversity and quality in an industry where in the US and UK is strangled by superhero comics”. They wanted to start something new with more fiction, autobiography, crime, humour and fantasy.
The chain they were working for was closing down, so they decided to take a risk. They summoned £30,000 and opened Page 45. Stephen claims that when Page 45 opened 20 years ago, only one per cent of the population read comic books and graphic novels. Despite that, Page 45 has won the Nottingham Independent Business Award two years in a row and the British comic book industry is growing.
“But that meant there was 99 per cent to go. That’s who we've aimed for”, Stephen says, as he optimistically explains the growth of the industry. The British Comic Awards prizes comic books and graphic novels each year. In the last three years all the winners of the award for Best Graphic Novel have been British: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenburg in 2013, Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon in 2012 and Nelson by Rob Davis in 2011.
“I’m afraid this year we've already lost to The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (an American graphic novel), which is going to be the best graphic novel this year. But three out of four is pretty damn impressive.” Graphic novels and their artists have even started to win mainstream awards, competing with prose novels. “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware won The Guardian first book prize, which means it beat all the prose that year. Last year the Costa book award for Best Non-fiction went to Mary and Bryan Talbot for Dotter of her Father’s Eyes. It beat all the prose again.”
Stephen believes there is a graphic novel for everyone. People often go into his shop knowing nothing about comics and end up returning asking for more. “People come in here and say ‘I’m completely new to comics, what do you recommend’. We ask them a bit about themselves, what they like in TV or in prose. Then we find around five graphic novels, do quick show and tells and see what they like the look of. It’s a repeat thing. Once they've got the right one they come in again saying ‘I love that, what do you recommend next?’”
People can buy whatever they want quickly and cheaply from the comfort of their beds now thanks to Amazon and other online shops, but Stephen is confident that the internet isn’t competition for him. “We compete on customer service. You don’t get that off Amazon. Quite often students come in and ask me questions for their dissertation. You try asking Amazon questions for your dissertation, you’ll get no help what so ever.
“We’re quite lucky as opposed to prose and music, where the download is the same as a CD. Comic books and graphic novels are seen as an art form. People want them to have and to hold.”
Nottingham is all about alternative culture. Stephen decided on Page 45’s current location on Market Street because it was between five of the cultural icons in the city: Selectadisc (a legendary record store that is now closed), the Theatre Royal, Rock City, the Royal Concert Hall and Nottingham Trent University. “People passing between these places would already be interested in alternative culture. Comics at that time were an alternative culture. In Nottingham, at least, we turned it into a mainstream medium.”
Even though the number starting to read graphic novels is growing, Stephen still aims to introduce them to more people. Page 45 supplies graphic novels and comics to more than 30 school libraries across the country. “There is a problem with literacy in amongst young readers, particularly young male readers. The reluctance to read is so great that the kids just aren't reading at all. I’m not saying that comics are just a stepping stone but it does have the initial sugar to help the medicine go down in that it is a visual medium”. Stephen learnt about how comic books can help children learn to love reading through his own experiences. “My mother got me to read through comic books. It worked for me, now I have a degree in English literature and history of art.”
“We had a headmaster phone once and say how delighted he was that we’d caused his children to fight, which is an odd thing to say - but they were fighting over the graphic novels.”
Stephen wants everyone to understand and appreciate the art of graphic novels the way he does, but apparently they’re just not for everyone. “Page 45 got broken into about six years ago and we could tell that they’d had a look at the graphic novels because they were spread all over the counter.”
Stephen gestures to the long black counter covered in colourful graphic novels. “But they didn't take a single one. I was absolutely miffed because I have always maintained that there is a graphic novel for everyone - but apparently not for thieving junkies”.