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Not All Comics Shops, Yes All Fangirls

Written by Yehudith.

This past week my local comic shop found itself unintentionally newsworthy thanks to some unpleasant allegations, which they followed up with a string of social media blunders. I was a little surprised to hop onto Facebook for my morning procrastination and find so much negativity aimed at my store, but after it sunk in the surprise evaporated and an ugly feeling of resignation settled in to replace it.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a former employee at Harrison’s Comics and Collectibles sent out some tweets about a possible wrongful firing. She’d reported a manager’s lewd and workplace inappropriate behavior to the store owner, and when she showed up for her next shift she was fired. The story was picked up by Jezebel and Bleeding Cool, among others, and suddenly the store I once visited on a weekly basis had become viral. Harrison’s has a few locations, but the one I primarily visit and the source of the controversy is the spot in downtown Salem, Massachusetts.

Naturally, a lot of people have been trying to discredit Ms. Williams, the ex-employee. Her detractors have ranged from sincerely loyal Harrison’s patrons to viciously misogynistic dude-bro geeks whose hackles rise anytime ‘sexism’ and ‘comic books’ can be brought into the same conversation. While I’m not personally acquainted with any of the parties involved, based on my past experiences with the store, I find Ms. Williams’ account of the situation sadly credible, and that’s where that sinking feeling of resignation sprang from.

I started shopping at Harrison’s when I was a teenager. I’d started reading comics casually when I was six, but since I’m a girl, that was considered abnormal and weird. Accordingly, my comics and comic book related toys were stored in my brother’s room, and most of our superhero stuff was purchased with him in mind. When I was a teenager I finally had my own bedroom, and after acquiring a job at the mall, a disposable income I could use to acquire and store a comic book collection of my own. Harrison’s was very helpful there. I started exploring their shelves at the same time I started figuring out what I liked in a comic book, independent of what my brother was reading.

At one point in my life I made the four mile walk from my home in Danvers to the store in downtown Salem every week. I’d pick out some freshly burned mix CDs for my portable CD player, put on some comfy sneakers, and set out with twenty to thirty dollars from my disposable mall clerk paycheck for comics, manga, wall scrolls, plushies, or anything else that caught my eye. Harrison’s wasn’t the only comic book store in the area, but they were the largest, they had the best selection, and their prices were generally pretty friendly. They also had a really sweet annual sale that was greeted with nearly all of a weekly paycheck, as opposed to my thirty-ish dollar budget. With the enthusiasm of a socially awkward but cheerful teen, I used to literally frolic in the store. It collected so many of my interests in one place, so it felt like a paradise.

About a decade later, I have to wonder at the fact that I continued giving them my money. Yes, the merch was nice. Yes, the prices were good. However, there was a payoff. In those days the service was terrible. I was a loyal enough regular, so the salespeople who worked there all knew me by sight, and just about every one of them treated me like shit. I had my taste in books mocked so ruthlessly by the male members of staff that I was afraid to approach the counter with “girly” books. I had two measuring sticks for figuring out what counted as a girly book: if I thought my brother wouldn’t read it, it was girly, and if someone in the store had insulted me reading it, it was girly.

I remember really wanting to start reading Nightwing’s solo series, but being terrified of approaching the counter with a hero who had that much fan fiction written about him. I spent months psyching myself up to buy a comparatively pricy Nightwing t-shirt that I desperately wanted, but was sure I’d, be laughed at for purchasing. In fact, the only reason I ended up getting it was because it went on clearance, so I knew it was my last chance to snag it. I don’t remember if the clerk who rang me up actually did give me the shit I feared was coming; I was too much of an anxious wreck to pay that much attention to what was going on. I merely handed them my money, shoved the shirt in my bag, and wore it very sparingly until I realized that Nightwing was actually quite a popular hero, with male and female fans alike, and that there weren’t assholes lying in wait ready to criticize me for liking Dick Grayson.

It really bothered me that the guys in the store felt they could trash my taste like that. I wasn’t proud of some of the books I was reading, but damn it, I was giving them my money. Shouldn’t customers get a baseline level of respect? A lot of them seemed to resent that I bought manga as well as traditional superhero books. They openly derided the manga section, which they thought of as trendy girl shit just taking up space in “their” store. Clearly you could only actually like one, and I must therefore be a fake geek-girl who only bought (crappy) superhero books for the male attention I was getting (in reality the male attention I got for the superhero books ranged from condescending to horrifying, so I generally tried to hide my interest in the Teen Titans and Batman if I could manage it).

Surprisingly, the worst employee I personally dealt with was a female. I’ve meditated upon this a lot, because in reflection her behavior doesn’t make a lot of sense. I know the store was difficult to work at for a woman. A few of the young women who’ve worked there chatted with me about how getting sexually harassed by customers was just part of the job, and that guys were always going to be condescending pricks and that they were going to assume you didn’t know what you were talking about, because clearly ovaries get in the way of understanding comics and tabletop gaming. I wonder if the female cashier who bullied me was reacting with misplaced anger, or maybe she thought if she picked on enough girls buying manga the guys at the store would accept her as one of them. I saw her being bullied by a bunch of customers on Halloween, a pretty big night in Salem. She’d worn her Robin costume into the store and a group of assholes were shouting at her that Robin wasn’t a girl and therefore she was an idiot who knew nothing about comics. I jumped into the fray and asked them if they’d ever heard of Carrie Kelley. Instead of joining me in sister-geek solidarity, she scoffed at me and snapped that she was Stephanie Brown, and mocked my knowledge of the Bat-canon. I left the store feeling humiliated, which was usually the end result whenever I talked to that girl.

All that happened about ten years ago now. In the time since, a lot of things have changed. A lot more girls are publically buying comics, attending  conventions, and insisting on our right to be fans. You’d think it was an unnecessary fight; that guys would have just wanted out patronage and cash from the get-go, but nope, this is something we’re actually fighting for, and we’re starting to win. I can’t even begin to explain how cool it is to open up a Big Two book and read a story that clearly has a female audience in mind. I almost cried when I read the first issue of Loki: Agent of Asgard. Today when I attend a con in a homemade costume with a posse of other devoted and likeminded fangirls, it’s a far cry from being that sad, isolated teenager who was so ashamed of her hobbies and passions she used to duck her head at checkout and hide her purchases in her backpack until she got home.

Things seemed to change at my comic shop as well. When I was in college, I did a few papers on superhero comics for some of my history classes. I used to walk down to Harrison’s to scout for source material, and a few times I even had pleasant conversations with the staff about my research. The thing was, the staff had mostly turned around by then. Six or seven years had passed, and the assholes had largely moved on. The new staff seemed nice, approachable, and no one ever told me I had girly taste in comics. In fact, quite a few of the newer staff liked Nightwing as well.

I assumed that the guys who were working at Harrison’s when I was a kid were creepers and jerks, and that they had been the problem. When I was an awkward and insecure little teen, I hadn’t had the guts to speak up about the way I was treated. It never occurred to me to seek out a manager or the store owner. I’d heard mixed things about Larry. Generally, people thought he was a nice enough guy, but a lot of folks felt his staff took advantage of him. Luckily, the problem seemed to have fixed itself by staff turnover, and therefore my past experiences, though unfortunate, were now irrelevant.

When Ms. Williams’ story broke, I had to reassess my conclusions.

If you read Ms. Williams’ tweets and blog post, her story sounds fairly reasonable and straightforward. She began work in a male-dominated environment and overheard some tasteless banter, coupled with some inappropriate touching. The media, choosing to be sensationalist about it, latched onto the phrase “Rape Room.” Ms. Williams never said that actual rapes were being committed in the store, as some deliberately obtuse commenters have implied. She merely had the audacity to say that rape jokes aren’t funny and certainly aren’t workplace appropriate. Larry Harrison has denied all her accusations, and adamantly insisted that none of his employees refer to the storage room in his store as the rape room. Well, when I shopped there as a teenager, some of the staff were making some pretty inappropriate jokes about taking underage girls into the storage room. One of my friends, who would prefer not to be named in light of the recent threats being made against women who’ve critiqued male dominated pop culture fields, was offered a suggestive visit to the storage room many times when she was sixteen by a thirty year old employee. It didn’t occur to us to say anything at the time (plus we thought he was a traditionally aged college student, not the creeper he turned out to be), and besides that, the employee in question left the store on bad terms some years ago and actually moved to the other side of the country. But at least one of his friends still work there, and all things considered, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that his disgusting jokes about the storage room could have evolved into the rape room over the course of ten years. In light of my experiences in the store, Ms. Williams’ allegations sound unfortunately credible.

When the story broke, my Facebook feed erupted in anger. I may have been isolated in my geekiness when I was a kid, but that is not the case now. I have a lot of friends who like comics, male, female, and everything in-between. They’re all pretty savvy on the issues women face in the industry as well as fandom, and the response was fairly unanimous: they were pissed, and they’re going to boycott.

I didn’t want to jump right on the boycott wagon though. I mean sure, Harrison’s has had some issues, but I’ve also got a lot of fond memories tied to the store as well. I remember taking my cousin’s kids through the store and watching them get pumped over the Doctor Who section, because they don’t have that kind of concentration of nerd-love where they live. I remember shopping there with my nephew when he was a baby and having a fun conversation with the staff about the Star Trek toy we were getting his grampa for his birthday. I remember the first time a male staff member was friendly and respectful to me and how happy it made me (really it should have disgusted me, since that moment came after I’d been shopping there for about six years).

Like I said, the store has some issues, but there’s enough good going on that the situation seemed salvageable. I decided to reach out, tell them about my experiences, and offer some advice. The other night, I sent them a message on Facebook, which I also shared with my friends in the hope of delaying the boycott until we got some answers:

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Here’s the response I got the next morning:

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I was a little irked that they didn’t read my message. It seemed kind of unnecessary to point that out. I know they’re drowning under a mountain of hate-mail right now, but there are ways to point that out in a reasonable manner that don’t make you feel like you’ve been brushed off. Still, I continued to reserve judgment until I read their statement. Maybe I was being naïve or overly idealistic here, but I thought they still might be able to save this.

Nope. The statement was a firm denial of everything Ms. Williams said, taking no responsibility for any wrongdoing on the part of anyone involved at Harrison’s. To a certain extent I did expect that. After all, the Salem police have gotten involved. Salem has also recently passed one of the toughest anti-discrimination workplace protection ordinances in the country. Mayor Driscoll proudly proclaims Salem to be a city of tolerance and safety for all peoples, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or whatever else people might gang up on you and be a dick about. Salem’s actually a really awesome city. We celebrate Pride Month in June like a boss, our anti-discrimination ordinance is one of only five in the state to include protections for trans people, and we’re one of only twenty five cities in the country to get a perfect 100 on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index. This is not a city you want to get caught having committed a wrongful firing in.

That being said, Larry could have done a better job convincing us that he was taking this seriously. I think this was my least favorite part of their official statement:

“I have been a comic store owner for 21 years and this is deeply disturbing to me. If anything like Ms. Williams described did occur here, the employee responsible would be terminated immediately. I ask that people look at the facts before concluding I am guilty. I have 9 female employees and 10 male employees presently working in my stores. The previous manager of our flagship Salem store is a woman, and she managed it for two years before leaving to open her own store.”

Instead of pointing out that he has women working at his store like that’s worth some kind of trophy (I bet he has black friends too!), he could have said something about measures he’s taken to prove that his female employees are being treated equally and that they are safe from the harassment Ms. Williams claims to have suffered. He could have said something to reassure me that I will be safe from the type of harassment Ms. Williams claims to have suffered, or the harassment me and my friends have suffered in the past.

Besides, if Jennifer Williams is telling the truth, and personally I think she is, the problems go beyond a snide attitude and a few burns here and there. Harrison’s should have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, and that should have been the first thing they mentioned in their statement. They went so far as to talk about some of the training Ms. Williams received during her time at the store, but they never mentioned if that training included any kind of harassment policy (I sincerely doubt it did). Instead, they chose to deny any possibility that anything bad had ever happened. Their statement leads me to believe that they’re not investigating the incident at all. Rather, under the instruction of their lawyers no doubt, they’re doing a condescending PR dance while metaphorically sticking their fingers in their ears and singing off-key while hoping we go away.

Don’t worry, dude-bros. I’m taking my business far, far away. I’ve given you enough chances and you’ve burned me every time. I may have built my comic book collection on a foundation of yellow Harrison’s baggies, but there are plenty of other stores to help me expand it. I’ll take my girly taste in comics, and the money I use to cultivate it, elsewhere.

July 13, 2015
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