Retailer Rory Root, who passed away earlier this week, has been eulogized and remembered around the internet ever since the news of his tragic death broke. I only met Rory in person once, earlier this year at WonderCon, where Ian Brill, Matt Maxwell and I spent probably an hour or so at his booth on Saturday night as the floor closed, talking to him about Mark Evanier’s Kirby book and how well it was selling, and checking out several pages of original art he’d acquired at the show. I’d traded a few emails with him before that, but it was nice to meet him in person and learn firsthand what a genuinely nice guy he was.
As we spoke with him, the con closed, and we saw artist after artist pack up from Artist Alley and walk by us toward the exit — and I can’t tell you how many of them stopped to shake his hand or say good night to Rory. Read the comments on this post and you’ll see the number of comic creators who had a great deal of respect for what he contributed to the industry and to their careers. I saw that same respect in the trail of artists who were packing it up for the night at WonderCon.
I don’t think I could pinpoint any better what Rory did for comic professionals than to point you to this post from May 14. Elizabeth Genco put together a roundtable with four retailers, including Rory, on how up-and-coming comic pros could better market their books to retailers. The creator of a new series for Arcana shows up in the comments section and asks for advice, and Rory is there to give it to him. And he doesn’t just give advice; he gives encouragement. I like his answer to the last question in the piece, about any last bits of wisdom:
Don’t give up. You are trying to get your voice(s) heard in the most crowded marketplace ever. The modern, Internet connected, media overloaded, time crunched, cacophonous, world of ideas. Sisyphus has it easier. Still, faint heart never won fair lady.
As I mentioned, many folks who knew him longer and better than me have discussed his contributions to comics, so I thought I’d collect a few of those thoughts here …
Everyone will have tons of Rory stories, but he was such a fixture everywhere — standing outside with his hat, and the stainless steel coffee mug seemingly grafted to his hand, always with good advice for those who wished to follow it. Like another retailer sadly taken too soon, Bill Liebowitz, Rory exemplified the comics retailer who made a difference. People pick on retailers as a group, but men like Bill and Rory showed how important and vital this end of the business is. That they were so boundlessly generous with their time and knowledge was their real gift and legacy.
On a personal level Rory was always very supportive of everything I tried to do in comics. He was supportive of my starting a publishing company and was maybe the only local retailer who gave me the time of day when I called drumming up business. Rory was the first guy to get behind APE when we started that and he did so unconditionally. Heck he was even a regular fixture at the old one-day comic shows we used to run in San Jose, always buying tables and sending his customers to our shows even though it probably cost him a few bucks in sales. Rory was truly an integral part of the Bay Area comics community and you could make the argument that he had a visionary approach to retailing, leaning heavy on graphic novels before they became the growing segment of the business that they have become.
Our business was better because Rory was a part of it and we are all now poorer with his passing. Hopefully we can all take a moment and find some small and personal way to honor a guy who gave so much of himself to this business.
We would see Rory every year in San Diego at the Con and he always greeted every member of my Cartoon Books staff with hugs and good humor the moment we stepped on the convention floor. Every single year he wanted to be the first person to see what little goodie we were going to unpack from our crates. And every year he put his money where his mouth was, supporting me and many other smaller publishers at the end of the Comicon by taking any unsold books off our hands (at a pretty hefty discount, of course, but that was Rory!). I will miss him.
Rory was the founder of Comic Relief, “The Comic Bookstore” in Berkeley. The first time I stepped into Comic Relief after relocating to the bay area in 1999, I knew right away that a lot of care and knowledge was put into the selection of its inventory. The store had personality, character, and a uniqueness that you find only in the best book shops, and that’s all because of Rory Root. Thanks Rory. You will be missed.
The news of Rory’s death on Monday hit us like one of those awful Special News Reports you get on tv every once in awhile. Shock and disbelief. It’s so sad. We lost one of the good guys this week. If you didn’t know Rory, I promise, you would have liked him. And if you’re reading a comic or graphic novel today, Rory had something to do with that.
My most vivid memories of Rory, however, aren’t from the convention floor. Instead, I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember him sitting outside his wonderful comic book shop on a cool summer evening in downtown Berkeley. Rory would pull a stool or a chair onto the sidewalk, light up a cigarette, and talk your ear off if you happened to be walking by. This guy loved comics. He was smart, insightful, and honest. His advice was indispensable. And he will certainly be missed.
When I finally announced my book after interminable delays (some of my own creation, mind you), his reply was along the lines of “When can I order it, and what can I help with?” There was no eye-rolling at another anemic indie publisher or impatience when I revealed that I was skipping serialization altogether. Instead, he replied with kindness, suggestions and ultimately happiness that another book would be out there to connect with readers.
When I went to tell the sad news to my mom, all I had to say was “Remember the nice man you met at Jeff Smith’s party?” and she knew immediately who I was talking about, because the nicest man at the party was always Rory, and that’s a lot of nice when you’re in the company of Jeff Smith.
Rory was massively supportive to me, to Laurenn, to everybody. The only people who ever had a bad word for him were the people who thought he should give them all his fucking blood just for showing up, when he’d already given them half of it because they were in comics and he wanted to help. Rory was always a class act, and, in a field that has way too few of those, we really couldn’t spare him.
But there are few retailers, publishers or creators who spent any amount of time with the man and didn’t walk away learning a dozen things about how comics work the way they do, and what things that could be done to make things better. It is the loss of that generosity of his knowledge (and it was truly encyclopedic and broad) that is going to be the loss that the comics industry is going to face over the next years. If only we had a few dozen Rory Roots, we could have utterly transformed the entire industry.
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the man’s contribution to modern comics, to the idea of what a direct market retailer could be, or to the care, concern, and support he gave nascent creators. His shop was and is proof– along with a too-small handfull of others– even when it served as the exception to the rule– that The Android’s Dungeon was never, ever good enough, and that greatness in comics retailing was in fact possible.
His store, called THE Comic Bookstore, was exactly as advertised– across its two different locations that I’ve visited over the years, it’s a bookstore full of absolute wonders, long-lost treasures, and most of all, comics, comics, and more comics. It’s almost like the retail experience of a comfy chair– the sort of place to lose yourself for hours.
Rory was the consummate creators’ retailer, at the heart of the retailing community and many would say the comics community, as well. I never met him, but when I was just starting out as a cartoonist, trying my hardest to get people to buy my work, Rory was the first retailer to pop up in my email and demand I sell him 20 copies of each minicomic I’d made. And every time he heard I had a new one, he’d be right there asking for more.
Rory was a giant, not just in physical stature but in warmth of heart and in nature, kind. He always had a pleasant word for me personally and a gentle nudge for me professionally when he thought I might be headed off my course. I have a couple of choice stories I’m going to keep to myself, but Rory and I always had some laughs together whenever we met up, and I’m going to miss calling him up to get his advice on this or that.
He was one of the best comics retailers. Someone with a philosophy on selling comics and graphic novels, on respecting customers, on pushing The Good Stuff, that set him apart back in 1989, when we first met, and that put him far ahead of his time. And he was a nice guy to boot. I liked him enormously, and will miss him just as much.
If Rory was selling your book, it was hard not to feel like a success. In fact, I don’t think he knows it, but he actually gave me a real confidence boost one of the last times I saw him. When Cut My Hair was barely a year old, he passed on taking any home from San Diego. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we have some already and they aren’t selling.” I waved it off, I understood.
Five years later, he walks up to the Oni booth, and he points at Cut My Hair, and he says, “People come in all the time asking me for this thing. They keep hearing about it, and we keep restocking it.”
Last February, my new book on Jack Kirby was coming out just barely in time for the Wondercon in San Francisco. For a moment there, it looked like none of the dealers would get it in time for it to be sold ‘n’ signed at the con…but Rory went to considerable trouble and expense to obtain a few crates of ‘em, and I was only too glad to sit and inscribe them at his booth. This was not just a matter of potential profits. Rory was a big Kirby fan and he just wanted to have the book at his table. Whatever profit he made off them was probably nullified by the number of copies he gave away to friends. You have to like a guy like that. Actually, I liked Rory even before then. Everyone did.
many other people I know (including Ed Brubaker, Sophie Crumb, Adrian Tomine, Charles Brownstein and others) Rory encouraged me in this business at a very young age when he had nothing to gain from doing so. I first visited his mecca of world cartooning, Comic Relief, on a spring break from Southern California as a teenager in the late-1980s. I didn’t meet him then, I just fell in love with his store. But when I became the news editor at The Comics Journal in my early 20s, Rory became one of the first people who encouraged me and supported me with advice and contacts. I don’t even remember meeting him — he just feels like one of those people I’ve known forever. He was a great person to get perspective from, and when I switched over to the publishing side our relationship only grew. I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who was a stronger advocate for the kinds of quality cartooning being published by not just Fantagraphics but also Drawn & Quarterly, Last Gasp, Kitchen Sink, Top Shelf, Buenaventura, etc. The man knew his shit, and he quite often knew how to sell it better than we did.
And many more:
–The Comic Relief website has been turned into a memorial for Rory.
–Tom has a detailed obituary for Rory, along with more memories by comic pros. Tom also reports that Comic Relief will not close.
–Greg Rucka talks about how Rory sold his grandmother on Will Eisner.
–This post at the Beat has a lot of remembrances from pros as well.
–Scott Morse shares a portrait he did of Rory.