Surrounded by dozens of neatly organized shelves filled with comic books, Jennifer Haines looks right at home.
As owner of Guelph’s only comic book store, The Dragon, Jennifer has prided herself on creating an environment where everyone is welcome and where superhero capes aren’t just for boys after all.
The idea that girls are not normally found in comic book shops is still a problem, said Jennifer, who decided to open the shop after noticing that most stores were anything but female friendly.
“Store owners are apparently not aware that women also want to read comics and are into this culture,” she said. “When we walk into a comic book store there’s this weird stigma or perception that we’re there to buy for somebody else.”
Tired of the attitude, as well as being told what books store owners thought she would like because she was a girl, Jennifer opened The Dragon in 1998.
Found deep within the Old Quebec Street Shoppes mall at 55 Wyndham St. N. in downtown Guelph, The Dragon prides itself on being a clean, brightly lit environment where every customer feels welcome.
“I really wanted to establish a place where women would feel there was somewhere they could shop and where they could just be themselves,” she said.
Despite establishing herself as a successful owner of a comic book store, Jennifer said she’s still flat out ignored when visiting other stores while male customers are greeted as soon as they walk in the door.
While the comic book industry puts the number of female readers at only two to three per cent, The Dragon is able to boast a whopping 20 to 25 per cent of its customers are women, something Jennifer said is mind-boggling.
“It takes a lot for a geek girl to overcome the pressures of mass media and general girl society,” she said. “They’re pushed into a certain mould so for a geek girl to arise out of that is great and we love seeing those people come in.”
And the people are coming, along with the accolades.
At last year’s San Diego Comic Con, The Dragon walked away with the 2012 Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award (for excellence in retailing), an honour it shared with a comic book store in Madrid, Spain.
Recognized as the “Oscars” of the comic book world, the awards are named after comic book legend Will Eisner, an American comic writer and artist, who many consider to be the father of the graphic novel.
With only 30 stores worldwide having been presented with the title over the past 20 years, Jennifer said she is especially proud to be the first store that was founded and solely owned by a woman.
Amy Chop started working at The Dragon almost 12 years ago and is currently the store manager.
Over the past decade, Amy said she has developed a strong relationship with the customers and products in the store, something she takes great pride in. Sharing Jennifer’s passion for the business, Amy said she appreciates Jennifer’s high standards when it comes to the quality of work she demands of her staff and herself.
“My first impression of Jenn was that I had found a woman I could look up to in the comic book world,” she said. “She has a lot of traits that I strive to find in myself, she breaks moulds and defies clichés in a business that thrives on them.”
Jennifer met her husband Robert at the Hyatt hotel bar at San Diego Comic Con in July 2006. The bar had turned into a meeting place for Canadians during the convention and mutual friend Kevin Boyd, owner of the Comic Book Lounge in Toronto, introduced the two.
Robert said in the 15 years since his wife opened the store business is better than ever despite the challenges of operating in a smaller city like Guelph.
“Jennifer and the store itself are leaders in the comics industry, not just locally but on a national and international level,” he said. “Guelph has a real jewel located downtown, and it’s due to a lot of hard work, vision and Jenn’s passion for this community.”
Robert said the store owes a lot of its success to great customers as well as a great leader who has achieved a fun, family-friendly and judgment-free space for all of the city’s various communities.
“I’m very proud of Jenn,” he said. “It takes a very special person to achieve all of this, along with a great support network of friends and staff. We take a lot of pride in making The Dragon the best it can be.”
Despite being commandeered into every event involving the family business, Robert said he sees his wife as an inspiration.
“I know no person who is more dedicated or works harder,” he said. “Jenn juggles so many tasks that she is passionate about, all with a baby and basically running our household. I’m very lucky to have her.”
Even with women becoming more involved in geek culture, Jennifer said the comic book industry still has a long way to go.
At a panel featuring the creators of AMC TV show The Walking Dead at San Diego Comic Con, the retailers were asked what kind of merchandise they wanted to see. After one store owner mentioned a need for more T-shirts in women’s sizes, Jennifer’s interest was piqued only to be disappointed by his additional suggestion of more women-friendly designs such as “I heart zombies.”
“It was ridiculous. Women like zombies. They want a shirt with gore and guts on it,” she said.
This is the type of stereotyping Jennifer said she wants to stop.
“There’s this weird stigma that women are into very specific things and they should only go in that one direction,” she said. “I want my store to be a place where every person who walks through the door is a customer, no matter their age or their gender. None of that matters.”
For more information on The Dragon, visit www.thedragonweb.com.