At the start of 2020, Betty (Gibson) Bayer, AB ’11, was a stay-at-home mother of two who had every intention of taking her recently earned master’s degree in library and information science and finding a job. But we’re all familiar with what happened next. By the spring, she found herself quarantining with a suddenly working-from-home husband, two young children and no prospects.
“It was pretty stressful,” Bayer says. “I felt as if I was using only a tiny sliver of who I was.” Until her mom snapped her out of it. “She said, ‘Maybe you could use this time to create your own opportunities instead of waiting for them to find you,’” Bayer recalls.
Turns out, mom always knows best. By November 2021, amidst a pandemic showing few signs of letting up, Bayer opened Betty’s Books, a bookstore that specializes in comics and graphic novels, including manga, black-and-white, Japanese comics.
Bayer’s timing, it turns out, was perfect. Sales of comics and graphic novels rose 62% nationwide in 2021 — and continue to grow. “In my research,” says Bayer, who earned her degree in art history in Arts & Sciences, “I discovered that there was nowhere in St. Louis that carried the unique combination of inventory I was looking for.
“We overlap with comic bookstores in that we carry trade comics, and we overlap with general bookstores in that we carry children’s books,” she says. But this niche inventory — graphic novels — she says, is unique for St. Louis, and it’s becoming very popular with teenagers and young adults. Why?
“Maybe it’s because of the ‘multimedianess’ of life now,” she says. “To that demographic, graphic novels make sense in a way that doesn’t translate to older generations. We get older people who come in who are like, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening here.’ They’re confused that a whole store could be full of graphic novels and comic books.”
But the word is spreading. The store, housed in a historic building in nearby Webster Groves, Missouri, is a visual feast and has become a community meeting place, hosting story events for children on summer days and local artists and authors at night. Last August, John Hendrix, professor and chair of the MFA in Illustration & Visual Culture program at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, was a guest artist touting his new book.
Using the downtime of the pandemic, Bayer taught herself the business, taking an online course from the American Booksellers Association, then figuring out the financials and market shares to see if she could turn what had become her hobby into a bricks-and-mortar store.
“As a kid, I liked art and I wanted my own business,” she says. “I was always starting something — a car wash, a cookie company.” And then?
“Middle school happened,” she laughs.
Spoken like a kid who’s been there — and one who knows how to reach the ones who are there now.
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