Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san, Volume 3

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Story & Art by Honda-san
Translated by Amanda Haley
Lettered by Bianca Pistillo

So many comics are being published these days, so how does a bookstore select what to sell? This volume Honda-san addresses the cycle of a book’s life on the shelves of bookstores, from their stocking as a new release to the waves of demand a book experiences after publication. Honda sheds some light on the concept of “initial sales,” the number of copies sold in a book’s first week of publication. This discussion sheds some light on recent trends, in which traditional wisdom on the stocking is being challenged by erratic changes in customer’s purchasing habits.

Compounding this problem is the challenge of swapping in newer releases on a consistent basis, trying to balance making an aesthetically-pleasing display shelf while still highlighting as many new books as possible. Even though the new titles need space, it’s still a big no-no to run out of Detective Conan, for example. For a bookstore, a good book is one that sells consistently well for a long time, and the challenge booksellers face is keeping them on the shelves while cycling new stuff in. 

The constant influx of new books also means that those that aren’t selling fast enough must be returned, which can cause headaches later if the book suddenly becomes in demand again. Honda uses some great examples, including a timely anecdote about the renewed interest in a book about a deadly virus, to highlight different situations in which a book’s lifespan can be renewed. Booksellers have to make difficult choices to keep certain titles on or off their shelves, and Honda-san’s exploration of the topic helps illuminate common situations customers encounter while looking for a hard-to-find book that they may take for granted. 

Another big topic in this volume concerns the daily duties and qualities of a bookseller. Honda-san has consistently shown that being a bookseller requires a lot of organizational skills and physical labor, and these points are expanded upon through a detailed rundown of the non-customer service tasks involved in a bookseller’s daily routine. Honda-san guides readers through job requirements people who don’t work in bookstores don’t normally consider and posits what type of people are a good fit for the job. Honda doesn’t shy away from the reality that the work they do is not adequately compensated for how labor-intensive it is, though they do refrain from deeper criticisms. Instead, they use the example of Full-Face, a thoughtful and organizationally-minded member of the staff, to highlight how a considerate person may be the best fit to work in a bookstore. 

Flexibility and knowledgeability are also huge requirements, as the schedules and release patterns of the books other publishers put out are distinct and specialized. A bookseller must stay on top of trends and learn as much as they can about the books they’re selling to do their job efficiently. In their experience, Honda was often put in charge of titles they didn’t have much familiarity with, but they become more knowledgeable about them over time. These anecdotes highlight that curiosity and a willingness to learn about new things is also a key asset in the bookselling business. Moreover, it’s because of all of their experiences in different sections that Honda was able to get a clearer understanding of the publishing industry and the nuances of different publishers and the world of bookstores, which has proven to be a huge asset in writing their manga. Honda-san posits that you can always learn something from your experiences and apply them to other areas of your life and career. 

Lastly, Honda-san explores the work booksellers do when the store isn’t open, specifically during closing time. This section sheds some light on the important role part-time workers play in the store’s ecosystem, handling clean-up tasks like directing customers out the store totaling sales numbers, and cleaning and restocking inventory. There are some amusing anecdotes told about dealing with customers wandering into the store and cash discrepancy problems, common goofs that nonetheless show how vigilant bookstore employees always have to be. Honda-san really celebrates the hard work of those whose jobs are normally taken for granted but are just as essential a part of the industry as the creators and publishers themselves. As the medium through which books exchange hands, their dedication to promoting and selling books to as many customers as possible can’t be understated. The series highlights how customer service is just a fraction of the work that goes into making sales possible, and that every employee plays an essential part in making a bookstore functional. 

Honda-san successfully communicates its messages through endearing humor and visual information. Goofy expressions are Honda’s bread-and-butter, be it the grimaces of disappointed customers, the tearfully anguished faces made by Paper-Bag and Armor-Mask, or the pensively depressed look of Ko-omote-san. Honda’s probably the loosest they’ve ever been with their art in this volume, best evident by how frequently Honda’s skull-face is super-deformed to a more ovalish-shape with simple lines. However, they’re able to use this simplicity effectively, giving these moments a lot of character. This volume also features some really fun and clever sight gags, like the tail of Bandages-sempai’s word balloon piercing Honda’s skull and causing them to gush blood out their nose and mouth. Another great moment illustrates a book being returned, literally showing Honda (representing their series) being thrown by Bandages to the wholesaler, who swiftly dodges the return, as they make a beeline back to their shocked editor Seal-san. There are also tons of fun sign gags, where humorous text appears on characters’ clothes or on the front of books, underscoring or embellishing other jokes being made in the scene. 

These elements all highlight Honda’s artistic playfulness, which is really emphasized in the stylistic shift taken in one of the bonus chapters. In this alternate-universe what-if, Honda uses much thicker brush strokes and heavier blacks with minimal screen tones to communicate an otherworldly, underground feel that makes the chapter feel distinct from the main series. Honda also plays around with their panel layout to give this chapter more of an action-manga feel. One particularly striking page shows Manager Reed Hood blocking an angry customer’s attack with their business card, the center panel flanked by large kanji for “CLANNG” to their top left and bottom right in a really dynamic composition. Especially since it’s removed from the edutainment context of bookselling, this chapter reinforces how Honda-san’s appeal lies just as much in its art as it does in its content.

There’s an air of pensiveness and finality to the final pages of this section, musing about one day ending so the next may start problem-free. Honda notes in the bonus chapters that they left their bookselling job between publishing different chapters in this volume and intended to end the series with the “Closing Time” chapter. However, their editor has requested they continue the series to cross-promote the (then) upcoming anime, which leaves the series in a curious spot. It feels as if Honda-san has told all the stories they could tell about the world of bookselling, so what territory could the fourth and final volume explore? Regardless of where it goes, I’m confident Honda-san will continue to be a great guide into the world of the publishing industry, and an instructive resource for fans wanting to learn about how books make their way onto shelves and the hard work of the people who put them there.

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