Comic shops are the heart and soul of the world of comics. While that isn’t the case for everyone, it’s true for me. That’s because comic shops were my favorite places in the world when I was growing up, as I effectively took up residence in my local comic book shop – Bosco’s Comics, Cards and Games in Anchorage, Alaska – for of my youth, and whenever my family would leave the state on vacation, I’d find whatever shops I could in the area and beg my family to let me visit them.
While I highlight these types of establishments regularly in features, I wanted to dedicate a consistent column to some of the best and brightest in the industry, telling the story behind notable shops from around the world and how they stand out amongst their peers. It’s called Comic Shop Confidential, and today, it kicks off with one of my very favorite shops: Portland, Oregon’s Floating World.
When I graduated from college, my core friend group split up in two different directions. Half of us went back to Alaska, where many of us we were from and where opportunities remained in a post-recession economy. The other half went to Portland, Oregon, a much cooler city that offered limitless (theoretical) possibilities and, at the very least, some excellent dining opportunities.
This worked out nicely for me because every time I would visit my friends became a culinary tour, as my friends would plot meals out ahead of time to make sure I was getting my fill of all the delicacies my poor, bereft palate had been missing out on. 1 That couldn’t be all of my visit, though. They had day jobs. But that would leave time for independent study, and one of my favorite parts of town to go to during that time was the downtown/Old Town/Pearl District area. While it can be touristy and commercial, it also is the home – roughly speaking – of faves like Powell’s Books, Ground Kontrol and the Crystal Ballroom, so I’d go on extensive walks during the day or in the evening as a lead up to a concert.
It was on one of those walks that I first came across a comic shop called Floating World. The name hit me immediately, as I was a huge fan of a band called Anathallo’s album of the same name. Even if the name didn’t pique my interest, visiting comic shops when I visit cities is compulsory for me. So, naturally, I had to stop by. This was around 2007 or 2008. At that point in my life, every comic shop I had been to was built off the idea that superheroes were the sun, moon and all the stars when it came to orienting your product mix. It was how comic shops just were in my brain.
That was not Floating World.
I went in to this tiny shop, and even in its small space, it amazed me with its incredible selection that was unlike anything I’d come across. There were zines, mini-comics, deep cuts from Fantagraphics, manga, and any number of other titles I wouldn’t dream of seeing in my shop here in Alaska. Even relative to its peers in the comics-rich city it resided in, Floating World stood out.
That’s exactly why owner Jason Leivian decided to open it in 2006.
“At that time there wasn’t a shop in Portland that carried all the comics I was interested in. The shop where I had my subscription box would miss books that I had ordered from Fantagraphics,” Leivian said. “I got the idea to quit my job and try starting my own business.”
Leivian even remembers the night the idea came to him. There he was, trying to fall asleep when the idea struck like a lightning bolt. Emboldened, he decided to take notes in a journal he had previously used for a music project he was developing. The words “Ukiyo-e” and “Floating World” – the former effectively meaning the latter in Japanese – were jotted within, and inspiration struck once again.
“I must’ve seen it there and decided to use it for the shop. It ended up being a good fit,” Leivian told me. “Ukiyo-e is a genre or style of art from Japan that has narrative qualities and was also produced and appreciated by the masses, which is basically comics.”
When Floating World opened its doors in 2006, it was in an even smaller space than the one I first came across the shop in. It was a 10’ by 10’ Activespace studio under the 405 freeway that Leivian described as both “a fun little spot” and “hard to find.”
“I’d get at least one customer a day. Total,” Leivian said. “It was slow, but there was never a day where I had $0 sales. But they’d come in surprised to see a colorful small space packed with awesome books. Some would comment that even that tiny space had a better selection than many of the bigger shops in town and that encouraged me to keep going and find a better location.”
Leivian knew there was something to what he was trying to build, so he became a one-man street team to grow his customer base. He wanted people to discover the shop, and he used every means available to connect with those who might appreciate his store.
“From the very beginning I was doing monthly events, First Thursday art parties. Every month we’ve done those art shows and book release parties. That gave me an opportunity to send a press release to the papers every month and I’d put up event posters on utility poles around town,” Leivian said. “I spammed everyone on Myspace who lived in Portland and had comics in their interests.”
From there, Floating World continued to grow, moving into its second location – the one I first visited – not long after opening, before eventually settling into a bright corner spot on Couch 2 and 4th. That area evolved quite a bit since my first visit, as it’s now loaded up with similarly minded businesses and, predictably, good food and creative-fueled businesses. I visit every time I go to the city, still taking walks around the area as I swing by Pine Street Market for some Pollo Bravo, Ground Kontrol for some Soulcalibur domination, and, eventually, some comics at Floating World. 3 It’s a wonderful area for foot traffic, which aided Leivian with discoverability.
“That corner had a lot of energy and especially on First Thursdays we’d get hundreds of people coming through to check out art,” Leivian said. “I met a lot of cool artists who might be having a show across the street but they were super into comics.”
The shop fit well in its area, but it also has a perfect home in Portland itself. The city, as Leivian shared, “feels like the west coast comics capital” with its immense number of notable creators living there and an array of publishers like Dark Horse, Oni, and Image calling it home. It has a creative and art savvy population, which results in a voracious and supportive community. The good news for these consumers is the city has plenty of comic shops, each of which seems to offer a little something different than the other. That lets Floating World both fit in and stand out, which Leivian appreciates as a business owner and a comic fan.
“There’s at least three other amazing shops here that I love and they’re all a little different, you’d go to each one to find different kinds of stuff. Plus, some cool bin crawling spots and the Frankenstein’s Comic Swap,” Leivian said. 4
Even with that proliferation of comic shops in mind, Floating World continues to own its niche. Part of that is because customers never really know what they’re going to walk out with unless they’re on a mission. I know that from experience, as recent visits have resulted in me departing with everything from the first volume of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki – which was highly recommended to me by one of Floating World’s incredibly knowledgeable clerks – to vintage Moebius trading cards. Heck, one time I only purchased a single thing: a sticker of cartoonist Jason Fischer, with Fischer himself ringing me up for the purchase.
Despite the sound of that product mix, Leivian keeps the focus on the comics themselves.
“Mostly books, whether those are comics or graphic novels. That’s the main focus,” Leivian told me when I asked about what products lead for the store. “But we have a small selection of prints from different artists, gifty stuff like postcards and stickers from small press artists. Vintage trading cards. But when we do have merch like that it’s pretty much always from independent creators.”
With one of the most diverse collections of comics you’ll find in Portland or any city as well as an array of unique offerings, you’ll need a killer staff. The good news is, Floating World has always 5 had just that, including creators like Fischer and Joe Keatinge, at times. Leivian estimates that at any given time half of the staff makes comics themselves. That can be helpful, as they clearly know comics. Staffing of course becomes an issue when it’s convention time. But it’s worth those tough times for scheduling.
“Everyone there loves comics, and that enthusiasm is apparent when customers come in to shop. And everyone has different tastes so they can highlight different sections of the store,” Leivian said.
Floating World does behave like a normal store in some ways. Single issues thrive with pull list customers and casual readers tend to gravitate towards trades and graphic novels. They also don’t sell any toys or games. As Leivian noted, “we’re not a pop culture store, it’s a bookstore.” It’s just not the type of shop he wants to be. Instead, one of Floating World’s strongest appeals – relative to its peers – is its lean towards “literary, underground and art comics.”
“Often my bestsellers are self-published or small press books that aren’t even carried on the shelves in 90% of the stores in the country,” Leivian shared. “For example, I sell tons of books from Peow, Short Box, Anthology Editions, but they’re not even (distributed) by Diamond. If you just want comics from Diamond you could find those at pretty much any shop.
“But for the good independent stuff there’s only a handful of shops that take the time to order those books directly and present them in a way that’s accessible to anyone who walks in.”
Whether you’re looking for art books, deep cuts from the Bronze Age, or comics from outside the American market, you’ll likely be in luck at Floating World. It’s an angle that appeals to Leivian, and it has spoken to a loyal customer base that has been cultivated over the years at least in part due to the shop’s commitment to events. While building his audience is important and they strengthen his relationship with publishers, Leivian viewed efforts like First Thursday or signings as crucial to the shop’s position as part of Portland’s comics community. It made Floating World part of a larger whole.
“Regardless of where those events are held, it’s good for comics creators and fans to be able to see their community on a regular basis. Unless you’re part of an art studio, most comics are made during long periods of solitude,” Leivian said. “When we had an annual indie comics show like Stumptown or Linework, it can’t be overstated how important that was to have that one weekend where at least once a year we’d all see each other and be able to touch base and catch up.”
That’s been a substantial cost from 2020. Being unable to host events has an area of effect on any comic shop, but for an event-focused one like Floating World, there’s both a financial and emotional impact. Thankfully, another unique angle to the shop’s identity helped Leivian get through it. Unlike many of its peers, Floating World also publishes its own comics, something that its owner describes as starting “slowly and organically developing out of relationships” he had with the local comics community.
Leivian described it as “creatively really fun and rewarding,” and something that both introduced him to life-long friends and to different parts of the world thanks to traveling to shows in other countries. This effort has resulted in over 80 different books and comics being published by Floating World Comics, evolving from something he distributed himself to working with Consortium/Ingram and Diamond to expand its overall footprint. It went from a passion project to a very real thing – even one that carried him through the pandemic, as Leivian shared.
“Earlier this year I was putting together the files for Object Compendium, an art monograph of Kilian Eng’s artwork. This is the fourth book we’ve done together, the first three were really successful and sold out. 6 This book collects all three of them into a big book. This was between March and June, an insanely difficult and stressful time,” Leivian told me. “The shop was barely open, almost all the staff was laid off. Even though I knew this book would do well, it felt crazy ordering this print run and paying a big printing bill with so much uncertainty in the world.”
“But then I sat down with InDesign and started pulling up all the art files to compile into this new book – and it was just an amazing experience. His art is so incredible, and I was revisiting these three earlier books we had done together, I got immersed in the work and I felt really lucky to be working on something so fun and cool,” he added. “Those have been some high points in a pretty awful year.”
Whether it’s working with creators like Dave Baker and Alexis Ziritt on Night Hunters or even publishing a comic by Bone Tomahawk director S. Craig Zahler – which resulted in the unique experience of Zahler providing him with “great anime recommendations” – Leivian has found relief in the creative side of his business.
This fits if you know a little about Leivian. The retailer was previously an artist and a musician, 7 and it only makes sense that the creative side of things would eventually play a part in the business he took on. It gave him a chance to manifest his dreams through the identity and reputation of this comic shop he created, which has become one of the finest in the world and so much more at the same time.
“I could never finish things and put them out into the world like all the comic creators I work with. I like making things and realizing creative ideas, but I couldn’t really do it on my own, using my own name,” Leivian said. “So Floating World lets me do all these things under the banner of the store name.
“I can pursue any creative or professional path I want with Floating World.”
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Anchorage, Alaska, my home, has a shocking number of great restaurants and of course excellent seafood. Its food still pales in comparison to Portland.↩
Pronounced “Cooch,” in case you are unfamiliar with Portland eccentricities!↩
I should note that this was an example of my route before the pandemic. I’m uncertain of the current status of Pollo Bravo, Pine Street Market or Ground Kontrol, unfortunately. ↩
Fun note Leivian shared with me: While Floating World itself doesn’t really have back issues, he did say “the bargain basement of long boxes” are his favorite kinds of stores. I love that!↩
At least in non-pandemic times.↩
Aided by one purchase by yours truly upon a visit to the shop I made several years back!↩
Although “just as a hobby,” he noted.↩