Rory Root 1957-2008

ST would like to pay homage to an ambassador of the Comics World. If you’re in the Bay Area of Northern California, visit Comic Relief and see for yourself where the great spirit of comics still lives … bon voyage Rory.


As stated by the great writer Neil Gaiman on his own blog:
“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”

About Rory

(written by Shawn Saler on the Comic Relief Website)

Rory Root died yesterday, May 19th, 2008, after complications from surgery. He was the co-founder and longtime sole proprietor of Comic Relief: The Comic Bookstore. He insisted on “The Comic Bookstore,” because for him Comic Relief was never really a comic book store that happened to sell a lot of graphic novels; it was a bookstore, and different from other bookstores only as a product of the kinds of books he chose to purvey. He modeled his store more on Berkeley’s famous Moe’s and Cody’s and all the other stores he loved where the shelves were crammed to the ceiling with dense packages of joy and surprise, where every visit would reveal something new like a novel that continues to satisfy upon endless rereadings. He wanted a store that was open to everyone and open to the very idea that anyone could find among comic books something they would love.


Not everyone can appreciate how significant this is. When I first started working at Comic Relief in the year 2000 and for years afterwards, most comic book retailers were still somewhat baffled when Rory or the manager, Todd Martinez, would explain to them that the bulk of our orders were not for new comics but for reorders on graphic novels. When I first went to Comic-Con in San Diego in 2002 with Comic Relief, only we and Bud Plant were making a significant attempt to sell graphic novels for any reason other than getting rid of overstock; even Fantagraphics devoted more space in their booth to Eros comics than they did to graphic novels. Now in addition to waterfall racks and back issue bins, almost every comic store also has bookshelves. You see, it’s not simply that Rory and his friends, Jim Hanley and Brian Hibbs and Joe Field and so many other great comic book retailers were ahead of their time. Without them, no matter how high the quality of work, the graphic novel market that exists today simply wouldn’t be.

With Comic Relief, Rory Root made an argument for comics, and a persuasive one. Its walls lined with shelves packed tightly with books of all genres for all readers of all ages, Comic Relief is Rory’s proof of the diversity of comics, of their sheer range of their accomplishments. Just as he didn’t want Comic Relief to be the typical dull and enervating comic store, a place where you almost had to pity things for being sold there, he also didn’t want the store to be a boutique or a place where only those in the know could feel like they had discovered a public secret. With Comic Relief, he didn’t argue that comics are cool, or comics aren’t just for kids anymore, or comics are for kids again. His claim was bold in how basic it was: here are books that people will enjoy, and here are people; let us bring them together.

Rory loved comic books, and when he read something that astounded him, there was no one more likely to talk it up with the implacable enthusiasm of a 16-year-old who’s just read Catcher in the Rye for the first time. Yet Rory’s faith in comics was purer than that alone, because he recognized even in those books he didn’t care for personally the potential for being loved. I think he believed, as I believe now, that those people who didn’t read comic books simply because they were comics were missing out on something essential, were losing a love before they ever got a chance to meet. Rory was a comics matchmaker, and his finest moments were those when someone would come in off the street, a person who hadn’t read comics in years or maybe heard about a book called Preacher from a friend, and after an hour or so under Rory’s guidance that person would leave the store with so many graphic novels that we’d have to find a box to pack them up in. I wouldn’t believe that this could actually happen if I hadn’t seen it myself, if I hadn’t watched Rory pile books into the cradled arms of someone who walked into the store without even the intention to buy, and walked out smiling and shaking Rory’s hand. He was also incredibly proud of the work he did with local libraries, helping to build some of the first truly great public collections of graphic novels in the country. As a teenager, I discovered Scott McCloud, Osamu Tezuka, Alison Bechdel, and even Will Eisner at the Berkeley Public Library in part because Rory worked to put them there.

I spent a lot of time with Rory over the years, on buying trips and at conventions and outside the store as he smoked, and for me he was kind of like an all-access pass to comics. In the anecdotes he told, and told again, the history and potential of the medium unfolded in all directions—that is, the stories he told spoke to the development of comic book retail but also to the history of undergrounds, the rise and fall of publishers, the personal trivia about artists that had little to do with their work but which served to give them a human dimension. We spoke of our mutual love for Fun Home, Steve Ditko, handsome editions of books, Veronica Mars, Chris Ware’s sketchbooks, Warren Ellis. He recommended to me more books than I could ever read, and introduced me to Bone and Goodbye, Chunky Rice, and Kings and Disguise. All of these lists are just the tips of icebergs my mind is too scattered now to recall in full. Rory was garrulous and informed enough always to have something to talk about; I don’t think anyone that knew him truly believes that they’ve had their last conversation with him.

Because of Rory I’ve also met many of the artists of my favorite comics and publishers of my favorite books. Rory had friends from every facet of comic book production, and he was happy to share them. In the summer of 2002, I went with Comic Relief to Comic-Con in San Diego with a new light grey messenger bag and the intention to get it covered with sketches by my favorite comic book artists. Thanks in part to Rory, who introduced me to a number of these artists, eventually this bag have pictures by Joe Matt, Dan Clowes, Jason Lutes, Eric Shanower, Ladronn, Kim Deitch, Steve Lieber, Eddie Campbell, Sergio Aragones and others. When I mentioned to Eddie Campbell that I worked for Comic Relief, he explained to me that he probably never would have been published in America if Rory hadn’t noticed his mini-comics that some distributor had used as packing paper. Anyone who’s ever met Rory was accustomed to such boasts from him on occasion, but this was the first time I had confirmation from an independent source.

That year, a group of us from Comic Relief, Rory included, went to the Eisner Awards. We had half a table up front with the nominees and publishers, a reward for being one of the sponsors of the awards, and as I ate dry chicken strips and pasta and watched comics icons mingle all around me, I mused on how much I would love it if Will Eisner sketched on my bag. Rory told me I had nothing to lose in just going up and asking him, but I dissimulated. Unmoved by my timidity, Rory told me to come with him, and we both approached Will Eisner together. He recognized Rory, and Rory introduced Will Eisner to me. He ended up signing my bag (explaining that he didn’t do sketches any more) and I think that night he ended up winning an Eisner award himself, although my sense of chronology may have become conflated over time. Nevertheless, when I found out a few years later, on my 24th birthday, that Will Eisner had died, I was able to hold the memory close to my heart of the time I met one of America’s greatest cartoonists and shook his hand, and I have Rory to thank for that.

This is who Rory was: a person who could know what you wanted even before you did, and would drag you to it if necessary; a person who could bring you closer to comics just by knowing him; a person who wanted, sincerely, to help you find something to love. Rest in Peace, Rory. I hope you knew how much richer you made so many lives by connecting people to comic books.

– Shawn Saler