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A girl just shy of coherence


May 20th, 2008

My inadequate tribute to the gentleman known as Mr. Rory Root @ 01:14 pm

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I noted with great sadness yesterday that Rory Root, the influential owner of Comic Relief and a tireless, erudite, and graciously charming advocate of sequential literature, passed away quite unexpectedly on Monday.

Please forgive me if what I'm about to write does not do him justice or if it comes across as clumsy, because I'm having a very hard time trying to coalesce my thoughts and be coherent. I had a dream about Rory last night and he's obviously been very much on my mind since I woke up.

Rory was one of those people that probably didn't realize what a great impact he had on the people that he came into contact with. He was just that humble.

I've spent almost every Friday night of the last three years hanging out with Rory, and I've shopped at Comic Relief for longer than that.

I'll start with a story.

About a year ago, a day or so after I had to put my beloved dog Africa to sleep, I walked into Comic Relief in the hopes of finding something to read that would take my mind off my loss. I remember being white-faced, numb, and probably a little shaky as I started to gather my weekly haul of comics. Rory saw my face, immediately took me aside, asked me what was wrong, and then spent over two hours with me, gently and thoughtfully taking me around the store and picking out things for me to read and consoling me with his characteristic warmth. He sent me home with a TPB of Bone and some other things, and refused to take my money.

I remember him taking trade paperbacks off the shelf and putting them in a pile for me, all the while skillfully asking me how I was feeling and would I be interested in this versus that kind of book, and then making the final judgement by either putting it in my hand or putting it back on the shelf.

I got home and promptly broke down in tears, because I was so moved by his gesture and so blown away that there are still people in this world who can be so randomly and genuinely kind.

I'll never, ever forget that.

That's what I mean when I say that Rory was the kind of man whose default mode was to be caring and to be a complete sweetheart.

In fact, the last time I saw Rory, almost two weeks ago, I finally forced him to let me pay for the books he gave me that night. I hugged him for about five minutes straight before I left the store because I was so glad that he was on his feet again, and I never suspected that he'd be taken so soon.

I remember that the first time I walked in the doors of Comic Relief, one of the first things that happened was that this giant, smiling, and affable man blasted me with the warmth of his personality as he asked me if I needed help finding anything. Rory had one of those great voices, too - that's something that no one's remarked on. He laughed easily, smiled always, and had remarkably expressive eyes. Despite my best attempts to seem a fearless extrovert, I'm actually quite shy, and Rory put me at ease right away. I fell, like countless others, into the habit of going out of my way to talk to him on my weekly runs to the store.

See, I work really long hours. My contact with fellow comic fans in the flesh usually takes place at Comic Relief. On top of working long hours I don't really go to cons, and my workload is such that my contact with fellow fans has been increasingly confined to the virtual arena of the internet over the last six or so years. That's one of the reasons that Rory was so important to me.

I gradually fell into the habit of going to Comic Relief late on Friday nights so that the line of people waiting to talk to Rory was short. That way, I could spend time with him. He treated me like royalty, and I know that I'm not the only customer that felt that way. My weekly run to Comic Relief to see Cory was one of the highlights of my week. I can't express how important it was for me to leave work after a stressful Friday, walk into Comic Relief feeling the need to decompress, and see Rory's welcoming smile waiting for me.

Rory was very much of a fixture in Berkeley. When the weather was nice, he'd take a tall stool outside the store to the sidewalk, perch on it with his omnipresent tall stainless steel mug of tea, and hold court with almost anyone and everyone that would walk by. I had some of the best conversations of my life standing on the sidewalk on warm Friday nights, talking to Rory about everything from Etruscan sculpture to photography to Gene Wolfe to the state of the industry to Ed Brubaker to the mythos of Captain America. He was truly one of the most intellectually well-rounded people that I've ever met in my entire life.

I'd like to mention the store kitties, too. Rory loved animals. He adored cats, and in addition to adopting homeless kitties that he kept at home, he always had cats that lived in the store. A couple of years ago he adopted two beautiful cats, a mother cat that he named Ash and her baby kitten that he named Ember. (Ash is a beautiful grey and cream brindle, and Ember is a gorgeous black, gold, and orange brindle. They look like yin/yang versions of each other.) Part of the fun of going to Comic Relief was playing with the kitties as they either chased each other around the store or studiously pretended to ignore each other (and the customers).

Being a very responsible cat owner, Rory never let the cats outside the store onto the street. Since the doors of the store are always left open during decent weather, it was a mesmerizing game to hang out with Rory and watch the cats slowly and seemingly casually drift closer and closer towards the open door, only to have Rory direct a gentle word their way when they dared to get a little too close to the sidewalk, and then watch them promptly retreat in defeat to the interior of the store.

(Fun aside: There was a five month stretch of time where every single time I walked into Comic Relief and headed towards the back of the store to the new issues section, Ember would jump up on the table that had all of Ed Brubaker's Captain America trade paperbacks displayed artfully so that she could bat at me as I walked by. I kept telling her that I was already reading Brubaker's Cap book and that she didn't need to try to sell it to me by swatting at me, but it didn't do any good. Rory was greatly amused by this.)

Ed Brubaker, by the way, used to work for Rory at Comic Relief.

Rory was a gregarious and welcoming presence to everyone that walked into his store. His store also happened to be - and I know that I'm not alone in this opinion - probably one of the best comic stores in the entire world. As so many have noted, he billed Comic Relief as a bookstore that happens to have a whole lot of comics, and that's exactly what it was. Rory carried everything from pop culture journals to art periodicals to books to coffee table tomes of photography and art to manga to novels to comics. The store in its present location was meticulously and pleasingly laid out and is the exact opposite of the fluorescent lit corner comic store that smells of unwashed fanboy. The inventory was (and is) huge and obviously put together by people - that being Rory and his staff - with exquisite taste and vast knowledge of the medium.

Rory was also incredibly welcoming to female customers. This was very, very important to me. I remember Rory telling me one night last year that when Marvel was publishing its Emma Frost series he wanted very much to recommend it to adolescent and teenage girls that came into the store, because he thought it was well written and a good starter series for girls first getting into the hero genre of comics, but would never go out of his way to recommend it because of the sleazy and exploitative cover art. Hearing that from a man in the industry was such an incredible thing, and it was typical of his commitment to make the store and the medium a safe and welcoming place for girls.

I remember when the first issue of a new series debuted last year - a series from one of the smaller publishers - with a cover that caused a tremendous amount of controversy and concern in the feminist corners of the comics blogsphere. When I went to Comic Relief that week, Rory mentioned to me that he called the publisher to tell them that he wouldn't put the book on his shelves because he was too embarrassed for his female customers to see the cover.

Rory got it. I can't go into how influential he was as a retailer because too many people are already describing that with far more skill than I ever could, but San Diego Comic Con won't be the same without him. He was a fixture on panels, at cons, and industry shindigs.

Rory affably tolerated my pedestrian taste in comics and constantly turned me on to new things, gently urging me to expand my reading horizons. He's the person that turned me on to Greg Rucka's Queen and Country. He's the person that got me into Criminal, True Story, Swear to God, and a ton of other things that I won't list here. He got me over my bias against reading black and white comics. He oohed and aahed with me over Ribic's Silver Surfer art, persevered for five months with Marvel until he got me that Dell'Otto Annihilation poster that I asked him to order for me, teased me about my love for all things cosmic, and always had a hug for me. We talked about gourmet food, our mutual love of horror, and our favorite artists and writers. He urged me to give writers that I'd previously dimissed a second and third chance.

I have spent a lot of money at Comic Relief and have never, ever regretted it. I'll continue to shop there. If the store closes, I don't know what I'll do. Nothing can replace the experience of being able to walk in the doors of Comic Relief, breathe a big sigh of happy relief, and acquire some good reading.

Rory always had the best industry insider scoops, too. But what made Rory stand out was the diplomatic and gracious (yes, there's that word again) way he'd convey those scoops and opinions and, yes, gossip.

I won't go into how much work Rory did with libraries, how ahead of his time he was on multiple fronts, how much work he did with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and how he vigorously opposed censorship, how supportive he was of independent comics and smaller publishers, how he'd sit down with almost anyone that needed advice and give them his time and best effort, because others have already mentioned that a lot over the last twenty or so years.

As I've been reading the outpourings of sadness about Rory, reading all the great stories people have about him and the memories that they're sharing, one thing stands out.

Rory was a class act all the way.

As Warren Ellis said yesterday, we couldn't afford to lose him.

Comic Relief has updated their site with news about Rory. They've set up a memories page where people can post about Rory, and it's filling up with some absolutely great stories from industry professionals, customers, and friends. The outpouring of love is amazing.

Wonderful tributes:

Warren Ellis on Rory. My heart goes out to Rory's sister. She posted a comment to Ellis' entry that just broke my heart.

I love the comment Carl Horn posted on Ellis' website:

"I haven’t even had the chance to visit their new, expanded store these past few years, but there is no doubt Comic Relief’s success has come about because of Rory’s outward-looking vision and belief in comics of all kinds and for all readers, a vision that more and more came to share. He was as hardcore a fan as they come, but the complete opposite of the “Comic Book Guy” in mentality. Despite being a mecca for the collector, the store was always ready for the newcomer and the questions of the curious passer-by, who may have known little about comics at first, but might soon end up a regular customer. Some comics retailers learned from Rory’s example, and for the many who haven’t, they still can. There’s no reason a comics store can’t be a successful part of the community and a progressive cultural force–I saw it work with Comic Relief."



Neil Gaiman's tribute to Rory.

The Beat at Publishers Weekly's latest article. (That's one of many posted about him on The Beat over the lasty forty eight hours.)

Matt Fraction writes a heartfelt thank you to Rory.

Paul Levitz, the President of DC Comics, blogs about Rory over at Newsarama.

I like his intro:

"We lost one of comics’ gentle evangelists today, a man named Rory Root who preached from an overcrowded store crammed with graphic novels and comics of all description, or in the middle of a bustling convention floor, or really, almost anywhere that someone would listen. Oversize coffee mug brim full and ever-present in his hand, he’d move through his wares with the sure hand of a man who knew each of his customers — even ones he’d never met. He knew what you’d like, well enough to bet that you’d keep a book he guaranteed to take back. And he’d remember, even from year to year."


Noah Brand relates his recollections of the impact Rory had on his life.

Excerpted:

"Rory's dead and I should be writing about him, and I know this post is mostly about me. That's because I'm not qualified to write about Rory's life. He touched too many people, changed too many lives and fortunes, did too much for too long for an artform that everyone used to dismiss as irrelevant trash. All I can do is tell a little about how he touched my life, what his work and his store meant to me.

Without Rory Root, I wouldn't be anything like the man I am today. I wouldn't have the life I do, I wouldn't be the person I am. For good or ill, he changed my life irrevocably, just by running the best comic book store there ever was. And I'm far, far from unique in that, but it's what I have to remember him by."


Greg Rucka relates how Rory charmed his grandmother.

The original announcement on Blog@Newsrama. There are some lovely comments there, too.

The first comment was from Sean McKeever:

"Such a sweetheart of a man. My thoughts will be with you, Rory."


Peggy Burns on Rory.

Comics Reporter has a long piece and good round up of links from people literally around the world.

From Ed Brubaker:

"When I look back at my life so far, some of my fondest memories are from those Berkeley days, hanging at the shop and talking comics with Rory and the rest of the staff back then, all the cool locals who would come in -- Jonathan Segal from Camper Van Beethoven (who I turned onto Eightball), Aaron Cometbus, all the underground cartoonist signings and the parties afterward. It was a great place to be young and wide-eyed, and that's what Rory wanted it to be. A cool comics shop that paved the way for the future of comics shops. I always told him if he'd franchise CR all of comics would benefit from it."


Brian Hibbs article on Rory.

CBLDF's announcement.

Quotes:

I was always surprised by just how many people he knew. On numerous occasions, while helping at Comic Con and other shows, he introduced me to some amazing people Eisner, Spiegelman, Miller, Gaiman, and even Ellis. He always made sure that proper introductions were made. He had a heart of gold. - Sean Cleveland

It’s been a pretty hard day at the Image office. We all go to Comic Relief on a weekly basis and two of our employees used to work there. I can’t begin to express the loss people are feeling for Rory. He was one of the good ones. Rory loved comics. He always helped people find what they were looking for, he made excellent suggestions–he didn’t look down on people for reading books that he didn’t care for but he’d gently suggest that they check out superior books in a similar vein. He carried a very eclectic bunch of books and his store is a veritable treasure chest of cool stuff. This is the kind of store most readers can only dream about and Rory was the glue that held it all together. - Erik Larsen of Image

His prophetic sense that it was inevitable and necessary for comics to be part of book culture--both literary and retail book culture--was clearly way ahead of its time. His work with libraries was just the same: prescient and practical. He not only saw how important libraries and librarians would be to book format comics, but he took the steps and did the hard organizing work to make it happen. - Calvin Reid of Publishers Weekly


The entire industry is in mourning. As you can see, this man was adored.



RIP, Rory. I was glad to know you and grateful for every single moment that you spent with me. I was just a lowly customer, but I thought of you as a friend. If there's any kind of an afterlife, I hope that you're sitting at a table with Will Eisner and Jack Kirby and everyone else that you want to hang out with, drinking your mug of tea and thoroughly enjoying yourself.

Edit: I forgot that Rory was invited to speak at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco some months ago. There's a link to the podcast here, I think.

Edit the Second:

CBR puts up a lovely piece about Rory.

Excerpt:

"It can be said without hyperbole that Root helped revolutionize the institution of the comics shop. In the early days of this new century, Root and a small handful of other American retailers declared war on the “Comic Book Guy’s” Android’s Dungeon stereotype of the Comics Shop experience, and put in its place a true comic bookstore; a clean, cool place where readers and fans (and girls!) could gather to meet one another, enjoy uncommonly relaxed access to their favorite creators, and, most importantly, discover new comics books."


Well said.
 
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Comments

 
From:sclerotic_rings
Date:May 20th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC)
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The highest tribute that one human can pay to another is in speaking of that other person when s/he isn't around to hear it, and the highest tribute that can be paid to a person's life is when so many speak so well of that person when s/he's gone. I never knew Rory, but I wish I had.
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From:kali921
Date:May 20th, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
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You would have loved him. I know that like I know that the Earth rotates around the sun. Comic Relief is totally your kind of place, and if you ever come to the Bay Area, be sure to visit it.
From:sclerotic_rings
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)
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Considering that the Czarina is pushing, very hard, for us to take our next vacation in San Francisco, that's the plan. Also considering my aversion to comic shops after I quit writing (I actually entered one for about a half-hour last February, the first time I'd been in one in the last nearly seven years), it's still the plan.
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From:knitmeapony
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:02 pm (UTC)
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I met him twice, both times at conventions. The first time, I was a kid -- sixteen, I think, it was my first con, and he had something I wanted, something big... Heck if I know what. At the time, I was getting a lot of blow-offs from other retailers and when I didn't have quite enough in-hand to buy it, he kindly held the books for me while I rushed off, borrowed some money from a friend of mine, and rushed back.

He'd already packaged it up -- later I learned with half a dozen other things that I loved -- when I got back. When I thanked he profusely for holding it, he said "thank you for reading the good stuff."

I didn't know who he was at the time, of course, but as I grew into comics and things, it dawned on me the shop name I'd hastily scribbled into my con notebook that year wasn't just 'some shop in California'.

The second time I saw him at a con, I knew who he was, and asked him for recommendations. He spent a good half-hour with me, running through what I'd read, what I liked, and I blew more or less my entire con budget at his booth. And I still have every single issue and trade I bought there.

His taste was impeccable, and he was, to me, a true patriot of comics -- well read, intelligent, honest, forthright, and willing to not just gently criticize and loudly praise the industry when due, but to act, advocate, and improve comics, sometimes one fan at a time.
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From:kali921
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:05 pm (UTC)
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Now I'm crying again.

Thank you. It's great to hear from other people that knew him. If there's any justice in the universe, he'll get to hear what people are saying about him.
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From:sotto_voice
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:08 pm (UTC)
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This is a really beautiful tribute, Kali. It makes me wish I had somehow known the man. Many internet hugs, honey. I am sure he is going to be sorely missed, but damn, is he going to be well-remembered.

Edited at 2008-05-20 11:09 pm (UTC)
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From:kali921
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC)
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You have no idea how much he was singlehandedly responsible for changing the industry. You could personally amass ten PhDs in any subject and Rory was still more knowledgeable, no matter the intellectual subject, whether related to comics or not.

His store is a treasure cheset. It is a life changing experience if you're paying attention, and his knowledge of the medium, from the most obscure European artists of the twenties up to the big names of the 00's, is kind of unparalleled. You walked into Comic Relief, talked to Rory, and whole new worlds opened up for you.

And the inventory. Oh, lord, the INVENTORY. Eclectic, thorough, vast, and well curated.
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From:shadowlongknife
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)
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I wish I had known him. I can get a sense of him, from reading this, and the other tributes that you've linked to, but no sense of a person can replace firsthand knowledge. I've never made it out to California, but when I do, I plan on stopping in to Rory's store, and spending some money. I regret deeply that I won't have a chance to shake the man's hand and tell him how much my friend Kali's spoken well of his place.

Love you, honey. I wish I could help with the sadness you're feeling, I wish that desperately.
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From:kali921
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:40 pm (UTC)
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The fact that you left me this comment makes me feel better. I adore you right back. You know that, right?
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From:shadowlongknife
Date:May 20th, 2008 11:47 pm (UTC)
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I do, sweetie. I'm thankful every time I see a comment from you, or talk to you on AIM. I hope you know that.
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From:darthphere
Date:May 21st, 2008 01:09 am (UTC)
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As the age of the local comic book store comes closer and closer to the end, it's without a doubt a great loss to lose a man like this. I firmly believe in the power of one man to shape the lives of many. Rory Root by all accounts was one of those men. The industry has just faced a huge loss and the world of comics will never be the same. We're all not as lucky to have had people in our lives like Rory. We need more people like Rory pushing our comics out there. Sadly, retailers like Rory are a dying breed. We can only hope that his legacy leaves us at a stage where we can prolong the existence of our Wednesday trips to our local comic book store where we can engage in our favorite past times. Rory, I never knew you, but you will be missed.

Kali, my deepest condolences.
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From:kali921
Date:May 21st, 2008 01:11 am (UTC)
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Thank you. I figured that you'd be one of the people who really understands.
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From:darthphere
Date:May 21st, 2008 01:19 am (UTC)
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I want to one day have the privilege of taking my son and daughter to the comic book store for the first time and meeting a man like Rory. As the years go by, that seems less and less likely, but there is always hope. If this sad turn of events does anything, it is that it will shed light on the importance of the men and women who run our comic book stores.
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From:dharmapunk
Date:May 21st, 2008 03:07 am (UTC)
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Really nice tribute. It's such a blow to lose someone so great, especially in the comic retail world, where guys like that are quite hard to find. Everyone's memories of him were really moving, I feel like I missed out having never met him.
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From:kali921
Date:May 21st, 2008 05:33 pm (UTC)
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I am deadly serious when I say I don't know what I'll do if CR closes. As of now, I don't know who to turn to anymore for new reading recommendations. I trusted Rory so much!
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From:mr_cyn1cal
Date:May 21st, 2008 03:57 am (UTC)

My sincere condolences

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I'm sorry for your loss. Sounds like he was a great guy.
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From:kali921
Date:May 21st, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)

Re: My sincere condolences

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Thank you. I owe you additional thanks for the incredible motivators you linked me to on Sunday - I just looked at them and all I have to say is this: BAHAHAAAAA!
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From:ceitfianna
Date:May 21st, 2008 06:56 am (UTC)
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I wish when I was younger and going through San Francisco I'd known to go there.

He sounds like he had such love for comics and the world that he just kept spreading it ever outward even though he's passed.

*internet hugs*
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From:kali921
Date:May 21st, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC)
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Thank you, sweetie. Yes. You'd adore the place, by the way. The next time you're in the Bay Area, do visit.
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From:hipsterdad
Date:May 21st, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
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Here via Neil Gaiman's blog, and just wanted to say thank you for sharing such a loving tribute. I really wish I could've met him in person.
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From:kali921
Date:May 21st, 2008 05:18 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for the comment. I'm astonished that Mr. Gaiman linked to me and am very flattered. This entry took me four hours to write because I was so deathly afraid of the words being an awkward facsimile of what I truly felt about Rory.

Again, thank you.
From:mercuryeric
Date:May 21st, 2008 06:08 pm (UTC)
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Really well said, not clumsy at all.

I only ever met Rory once -- my editor at Prima used to work for him, and introduced us at WonderCon a year or two ago. I only spoke with him briefly, but he seemed like a swell fellow.

Sounds like he and my wife have similar ideas on how to run a store, particularly in the area of community and customer outreach. (Gabi is prone to loaning or giving out TPs to those in need, too, which really struck me when I read your comments.)

Hope you're doing okay. Feel free to e-mail me if you want to vent; mercuryeric - at - gmail.

Best,

-E
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From:kali921
Date:May 22nd, 2008 02:26 pm (UTC)
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If I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I'd be shopping at your place without a doubt.

Thanks for the concern. It means a lot to me, Mr. Trautmann. :-)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 23rd, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)

Rory

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I don't usually post here, but I wanted to add my story about Rory. When I started patronizing Comic Relief after moving to the Bay Area, I became a devoted fan of the store. A big part of it was Rory grabbing me one day as I was meandering through the store and thrusting a bunch of graphic novels written by women into my hand. I was excited, but poor at the time, which I think he realized because he gave me half of them for free. He sparked a real love for comics in me, pretty late in life, and I still get an excited feeling when entering Comic Relief.

A friend of mine, who would frequently stop by the store to chat with Rory, told me that there was a graphic novel that Rory refused to carry, even though it pained him not to, because he felt that the cover would be extremely offensive to women.

In short, I can only add that, like most of you, I knew him to be a thoughtful and kind being, and I will miss warm presence in Comic Relief.

Possibly Irrelevant Information

A girl just shy of coherence