Owning a Comic Shop During the Early Nineties
Back in 1991 I opened a comic book shop. It was actually my wife’s idea. I had been laid off due to the 1990 recession and she rightfully pointed out that since she was employed as a teacher and we didn’t have any children (yet), if not now, when? Here are some lessons I knew instinctively from prior experience, and some (most) I learned the hard way.
Rule #1: Proper planning prevents poor performance. I researched the local towns by population and then correlated that by distance to any comic book stores in the area. That may seem excessive, but going head to head with a store with an established customer base struck me as counterproductive. Also, even though I had lots of experience running other people’s business’s, starting out with my own was daunting and I wanted to be able to tap other comic store owners for suggestions. Make sure you work with an accountant. No matter how good you are with numbers, the IRS always wins.
Rule #2: There is no such thing as being over capitalized. I have watched a number of stores open but the owners maxed out their credit cards just to get their doors open. I was lucky. My previous employer provided me with a generous severance pay package. (Companies actually did things like that thirty years ago). Those funds, plus my savings allowed me a cushion to open the store and run a number of months in the red without panicking.
Rule #3: The X-Men paid the rent. Before the advent of Image and Valiant comics, Marvel published a lot of X-Men titles. They were drawn by the likes of Jim Lee, Rob Liefield and Marc Silvestri. Those were heady times at Marvel. Todd McFarland and Eric Larson were handling the art on the various Spider-Man titles. Everyone was looking for the next “HOT” artist. If the sum total of all your X-related titles did not equal or exceed your monthly rent, there was a problem.
Rule #4: Lines of credit are key. Walking around Baltimore at 6:00 am with $3,000.00 in cash in your pocket is a very bad idea (trust me). It took a couple of months to establish lines of credit with Diamond and Capital, which were the largest distributors at the time. Having distributors ship books to you C.O.D. is a big deal. Be VERY careful of going net 14 or net 30 with a distributor. If you can’t afford the books you are buying up front, you need to reevaluate your business model. Historical note; eventually Capital went out business and Diamond, momentarily became a monopoly. As bad as having a monopoly in distribution may sound, I found out later, the alternative was far worse.
Rule #5: Your particular preferences in comic titles may not be what is actually popular. I am a huge Superman, Batman, Moon Knight and Captain America fan. At that point, all of those titles were selling at all-time lows. Since comic retailers have to order two months in advance, ordering heavily on a couple of titles that don’t sell leaves you with a depleted cash flow and tons of unsaleable inventory that, when you are paying rent by the square foot, is problematic. I was lucky with all the Superman comics later, but when I first opened, it created a definite cash flow challenge.
Rule #6: Create an advertising budget. “If you build it, they will come,” is minimally accurate. Both Marvel and D.C. offer co-op advertising opportunities. If you have your advertisement copy using their characters approved by Diamond, the store then received credit on future comic purchases from Diamond. Since the Batman Returns movie was about to be released in the theaters, I did a great deal of advertising at the local movie theaters. Advertising serves a couple of purposes. The first, of course is enticing new customers into your store. The second is your current customer base feels like they are part of a community when they see their comic book store advertised.
Rule #7: Pay attention to the hype, but don’t believe it. When you look through Previews magazine, the circular that comic stores order their books from, remember that the listing and advertisements are paid for by the comic companies. When you see a full page announcement for the Adventures of Sphincter Boy, Diamond is not actually saying the book is any good and will sell out. Diamond is being paid by the publisher for the space and is hyping it based on their financial needs, not yours. We will get into the historical and financial impact of Wizard Magazine in a later column, when I am on muscle relaxants and not having a stroke about how much money they cost me.
Rule #8: “Selling out is good”. Steve Geppi, the owner of Diamond Comic Distributors used to tell the retailors that there was no shame in selling out of a title. If you ordered 50 copies of a book and sold all 50 of them, then you had achieved 100% sell through. This is even more important now. Back then, stores were not competing with the internet and E-Bay. If retailor “A” sold out of a book, chances are retailor “B” in the next town over did too. Also, the early nineties were before the advent of trade paperbacks. Now, if you absolutely miss an issue and it’s unavailable on E-Bay, Mycomicshop.com, Mile High Comics or a hundred other outlets, all one needs to do is wait a couple months and the story will be reprinted in a collected edition.
Rule #9: At some point, your subscribers will screw you. This is not a malicious statement about store owners or the customers. Comic stores need subscribers to have a base line for what they need to order. In spite of that symbiotic relationship, most comic book readers are not doctors, lawyers or movie stars with unlimited funds (unless you are Golden Apple in L.A.). If a subscriber has not shown up in six weeks, chances are something has happened and they are not buying the books you are saving for them. That box of comics the store owner is holding for an irresponsible customer is money out of their pocket. Not just because of the cost of the books in house, but also because the owner is ordering inventory for the next couple of months based on a sales number that include that subscriber.
Rule #10: The local comic store should function as the equivalent of a town bar. It’s a place where people with similar preferences gather to discuss topics that are important to them and may not be part of general discussions in their lives outside of the store. If I had a dime for every time I heard people discussing who was stronger, Sub-Mariner vs. Aquaman or Wolverine vs. Timberwolf (seriously), my kids wouldn’t need to worry about where their money for college was coming from. This leads into the next rule.
Rule 11: Your store should be a safe place for everyone. Yeah, yeah, someone is going to start whining about “snowflakes” now. Don’t listen to them. Your customer base, if you are doing it right, will include women and people of all colors and preferences. If you have posters of Lady Death, with her cleavage spilling out all over, that is going to put off female customers and Mom’s. Moms are important and need to be catered to. Although the demographic of children who read comics has shrunk, they are still out there and Mom is who drives them to the store. Also, having a large supply of children friendly comic books is vital. Aside from the day to day sales, at the beginning of each summer, grandparents show up looking for books to send their grandchildren at summer camps. Do not underestimate how much damage a disgruntled Yenta can do to your business.
Rule 12: Employees. When a person opens their own business, chances are the store is operated by themselves, and if they are lucky, their significant other. As the business expands, an owner having time off is important, even if it’s just one day a week. Hiring outside help is tricky. They are responsible for your money, your inventory and your customer base. Working side by side with them for a couple of months is very important. The occasional drop in when they are not expecting you is imperative, to see what they are doing when you are not there. Other important traits for employees at comic stores are, they like comics different than the owner, so there is variety to the inventory. Also, hire people that don’t look like you. Diversity is key. I was lucky, my wife helped me so there was a woman involved and I had Joe. Not to go into specifics, but Joe was the Mutt to my Jeff (look it up). I look like the comic guy from the Simpsons (sorry ladies) and Joe was the exact opposite in every way. He also kept me honest about the store and myself. Years and changes in location have prevented us from seeing each other regularly since I sold my store, but he will always be close to my heart. I’m actually tearing up now, he was that important to running the store and being my friend.
Rule 13: Hygiene and dress code. Really, I need to talk about this? If you are meeting with customers, represent what you want them to see. Shower and (if applies) shave daily. I had a “no tee-shirt” policy. If you want to be treated like a professional, dress like one. I’m not saying wear a suit (although Joe wore a tie every day, God bless him), but be presentable. I wore a standard button down shirt and clean pants. Chewing tobacco, is a really bad idea (learned that the hard way).
I am sure I left out a bunch of stuff, but this is certainly a good start (except #3) if you want to open a comic book store.
Next time: The Death of Superman, Image and Valiant comics, gimmick covers, speculators and Marvel Comic’s betrayal of everything you hold dear. Peace!
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