One Year Later: Comics retailers look back at the day the industry shut down

One Year Later: Comics retailers look back at the day the industry shut down

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Joe Field, owner, Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, Concord, CA

It has been the hardest year of work in my 35 years in this business. But it has also been the year with more blessings than any other.

We’ve worked for decades to build not just a viable business, but also build a comics community. In this last year, our FlyCo Faithful have been supportive with their business, their words and their actions.

Joni Mitchell wrote:
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.”

And 2020 was the year in which everything conspired against comic shops: disruptions and dwindling output from suppliers, the pandemic’s forced closures, customers’ losing their jobs… heck, I had COVID! Everything was flipped upside down. So many expected comic shops to die on the vine, paved over by the behemoth villain that is Amazon. While there has been some migration to online buying, taking some sales away from comic shops, there have been more people finding, loving and supporting their local comic shops.

The resilience of comic shops all over and the truly moving support we received here at Flying Colors from our customers have been nothing short of awesome. Given all that, shop closures have been far fewer than anyone was expecting. Maybe some of these people actually know what they’ve got while they have it rather than mourn what’s lost when it’s gone away without their support.

That said, this isn’t over.

There are a lot of concerns about whether this spike in sales over the last few months can be sustained once the rest of the economy reopens— once movie theaters, amusement parks, sports stadiums and yes, comic book conventions are back.

We can deal with that, though. What we have now is a good thing— a comics market that is producing well in a time of crisis, comics retailers building relationships with new comics fans and building on the relationships with our long and steadfast regular customers, many of whom are bonafide angels to those of us in the retail trenches.

I’m exhausted and exhilarated. I’ve worked more than 50 hours a week for 50 of the last 52 weeks (the other two I was off in quarantine battling COVID). I’m in awe of those who have shown their care for what we do here.

Maybe the best is still to come after all!


 

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Patrick Brower, Co-Owner,
CHALLENGERS Comics + Conversation, Chicago, IL

I’m sure it’s not worth going into detail about the trials of 2020 and beyond, as every single person has had their own issues and most comics retailers have had the same issues, so I’ll choose to focus on what we did about it. “We” are Challengers Comics + Conversation in Chicago, owned by myself, Patrick Brower and my business partner W. Dal Bush. We both work full-time and run the shop. At the start of 2020 we had 5 others that worked with us. Even before Chicago shut down as a city (March 22, 2020) 2 of our people told us they did not feel comfortable working in the current environment (jumping ahead, while we still consider them employees they have yet to return). And then Chicago shut down from Mar 22 to June 3, 2020.

During that shutdown we experimented with different ways to cultivate web sales. Step 1 was posting PDF’s on our website of all graphic novels we had in stock, and updating it every day. I should also mention that at this point we had 2 stores. We opened a second Chicago location in late 2019. So we were merging both inventories by hand and listing them. We were offering curbside pick-up and delivery. I mean, we weren’t allowed to be open to the public, so we had the time to drive around the city, which was actually fun and there was almost no traffic. Silver linings, you know?

Step 2 was attempting to convert to ComicHub. ComicHub is an amazing point-of-sale platform designed for comic retail specifically by a fellow retailer (Stu Colson of Heroes for Sale in New Zealand). It’s very forward thinking and puts your entire inventory online—perfect for shops that aren’t open for in-store shopping. After a ton of work on their end and ours, we realized (for the 2nd time) that ComicHub just isn’t the right fit for us (but we highly recommend it to anyone without a POS system or in need of something new). We were running Diamond’s ComicSuite and Microsoft RMS (RMS is no longer supported by Microsoft and has become RMH and we have switched over).

Step 3 was Shopify. Shopify is an online platform for retail sales. We had investigated it previously but getting our inventory into it was insurmountable. But then Diamond stepped up and created a plug-in that lets Shopify pull all the item/product data from their website and all we would have to do is upload our quantities. Amazing. I mean, it had, and continues to have, its fair share of headaches and issues (such as having to use a third-party program called Octopus to tie the online and in-store inventories together in real time), but it let us build a very comprehensive online version of Challengers (shop.challengerscomics.com). And that made all the difference in the world.

So that was our biggest change. A comprehensive webstore that we’re still using now, even though we’ve been reopen since June. And as I’ve been typing this 3 more order have just come in (2 local pick up and one mail order). Obviously this is something that we will continue with for as long as there are orders.

Sales-wise we were down $80K by mid-year but rebounded to only being down $62K for the year. Yeah, “only.” But that just shows you how well the market bounced back. When we re-opened, and at this point we are still running reduced hours (open every day but 8 hours less per week than before the shutdown), our new comic book days were insanely busy. 2-to- 2 ½ times the previous normal Wednesday totals. Wednesdays are still doing great now, but not as good as back in the summer.

Quick sidebar here to mention that we lost our 2nd store during this. Even before the shutdown we noticed business drop off dramatically as we were in a very business-heavy party of town. Many tech offices and a big public transit hub in that area. Well, once everyone started working from home and taking the train became a health risk, that neighborhood became a ghost town. And then I got hurt (filming a series of dumb Instagram videos to entertain our customers while we were closed) and I was on crutches for a long time, unable to drive (still limp today) and then that store was looted during all the civil unrest. And by “looted” I mean “destroyed” as once the front window was smashed in, 6 different groups of people came in and out over the course of the night and as there was less-and-less to steal, destruction became the goal. We couldn’t get out there after the first alarm went off as the bridges were raised and the city was under curfew. We could barely get there in the morning after curfew was lifted. But the store was trashed. Yes, we were insured and yes we were paid for the damages, but that store would have to be rebuilt from scratch and I was physically unable to help. So that location had to close. We’re still paying for it, as our landlord would not let us out of our lease, but that’s a different story. What I will say is that without the albatross of that store hanging over our finances, this would be a good time in comics retail. Anyway. Back to sales.

At first it felt like people wanting to both stock up for the quarantine and also help out local small businesses. Which, let’s face it, we are here for both of those things. We were a little too cautious with our reopening ordering and that caused a lot of sellouts. But we’ve adjusted. October 2020 thru Jan 2021 were each the best of those months we’ve had. Feb 2021 only missed it because we were selling C2E2 tickets in Feb 2020 and those get counted as sales. If you take those #’s out of the equation, Feb 2021 crushed Feb 2020. So people are definitely buying comics.

 

Another change we’ve made is being part of Diamond’s PULLBOX system. Currently still in beta testing, Pullbox is an online subscription management tool that gives subscribers 24-hour access to their pull lists and everything in the Diamond Previews catalog. While only a percentage of our subscribers have chosen to use it, those that do are finding all sorts of other things to order that we would not normally stock. Like everything in life, it has its issues and challenges, but it is worth it and getting better all the time.

DC leaving Diamond and only being available thru Lunar continues to be a nightmare on the subscription management and inventory input fronts, but we have had almost no issues with Lunar themselves, so we count ourselves lucky on that part.

While we didn’t receive any PPP money, we did get financial help from the Binc Foundation, a small Illinois Department of Commerce grant, and money from consumer sales thru TKO Presents and Mad Cave Studios, so a big thank you to those publishers.

I also want to thank all the friends, family and customers that helped out clearing all the damage from the looted store AND helping make deliveries around the city. Included among all those people that had to do this safely and masked and socially distant, were comic pros Jenny Frison, Isabella Rotman and Kat Leyh. Not only amazing comic talents, but even better people!!


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Brandon Schatz  & Danica LeBlanc, Owners of Variant Edition Graphic Novels + Comics Edmonton, AB

We were somewhat lucky when the industry shutdown. Diamond sent word of closure on a Monday. At 3 pm on the following Friday, Alberta announced a shutdown of their own, effective at day’s end. Something very similar happened with Diamond’s return, as Alberta opened things up right before fresh product started flowing in May.

Over the nearly two full months of closure (which I think was sped up by DC’s move to help create alternative distributors), we saw a sharp increase in our net profit. We had an online store running for a few months. We had been doing in-city deliveries for three years at that point. Our social media was all in place, and most of our regulars were subscribed to our newsletter, so getting news out was fairly easy.

In terms of how the industry has survived, there are more than a few things to note. Retailers did incredibly well with pivoting in any number of ways. We started doing a lot more live video content which people have been eating up. many retailers started selling off old stock through these videos and really pushing through the after-market. We went on a different path and doubled down on graphic novels – keeping in line with the foundation of our business, selling stories, and not commodities. While both are good paths forward, we believe ours takes a longer view, growing an audience base with the format that most new readers are familiar with: the graphic novel.

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That said, stores have been seeing huge gains in sales across the board. Pokemon has popped up huge. DnD is kicking ass. New single issue sales are up significantly per capita (partially due to slimmed down lines, partially due to a lack of other entertainment sources like concerts or movies). Back issue sales are bubbling and key books have exploded in price.

It can not be argued that the industry has weathered this storm well. However, there is another one on the horizon. While it has been proven for years by the likes of BOOM! that a slimmer line is a stronger line, Marvel has been ballooning and pushing out with more and more titles and variant covers. Retailers are riding high on dead stock that has suddenly become valuable, but they are doing so in the face of what the industry has previously gone through in the 90s with this kind of speculator boom. Outfits like WebToon and Tapas have audiences that are far eclipsing the best the North American print audience has EVER seen, and Scholastic is blowing everyone’s print runs out of the water. Viz is sitting at the tip-top of the North American adult graphic novel sales charts while running an all-you-can-eat option for $2 a month. Traditional companies are lagging behind, and traditional comic shops are following them along.

Things are good now – but we’re not through the storm. We’re in the eye, and on the other side is one of two things: a resurgence of COVID-19 brought along by the variants that are developing, or an opening that will suck a significant amount of money from this industry that we’re all taking for advantage.

At the end of the day, the only thing that will save us is getting MORE readers. Not taking more money from the ones that we have. Here’s hoping we can collectively make that happen.


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Ron Hill, Dave Gibbon and Nick Purpura (l.-r.)

[Ron wanted to talk on the phone, so I have transcribed and consolidated his comments in the following, delivered with the no-nonsense bluntness only a true lifelong New Yorker flexes.]

At the beginning of April, we were basically thrown out of work for a month. We were knocked out of the loop, laying off the staff, everyone was on unemployment, the whole nine yards. That was a nightmare. We were eventually able to get the PPP funding by the beginning of May and I was able to start getting people working again, but we were still in the shutdown. A lot of the time we were working from home and trying to promote our little website and we’d have one person at a time going to the store to fill mail orders.

We were never a company that did much in the way of mail orders or eBay. We were always 99% focused on our brick and mortar business. We have two stores, one in Staten Island in the New Dorp area, which is one of the biggest neighborhoods where people don’t believe that COVID is even real despite the casualties. The store in Manhattan lost all its commuter and tourism based customers.

Since the shutdown and we’ve learned to do a lot of things, including mail order. We have people who’ve never been back in, but still buy their stuff from us. We do eBay now, we have a Shopify store, Nick [Purpura, co-owner] does a live stream every Friday on Facebook. He started it at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to just stay in touch with people during those early weeks when it was just non-stop sirens 24 hours a day. It was a video to reach out and sell old comics, but he’ll show a comic – it could be a $3 comic or a $20 comic – and talks about it, and someone claims it.

All these little things brought back revenue little by little. Once we set up our web store, it’s staying up. It took considerable figuring out in the beginning, Chris Powell at Diamond was actually very helpful and set up some tools on Diamond’s website to help populate the site. There’s a tool where you can upload a list of Diamond codes, and it spits back a file you upload to Shopify, with all the relevant data – the description of the product, the title, the link to the image. Back in April, Shopify was a very attractive, easy platform to go to. A lot of comic stores have done the same thing. I love the idea that there’s hundreds of comic stores that didn’t have web stores who now have this. It didn’t replace what we lost, but collectively all of it together does produce a nice little stream of income, which we’re never going to leave behind. The pandemic has showed us how fragile society is – how do we live in a world where we closed down for a month and the whole world falls apart. We can’t ever go back to that.

The first week we were shut down, my wife caught COVID from her job and got very sick, the same week when DC broke the news that they were changing their distribution model. I was on the phone with Stuart Schreck, subsequently laid off, who was trying to sell me on how this was going to be better. He was just doing his job, I know.

Has it been better? There’s never been a better case made for Diamond’s existence. Diamond had our back in so many ways and, and worked the us in so many ways. On one hand you had Jim Lee donating artwork for the BINC Foundation and raising money for retailers. And on the other hand, his parent company AT&T was not giving a shit about our industry, our history or anything. They reawakened the spirit of the DC that robbed Bill Finger and Siegel and Schuster and Alan Moore. I don’t mean to put down anyone who works at DC currently, or the people at the new distributors, but I just really hope for AT&T’s failure and that eventually DC is sold to a company who understands what DC is and they come back to what they were. They used to be the industry leaders, and now [thanks to AT&T] they’re the industry losers.

I don’t begrudge the creators of the product and I don’t begrudge the staff. And it’s not just our industry. Chris Nolan woke up six months later and realized that he was also screwed over by this corporate idiocy. He went to sleep working for the best movie studio in the world, and then woke up being in the worst streaming service.

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JHU’s Staten Island store – comics retailers

But I can’t be a comics store without carrying DC. I’m still a fan of the intellectual property. But they used to be my favorite promotion to deal with, but now they’re just a bunch of strangers. It’s in my best interest to work with publishers who actually make an attempt, like Boom and Image, to watch out for their bread and butter.

I get the sense that the money made from publishing is irrelevant to these mega corporations. It’s also true of Marvel to some extent, but Disney puts on a good show about taking care of the creative. That’s sort of the heart of the Disney story. You look at Marvel and there was Stan Lee, and now there’s Kevin Feige.

[As for comparing years,] I think our 2020 was down. Our Manhattan store was way down. Our Staten Island store was close, though. Manhattan was based on commuters and tourists coming in to shop with us. Once we reopened, we lost both of those things. The Staten Island store, compared to last year before the shutdown, is doing better. The Manhattan store is little by little improving, but only doing about 60% of the previous business.

Part of what helped was that we made a deal with our landlord for a reduced rate for a few more months. We’re getting government funding and loans when we’re able to apply for it and receive some assistance. Diamond was understanding about our outstanding balance, and we just paid it off.  That was great.

My wife actually works in the COVID wing of a local hospital, so I get to hear all about what’s going on over there all the time. She feels a disconnect because there are still a lot of COVID patients yet everything started suddenly reopening. We’re in New York. But really we’re in the middle of America.

All my regular customers are wonderful [about obeying mask wearing laws and COVID precautions.] I have a lot of civil servants who shop there, and a few of them chafe at wearing the mask, but they do it and they’ve been understanding. Our store’s in a conservative place but no one comes in and fights us. We’re near where there were big protests, and there have been fist fights over wearing masks, but nothing like that has happened with us, thank God.

I don’t know if the world will come roaring back – there’s still no plan for 30% of the population who won’t get vaccinated. But the world needs to organize better and fundamentally reorganize society. I grew up watching Star Trek, so come on! In the comics field, there’s all this stuff about optimistic futures and positive directions we can go in. But there’s also Judge Dread and apocalyptic fiction. I would like to subscribe to the sunnier view, which is we get to build a better world.

The comics industry at the moment is still very subject to the whims of two giant mega corporations. If either of those choses to stop making print product it could still inflict massive damage on what’s left. So the comics industry needs to continue to move towards diversifying their stores and making it so if DC or Marvel drops out, it doesn’t wipe us out.

The thing about comics is that this is valuable. This comics are really cheap to make. Probably the most expensive aspect of creating a comic book is the time the creators spend working on it. The paper, ink and electricity to power Photoshop is peanuts compared to a human’s life. Comics are a creative medium and there are still thousands of stories that are going to spring from this world.

I think the medium of comics is in great shape. I think there are a lot of people who’ve been very inspired and there’s going to be tremendous work. I think there’s a lot of customers who are still bored [by the pandemic], who used to collect comics and want to return to something that is familiar and something they used to love to do in the world before the pandemic. So I think there’s all kinds of potential. Having a 10 year old daughter, I have a Raina fan in my home, and can see the power of graphic novels first hand. The book world is on fire. There’s a legion of children coming up who might continue to read comics as a lifetime habit. So we have the potential for a new audience coming from comics – not from a movie or a slurpee cup, but from the medium of comics.

The comic book business needs to do more to grab some of that book business back away from the Targets and the Amazons. Big box retailers will never be experts. Comics store people will always be experts.

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