Saturday, August 2, 2008

A view of Popular Culture from the Retail perspective

As a reader of comics and buyer of comics (not collector however) I have seen many stores die in the cut throat world of retail. I've seen more publishers die I think, but both aspects of the comics world are difficult to make a living in. So I asked a great many retailers why. "Why do you sell comics? What about that business and arts world made you want to tough out all the difficulties of such a small market and industry?"

The two that answered said:

Tim Broman of Collector's Connection Duluth, Minnesota.

Why not?

I've sold real books, Jewelry, Shoes, tobacco, booze, candy, porn, magazines, yarn, goldfish, and so forth. I've worked for giants such as F.W. Woolworth, B. Dalton's Bookseller, & K-Mart. I've also worked for (Twin-ports based) little guys like Snyder Drug, Granada News, Gifts-N-Fixins (now LTD Jewelers) and the current employer, Collector's Connection.

Just for the record, I started working back in 1975, and have also worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, a defunct Solar Hot Water sales company called Solar Resources, and the Viking Bar.

Something that I noticed was the specialty shops were always funner places to work, because the people who were there wanted to be there. I also noticed that if I personally knew (or could at least recognize) the owner of the business, these were places that were more enjoyable to work at.

Having never been a serious comic books fellow, I was initially hired at C/C based on my experience in other retail organizations. I did (in my younger years) read comics, and collect sports cards, so I had some interest in the field. That, plus I could be counted on to not blow off my schedule, or show up drunk and/or covered in blood and feathers.

I did not see Comics any differently then selling shoes, or jewelry. They were specialty businesses that drew a specific audience.

Charlie Harris of
Charlie's Comic Books
Tucson, Arizona.

There are only a few businesses left in America available to independent retailers; most can no longer compete against the flood of subsidized ‘big box’ stores. There are no more ‘Mom and Pop’ grocery stores, drug stores or hardware stores because they can't compete with the likes of Home Depot, Safeway, Walgreen’s, etc. Even those with years of higher education like legal and medical professionals no longer hang out a shingle expecting to support their families. There are still some hair and nail salons that haven't succumbed to the chains and, although Borders and the like have done away with independent book stores the comic business is still struggling as independent entrepreneurs try to succeed in merchandising products produced by large corporations.

For me personally the benefits of owning and operating a comic book shop are many but the biggest benefit is that almost every person who comes through my door is not only literate but chooses to spend their entertainment budget on reading material. The quality of my clientele is what leads my customers to also be my friends. I see my customers weekly or monthly and I get the opportunity to know them and their families have minimal trouble with crime and shoplifting and consequently feel like part of the community in which I live.

When I ride my bicycle to work neighborhood kids and parents greet me by name and I feel like an individual instead of a corporate cog in a large, often unseen and malfunctioning machine.

The opportunities for independent entrepreneurs has been limited to comic book stores, beauty salons, ‘head’ shops, auto repair, food service businesses (that fail ninety per cent of the time, in competition with the chain restaurants and bakeries), and the occasional music or computer related businesses that haven't quite been quashed by the new chain stores filling these niches.

With the recent success and growth in the comic industry I don't expect the book store chains to allow us to cut into their profits for much longer and Marvel Comics Group is now stocking a full line of their comics in 300 Border’s establishments to ‘test the waters’ and, of course the big box gets better discounts and returnability than Marvel would ever deign to give to independent retailers like myself; in fact Marvel, the number one comic publisher offers less of a discount than DC, Image or Dark Horse Comics who all do substantially less sales volume. Marvel is also now offering all of their comics in a digital format from their web site effectively cutting the retailers out of the loop.

For now, this is one of America’s last resorts for individual and independent businessmen. If America were concerned about their future than independent retailers would be getting the government subsidies instead of firmly established and successful corporations insuring a future that doesn't involve moving to China to find work.


Justin said...

Wow, I am likely going to go against the grain of the fellows you spoke to. But I wish more comics were in big stores. Mostly because I am tired of not seeing an inkling of anything remotely resembling a comic when I have to suffer through shopping trips.

It is purely selfish, I know. But I also have to wonder if it wouldn't help. I can't be the only one who started my life long comics habit while perusing a spinner rack at the grocery store. Almost any grocery store really. That was my task, my mother and father said I could sniff out where the comics were like a hound to a rabbit.

And I remember when they left. It was and still is a bit devastating. That would probably be the comparison to your watching the local shops die. I lived in the boonies. So the chance of my parents making it to the city, and then indulging my stops at the comic shop were nil. Less than nil really. But letting me grab a comic while she checked out at the local grocery, that was very much possible.

And to be honest, it upsets me more that the terrible (and I mean that) shop in the city is still open, and has been for twenty years. Must be doing something right, you say? No, I don't think so. He orders Marvel and DC, no Image or Darkhorse. I didn't even know what an independent comic was until I left the state. The service was awful, I could go on but I won't.

I buy online now, preorder, and I can buy what I wish, I can support the independents, and I don't have to deal with that guy. I don't know, I say give me a full line of Marvel comics in Borders. Maybe you get eight year old's like me who realised they couldn't keep up with Maximum Carnage at the chain stores, and had to find that wonderful place. The Comic Book Store.

Justin said...

Oh, and I also look forward to (hopefully) the follow up entry from the publisher perspective.

alex-ness said...

Publishers yes, I will try them too. But if I get PR instead of real answers I might have to kick some ass.

Thanks Justin. A lot!

Neil said...

I remember going from retail store (or newsstand) to retail store (on my bicycle and later when I could drive) trying to find the new comics in the spinners or shelves. Some stores kept them on the shelf longer than others.

It was quite a revelation seeing comic book stores when they started. It was very exciting. In college I would take a long walk to the local comic book store. Eventually, I found a mail order service - Westfield Comics. I would supplement my orders with visits to comic book stores. I've moved on from Westfield (due to their declining discount) and now get most of my comics from DCBS. Occasionally I drop by a local comic book store, but not all that often. I like getting my monthly box.

I am surprised to read that Marvel is stocking a full line in some Borders stores. Maybe we'll get more new readers this way.

Justin said...

Neil brings up a good point. I still visit comic shops, and really it makes me miss that at times. Because a shop that I particularly enjoy is always very friendly. But to go there with regularity, I would have to move. As it is I just settle for a trip there every three months or so.

And while my local Borders is not doing a full line, it is quite a few. However, I remember them being a dollar higher. I should have checked again, I was only just there.

Steve Chaput said...

Like some of you I remember almost every grocery and convenience store having at least one spinner rack of comics, if not several shelves along with the other magazines. In the stores with shelves, comics generally were located near the bottom, with the 'adult' magazines on the top shelf where little hands and eyes could not reach.

I was in my mid-twenties before I encounted my first comic shop. One of the original Pacific Comics stores in San Diego. I think I sprung a boner, but perhaps that is only the way I remember it. :-)

I now buy my comics strictly from a local shop, where I have a 'pull list' of titles. On occasion I may pick up a TPB at Borders or Barnes & Noble if I spot one in the Reduced section. I find it kind of funny that one of the Barnes & Nobles here keeps a small, comic spinner near the entrance. It seems like they are almost embarrased to have it there at all.