Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My quest to open a comic store

I got my first real job when I was 17. I was lucky that I didn't absolutely need one until then, but it came when the owner of my local comic store needed someone to cover while he went on vacation. As a patron for the store for as long as I could remember, I was more than happy to step in and help out.

After that, it became one of my two Summer jobs during college. A year after college, I moved back to my hometown so my wife could go to grad school, it was 2007, the economy wasn't doing great and I had a hard time finding a job for a while, but the store was there for me and helped put much needed cash in my pocket.

When I found a regular day job, I worked at the store every Saturday and covered when the owner was out. That lasted until my wife got pregnant with our third child. I never really left the store per se, I set up all the social media accounts and tried to sway what was carried in store and how the operation went.

For years, the owner and I always talked about me taking over or opening my own store whenever he was ready to pack it in. Frankly, owning a store has long been a dream and ambition of mine. But, I didn't expect the call to come shortly before Christmas.

After running a pretty successful sale for the owner, he gave me the news - he got offered a real job and he was finally able to move on from the store. After 28 years, this was a longtime coming for him and he'd been ready to shut the door whenever the right opportunity presented itself. He'd lost interest in recent years, and as a lifelong Marvel reader, the state of Marvel throughout 2017 pretty much assassinated his enthusiasm for the industry as a whole. Although overall sales lagged, the store remained above - or treading water.

After I got the news and processed it, my first thought was this: "Okay, it's finally time."

I never wanted to open a store that competed with him. He was the last store standing after the '90s boom and I've always been pretty loyal to him - as a customer, worker and friend.

We had some discussion about me buying the store outright, but, long story short, the numbers weren't adding up and it wasn't a workable situation. Thus, he kicked off his Going Out of Business sale. After that, I got to negotiating the lease with the landlord. He gave me a great offer, but he needed to know immediately and I didn't have anything in place adding to the overall risk. In other words, it wasn't on my terms, which is a bad way to start a business.

Add in that I have a solid day job and things tend to get a little more complicated. I would absolutely not leave said job, so the biggest issue became finding a handful of trustworthy people to run the store during the day, and in a relatively short amount of time. I had a couple old friends willing to help out, but it wasn't enough to make the full commitment in time for the landlord. Trying to pull together a store of this nature is risky enough, trying to do it in a month with these factors just adds to the overall heavy lift of getting it off the ground, and ultimately, growing the business. Part of what makes a store great is the personality, and one thing I want to do is make sure my love of the business comes through and I need more time to do that.

In the month or so that opening my own store finally became close to reality, I heard opinions from every side. Not to mention the constant barrage and criticism of the industry as a whole, so I was fully prepared to deal with the "are you crazy?!" type comments.

Do I think the comic book industry could use a kick in the ass? Absolutely. But I also don't believe - and see evidence - that comic stores are falling victim to the same fate that other retail outlets suffer. Comic stores have to evolve beyond the monthly and weekly books. Lots of stores fall victim to high rents, and that's unfortunate, but many stores don't totally evolve to match the market. It's a tricky market and I don't pretend to know everything, but comics and pop culture have been constants for 80 years and I don't think they are going anywhere.

I'd do A LOT of things differently than the owner of my (now defunct) store. And by A LOT, I mean I'd focus on different areas like subscriptions, a massive online presence, collectibles, heavy focus on graphic novels. I'd also introduce other products like retro and used games, second-hand DVDs, collectibles and what not. Not to mention there'd be more events like signings, involvement around town, the whole nine. You've also got to follow trends: for example at New York Comic Con, the most common T-Shirt I saw worn was The Bullet Club, so yeah I'd carry those.

I've always wanted to open and run my own comic store. My hometown is a decent market for this kind of specialty shop, and timing didn't work out this time around. I'm still looking into it fairly aggressively, but many factors such as timing, capital, strategy and growth potential are certainly still at play. Plus, maybe it's time for a new location and a new outlook. While being next to the lingerie store has been an adventure the past couple of years, it doesn't help the stereotype.

There's also the fact that the comic market (and I'm including pop culture broadly) is VERY difficult to explain to someone who really doesn't understand it. Sure, business is business and economics is all that really matters, but these specialty stores are a unique beast.

I'm hopeful it works out, I just need more time. I'm not one to give up on accomplishing goals and making dreams a reality.

In the meantime, check out my Kickstarter campaign for The Atomic Thunderbolt #2!

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