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I Am My Local Shop -or- What I Learned From Owning My Own Comics Store

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The smell that hits you as you walk in? That mix of paper, acetone, and nerd sweat? You have to admit that you love it. It wouldn’t be the comic shop without it. Whether you’re digging through the bargain boxes, perusing the new stock, or hanging out to talk about the most recent issues, this is your shop. You come in every Wednesday. Its a little slice of heaven where you can argue about who wins in a fight, or which costume looks better, or how badly DC just screwed something up. On the other side of the counter, however, its a completely different story. If you’re thinking about owning your own comic shop one day, take a few lessons from someone who does. (That would be me)

  1. Know your product.

I’m lucky. I have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of characters, events, and company histories. I know for instance, that The Watchmen came about because DC bought “The Question” and a number of other properties from a dieing Charlton Comics, handed them to Allan Moore, and demanded gold. I know that Chris Claremont is more responsible for the X-Men we know today than Stan Lee. I know that Todd McFarlane is an asshole. I know all this because I have to. I spend every ounce of free time reading, researching, and watching anything I can get my hands on. If you’re selling comics, you need to know it all. When a customer comes in and asks for Badrock and Company, and you don’t know who or what that is, he or she is going to leave unhappy. If you can’t talk about what Captain America has been up to lately, you have pretty good chance of not selling a Captain America comic that day. If you haven’t read a recent comic, you have a good chance of not selling it.

    1. Be financially prepared

You’d better have a second job, or some good cash reserves. After the first three months, I started breaking even. Unless you count wages. And utilities. Basically, I was making back the money I spent on stock and rent, and that was all. Until that point, I was losing money, which means I had to have enough to cover for two full months before I started seeing some money come back my way. Most comic book stores, and in fact most businesses, fail because of poor financial planning. If this is something you plan on doing, do it with deep pockets.     3.) Know who you’re dealing with. You might think this is common sense, but it goes a lot deeper than that. In my first three months as a shop keeper I met a lot of people, and 99% of them were great people. That’s an impressive statement since I don’t like people. Unfortunately, there are two types of people who are most likely to give you trouble. First, you have the customers. Anyone who ever said “The customer is always right” was wrong. If you understood part one of this article, then you’re the expert. It’s OK to negotiate on price, but don’t let the customer bully you. Confidence is your best tool, and confidence only comes with knowledge. I’ve had customers get upset or offended at what I’ve offered or charged for a comic, but, I know I can grade comics, I know my business, and I know what I can sell an issue for. Tell them to hit the bricks if they don’t like it.   The second problem person is usually an authority figure. Someone who has power over you and knows it. My issues came mostly from my landlord, and none of them were good. It started before I even moved in. My landlord (who we will call “Earl” for the time being) needed someone to paint the walls before I could move in. So, being the shrewd negotiator I thought I was, I offered to do it. I finished two nights before my opening day. I patched holes, and painted two coats. The night before I opened, I went down to check things out, and make sure the paint dried. I was very surprised to find thousands of big white smears of patching compound covering the walls. Instead of moving my furniture and product in that night, I had to repaint the entire place, then rush to move in before I opened. He would confront me about any old thing in front of my customers, fight over his responsibilities, and neglect his duties, leaving me to cover for him. More money out of my pocket. All that I could have put up with, except for the last month of our lease. As it came time to renew, at the very end of the month, he walked in with a smug look on his face. “I’m not making enough money off of you,” he said, “So from now on the rent is double.” On the 31st, after I closed for the business day, all of my things left with me. I’m not the kind of person who likes being held up.

    1. No free rides Seriously. You will be tempted to give freebies and discounts to your friends and family, and that’s great, but you can’t just hand things out to any old customer. You want to give your customers a reason to be loyal to your store, and you certainly can’t do that if you’ve gone out of business. Figure it out.

 

  1. Its a lot of hard work This might seem like another no-brainer, but it’s different to hear about something and experience it. To keep my store operational, I worked rotating shifts at a factory job. Most weeks I’d work fourteen to sixteen hours each day between the shop and the mill. Of course I’m including all the extra things I’d have to do. Aside from spending a few hours each week getting acquainted with the ordering system on the distributor web-site (sorting, reading through, and placing orders for everything coming in) I’d spend a lot of time budgeting, coming up with promotions, filling out ledgers, checking my inventory, writing checks, buying back issues, and taking care of anything else that might have come up.

 

    1. Diamond can make or break you. One of the most difficult things to accept is that your distributor holds your fate in their hands. Believe it or not, Diamond is the only comic distributor in North America. (This is where the article gets all informative) In ’82, ’88, and ’96, Diamond successively bought out nearly all of their competitors. They also hold a number of exclusivity deals with the major companies. 1997 saw them investigated by congress for anti-trust litigation (monopoly). After three years, the investigation was closed and nothing was done. Congress claimed that, though diamond did indeed hold a monopoly on comic book distribution, they did not have a monopoly over all books. (a load of bullocks if you ask me). Diamond has also had to face allegations of censorship, discrimination against smaller shops, and bullying small publishers. Since they control the distribution of nearly all comics on the market, their censorship, or refusal to carry a certain comic, can lead to cancellation of the series, and serious damage to the publisher. What’s more is that Diamond doesn’t particularly seem to care about its smaller customers. Unless you pay them a certain fee, you don’t get your comics in time for new comic Wednesday. This can add quite a challenge to your survival. Comics often arrive late or damaged, if they arrive at all, and replacements (if you ask for them within 24 hours) can take several weeks to ship, leaving you SOL while your competitors are free to sell as many as they want. In the mean time, its difficult to easily find evidence of Diamond’s litigation history in the standard research spots. If you’re up for some light reading, I’d recommend you look at Mile High Comics’ complaint letter (http://www.milehighcomics.com/comicjustice.html ). So, you have a shady company bending you over and spanking you whenever they want, and there is literally nothing you can do about it.

I know, that seems like a lot of bitching on my part, and it really is. But if you want it sugar coated, you’re on your own. I love what I do, good or bad. I’ll take my lickings as long as it means I get to keep operating. As of right now, I’m between locations. Still working in the land where dreams go to die (the factory). I’m not dieing without a fight, and my shop will rise again.


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