Dark Star Books' Steve Bennett has been running a column over at ICv2 for a while now (since Bookery Fantasy's Steven Bates took a job with Diamond, in fact) and it's always an interesting read for me personally because I know the store. (Actually, I knew both stores, so it's always been an interesting read.) His latest column talks about how two former Dark Star employees will be opening a new shop -- unconnected with Dark Star -- and because of that, Dark Star will no longer be carrying comics in the weekly pamphlet format, and only carrying graphic novels.
It sounds like a drastic move, potentially indicative of something huge on the comic industry's horizon. And, while it is noteworthy, it's not as big as one might assume. See, Dark Star has been primarily a used book store for as long as I've been aware of it. Oh sure, they got new comics, which were racked towards the front of the store. And they had a back issue selection of 20 or 30 long boxes. But most of the store was lined with bookshelves of used books. Mostly paperback, mostly sci-fi/fantasy stuff. I actually didn't frequent the store more often, in part, precisely because of that -- I was much more interested in comics, and cleared their back issue selection of issues I was looking for in one trip. So, from a business perspective, this works well for Dark Star because it allows them to focus on their primary business.
Dark Star (and the new Super-Fly Comics and Games) is located in the town of Yellow Springs, Ohio. It's a relatively small town, populated primarily by college professors and students. Why? Because the town exists almost exclusively because of Antioch University -- a small, liberal arts college. (And I use "liberal" in every sense of the word.) The school was founded in 1852 and has been a staple institution for students in south-eastern Ohio who wanted a well-rounded education without having to go to a huge, impersonal school. It's an absolutely gorgeous campus and the town itself is incredibly rich with life and diversity as well.
Now, here's where things get interesting, though!
Antioch announced a few weeks ago that they will be closing their doors at the end of the 2007-2008 school year, while the Board of Trustees try to reconfigure things to make the school profitable. They're planning on taking four years to do this, during which time... well, I have no idea what will happen. Certainly, the students won't be around to shop at a comic book store. I suspect many of the professors will have to find jobs elsewhere as well. And, while the school plans to re-open in 2012, many people are skeptical because, frankly, schools that close don't generally open again.
Here's another wrinkle. The city's zoning is geared primarily towards residents. Comparatively little land is designated for retail or industrial use. And the people who live there don't leave, meaning that land prices (housing prices in particular) tend to be considerably higher than surrounding communities. Will the city then consider re-zoning to try to bring more revenue/jobs to the area while Antioch is closed? If so, will that happen soon enough to keep the city alive? Will former Antioch employees move to facilitate new jobs and, if so, will the incoming residents have the same attitudes and ideas to keep the town character relatively in tact? Will land prices drop sufficiently and allow a flood of new residents into the town, whose taxes might keep the city afloat?
In any event, this is, by my reckoning, about the worst time to open a new small business in the community, especially one that often caters to a college-age crowd. Opening a small business is risky under the best of circumstances, and comic book shops tend to be almost as risky as restaurants. I wish these guys all the best luck in the world, but I'd wager that I'll be swinging by their going-out-of-business sale in late 2008/early 2009.