Comics For Collectors

By | Wednesday, June 24, 2009 2 comments
Ithaca, like many college towns, has its own comic shop. Comics for Collectors was started in 1981 by Bill Turner and Tim Gray, who had already founded the Comic Book Club of Ithaca a few years earlier. It was about half a block from where I was staying, so it was almost mandatory than I stop by during the two hours the S.O. and her friend went out for pedicures. It was, conveniently, a Wednesday afternoon so I was eager to see not only the shop itself but the clientèle that frequented it.

I stopped in right around 5:00, expecting to see a good number of fans hitting the store on their way home from work. I was surprised, though, to find the shop empty except for one employee who greeted me pleasantly as she was pulling together a customer's file. All of the latest comics were displayed prominently along one wall, separated into three categories: Marvel, DC, and everything else. (To be fair, there may have been an Image section between the DC and everything else categories -- I vaguely recall seeing some Image books around there, but didn't think to look closely enough to see if it was a section by itself or just part of the everything else.) Within those sections, titles were racked alphabetically, and it looked like they carried a pretty good range of independent books as well as the superheroes staples. (There's an unintended pun there, but I'm not going to make the effort to refine it.)

The rest of the walls of the store were lined with bookshelves featuring a large number of graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and other similar collections. The top shelf was about seven feet high, and above that, the walls were decorated with framed original comic art -- most of which was for sale. There was a small area in the center of the floor with another bookshelf of manga, and maybe a dozen long boxes of fairly recent (within the last 3-4 months) back issues. Another couple boxes were marked as Quarter Bins.

There was a checkout counter by the front door, and the area behind it housed customers' files and a few dozen older comics, several dating back to the 1930s. There was a window display featuring various comics and TPB collections (see photo), and there were a few action figures scattered throughout the store. I think I saw maybe five or six small statuettes/busts. Trading cards and CCGs were nowhere to be seen, nor did I see any other of the typically peripheral comics ephemera one usually finds in LCSes.

I was in the store for about 45 minutes, and saw a total of four other customers during that time. They all chatted briefly and cordially with the employee, but they were mainly general pleasantries with little in the way of "traditional" fanboy talk. The owner (Tim bought Bill out back in 2000) came out from the back room a few times, working on some sort of stocking issues. He greeted customers (including me) pleasantly and noted that they had some more stock not on display if there was anything I was looking for and didn't see. He also brought out his dog, Snowy, who took to lounging casually near the entrance.

When someone asked me a couple hours later what I thought of Comics for Collectors, I found myself somewhat dumb-struck for a good answer. It was unlike any comics shop I'd ever been in. It had a good selection of comics, but there was clearly a deliberate decision to only showcase the most recent ones, in favor of a large selection of collected editions. It took a little while for me to fully process what they were doing and how they operated.

I don't know how long the shop has been set-up in this manner, but it's the first I've seen that's adjusted themselves to fit the changing market. Historically, comic shops have had rows and rows of back issues because that was the primary way readers could read older stories. But many shop owners have noted that with the predominance of eBay (where retailers as well as individual collectors now compete head-to-head in selling back issues) coupled with publishers putting an ever-increasing amount of material into TPB form, in-store back issue sales have dropped considerably. Comics for Collectors has wisely removed the vast majority of back issues from their facilities, making room for the more popular collections. Furthermore, the back issues they do keep out are the ones that are more likely to sell -- namely, those which still have some degree of timeliness. People who just picked up Captain America #600 and enjoyed it, for example, can quickly grab #597-599 to catch up on whatever story lead-ins were there. Anything much older than that is then available in TPB form.

What also strikes me as a smart move is how they've organized their bookshelves. It's generally alphabetical by title, but they have a few callouts as well. For example, near the W section, where Watchmen is prominently on display, they have additional shelf space for a small Alan Moore section. There were also areas dedicated to Jeff Smith, Ed Brubaker, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Neal Adams and a few others that I'm not remembering offhand. It's a great and simple cross-sell strategy: if you liked Transmetropolitan you might also like Anna Mercury. I must admit that I was sorely tempted to pick up the first issues of Ignition City because of that. (I convinced myself to do a wait-for-the-trade approach here.)

Ultimately, it was very striking to see a comic shop sell comics as it makes the most business sense given today's market. They clearly saw where things were heading and adopted a different approach accordingly. That says to me that there's some business savvy at work here that goes far beyond the typical "I sell comics just because I love to be around comics" attitude that's wildly predominant throughout the retail side of the industry.

What I'm unsure about is the exact reasoning behind the lack of CCGs and the like. I'm sure this was a conscious business decision, but I don't know if that has more to do with catering to the specific preferences of that geographic area or an inability to compete with a hobby shop around the corner. (In short, I don't know if the hobby shop started selling cards and then the comic shop stopped, or the comic shop never sold them in the first place and the hobby shop decided it was an opportunity for them.) Either way, I like the fact that the comic shop caters particularly to people who like comics; it's not a shop that sells superhero materials and happens to have a few non-superhero comics available as well.

Interestingly, this tactic anecdotally works well for the non- "Wednesday crowd" types. A friend who lives in Ithaca noted that she actually does enjoy some comics, but she's decidedly NOT a fan of superheroes. At some time in the past, she mentioned, the shop wasn't very friendly to folks like her but the current set-up and operations are much more inviting and conducive to walking in off the street. (Which, by the way, is exceptionally easy to do given their location. Indeed, while I was there, one person stopped in just to pet Snowy.) It's a store which caters to people who want to read comics.

And that might sound like an obvious statement, but it really isn't. Some time back I discussed how "comics shops" are really "licensed properties shops" and how that a real comic shop model wasn't viable. Evidently, I was wrong on that last point as Comics for Collectors really IS a comic shop, and doing rather well. I'm very pleased to be proven wrong on that point, and it's absolutely the type of shop I would love to frequent.
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jeffk said...

This sounds a lot like the newer shops that have popped up in Brooklyn over the last few years - Rocketship, Desert Island, and now Bergen Comics (although Desert Island doesn't really even carry any superhero stuff, aside from a handful of trades on the used/discount shelves). Have you had a chance to visit any of those? It would make a heck of a weekend trip.

No, I haven't been to NYC in over 25 years. I was just chatting with buddy Dave about getting out there sooner or later, though.

But since I'm currently living in southwest Ohio, a trip to the Big Apple would have to be a bit more than just a weekend for me.