Last year, I posited the idea that Ithaca, NY is the next notable comic community. Turns out that I was more right than I knew. A few months after that post, Michael Doll opened the Green Dragon Comic Shop, only a few blocks down the road from the long-established Comics for Collectors. That someone's opening a brand new comic shop in this economy is noteworthy in and of itself, but in an city of 30,000 that already has a comic shop? Well, my interest was piqued!
Kleefeld: I'd like to start with just some of your personal background. What got you interested in comics originally? You're a long-time fan, right?
Doll: I started reading comics at a young age. My first comic that I remember reading was Uncanny X-Men 122. My brother, who is 5 years older, was a Hulk fan. But I was always drawn to the X-Men for some reason. I didn't pick up more comics until I was a couple years older and picked up Uncanny X-Men 165. This was during the Brood Saga. I stepped away from comics for many years (I was a GI Joe, He-Man, and Transformers fan) until one day my family and I were shopping and I saw a rack of comics. I was bored shopping so I went over to the racks and saw another Uncanny X-Men (issue 232 with the Brood). I remembered this from my childhood, and picked up the comic and been a fan ever since. I've been reading and collecting comics for almost 25 years now.
Kleefeld: Did your fandom lapse as you grew older? I can't help but imagine some teenage ribbing around DC's "Doll Man" or in reference to the old "they're not dolls, they're action figures" trope. Were you able to make it through school unscathed in that regard?
Doll: I pretty much had a very close knit group of friends in high school and they were all very accepting of me reading comics. In high school I was still a fan of X-Men, but branched out into other genres. I was an avid Sandman fan and also of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol (I still have nightmares about that book!).
Kleefeld: Prior to opening Green Dragon, what kind of experience did you have in with comics retailing? Had you worked at other comic shops before, or perhaps seen the retailing industry from the publishing or distribution sides?
Doll: I had no prior experience in the comic retailing, but had always wanted to open my own shop. I thought that it would be cool to sell comics and talk to people about them and really just show the passion that I have for them. Then of course came the comic boom/bust and that dashed all hopes of that. So I ventured to college and got "a real job". I was then laid off from my "real job" and needed work so I got a job in retail management. I really enjoyed that and was in retail management for nearly 11 years. So I have an extensive background in customer service and I wanted to take that knowledge and open my own shop.
Kleefeld: It sounds like, then, like you had some basic business experience going in. I've seen many folks over the years dive into retailing only because of their love of comics, and get burned because they don't have business skills. I'm guessing in your case, "on the job training" mostly revolved around the specifics of dealing with Diamond and such?
Doll: That's correct. OTJ training really consisted of the best hours to be open and still have a semblance of a life outside of the store as I'm the only one working here. But also another thing was ordering correct quantities. My first month's ordering was way over what I should've been ordering. So I have that under control now.
Kleefeld: So, what ultimately prompted the plunge? I've seen you reference "an opportunity" but what was that exactly? I'm guessing you came across a large collection to use for as your initial stock?
Doll: What really drove me into opening my own comic store was a "nudge" from a friend who is also a comic fan. He said that I should open my own shop since I have the comic knowledge and the customer service skills to really make a great shop. I was in a position with a company that I wasn't going anywhere unless I relocated to the Midwest and I didn't want to do that. So I did some research on opening up a store and decided, "What the hell have I got to lose?". Well, I mean a lot beside my house, any assets I have and such, but I knew that if I didn't do this now, I would kick myself in the ass for not doing it later in life. I used the majority of my collection to open the store and set up with the distributor to get new comics.
Kleefeld: Even coming across such an opportunity, what were your thoughts/concerns around the launching a new shop in this environment? While Ithaca does have a strong comics community, they also already had a long-standing comic shop plus some hobbyist and gaming stores, I believe, that overlap a typical comic shop's bailiwick. Not to mention the overall economic climate. Opening a new store of any kind certainly isn't easy, but it looks to me like you had some additional challenges to face from the start. So, at the risk of coming across as offensive, what the heck were you thinking?!?
Doll: I was nervous about opening a shop in several ways: cash flow, bills, getting my name out there, start up costs, learning curves, you name it, I went through the entire gambit. Luckily I have a great family and set of friends to help me out with the store and provide those shoulders to cry on when needed. I've worked in the Ithaca area for nearly 10 years and I knew that the area could support a second comic shop. Going up against an established competitor in any market is risky, but if you don't take risks in life, where would you be? I told myself that if the shop doesn't work out, that at least I gave it my all. I was going to do right by myself and the customers and put my love for comics out there for everyone to see. I asked around to see what the pulse of the comic industry in Ithaca was and really thought that I could make a name for myself here.
Kleefeld: Speaking of making a name for yourself, your shop's opening pretty closely coincided with DC's "new 52." Was that something you were able to take advantage of from a marketing perspective, perhaps getting in lapsed comic fans or garnering some additional news attention from local media? One of the photos I did see looks like you commissioned a Superman logo ice sculpture?
The ice sculpture was the result of placing an ad in the Downtown Ithaca Winter Guide. The Commons host "Ice Wars" where ice sculpture artists compete in a nationally sanctioned ice carving competition. The first 50 business to secure an ad received an ice sculpture. I had no idea what my sculpture would be until that morning when the artist told me what he was doing. As you can imagine, I was completely in awe of what was done.
Kleefeld: Once you made the decision to open Green Dragon, what was your thinking about the nature of the shop itself? What were/are some of the ideas that you wanted to bring to the store from other shops you've seen, and what were some you wanted to avoid?
Doll: What I wanted to do with the store is have a completely different feel from the competition. My store is in the basement of a building so it has a kind of "underground" feel. I really wanted this to be at the risk of sounding dorky "your store". So I wanted to start out with just comics and see what my customers wanted in the store. So after a couple months, with getting the pulse of the customers and what they really wanted I expanded some with action figures and busts/statues. Like I said, I want this to be my customers store. I've taken a lot of constructive criticism from customers and used many of their ideas to really turn the store into something that everyone would like. I think as a retailer that you need to have an open mind, learn from your mistakes and grow as a business. If you're staunch in your pursuit, you'll never get anywhere. I also wanted to create a fun environment for everyone from kids to seniors. I have a great area for kids to look at books and relax. Getting kids to read has always been a passion of mine and how I really got into reading was in comics. I feel that comics are a great way for kids to start reading and have fun at the same time.
Kleefeld: What's your clientele been like so far? It's clear you're trying to make it as friendly and open as possible, but it's also an industry that's been fairly insular for some time now. Have you been able to draw in a good crowd of children as well as established comic fans?
Doll: My clientele is just like Ithaca. Very unique. I have established creators coming in each week, I have dedicated families that come in each week, and I have the typical comic book readers. A thing that is very odd (at least I thought so) is that about 40% of my customers are female. I knew that there were female readers out there, but being a comic fan for years it was primarily a male base. When I first opened at the end of October there was a haunted house in an empty space next to me, so I cross promoted with them. After the haunted house, stop in to the store for a free comic. I handed out over 100 comics and got many a kid to come back into the store over the next couple of weeks.
Kleefeld: It's been a couple years since I visited Ithaca and I can't seem to find many photos of Green Dragon's interior. Can you provide folks with a sense of the layout and structure of the shop? What have you tried to do with the space itself?
Doll: The layout of the store is unique. Like I stated above, my store is in the basement of a building. I do have a display window and a sandwich board to let people know where I'm located. You enter the store to a foyer and a large staircase. Above the staircase is a ledge and a huge wall where I have a banner of the store logo and name. As you come down the steps you see posters of comic characters. At the base of the stairs is a double set of doors that are always opened and I have current comics posters posted there. You'll walk down about 8 feet from the base of the stairs and you'll see my store to the right. There are other store fronts that are currently unrented so you could call me the anchor for the basement. There is a yoga studio that is expanding to the space behind me in the next few months. My store has no windows so I opted for a very bright color scheme. Walls are currently white and the floor is a basic grey. The previous tenant was a clothing store and their color scheme was chocolate brown and cobalt blue. That needed to be changed immediately! It made the space seem very dark and off-putting. I changed all of the light bulbs to a "daylight" design to really give the space some much needed light. With being in the basement, the store has an "underground" feel with pipe work above. I have the store set up in a couple different areas: New Comic wall, which is the first thing you see when you walk in besides my smiling face, then previous weeks comics, the kids comics section, back issues/action figures/busts/statues, then a "set" wall (these are collected single issue comics like a mini series, all packaged together, then the trade section. I'm also currently working on having an artist exhibition at the beginning of March with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance group that sponsors First Friday Art Crawl. This is where artists display their works for everyone and brings in a lot of people to the places that hold the event. With Ithaca having such a great comic and art crowd, I really wanted to reach out to both groups since they are both lovers of art (be it in a different medium).
Kleefeld: I think that's a fantastic idea! So you'd have essentially a small art exhibition in your store, presumably of comic art? Do you have any specific artists lined up yet?
Doll: These are actually many different artists. Photographers, painters, etc. I have one lined up for March already.
Kleefeld: You've been open less than a year so far, but it sounds like things are going pretty well. What's been the most surprising challenge that you've had; what were you really not expecting to have to deal with in opening and runnning a new comic shop?
Doll: I guess what I really had the hardest time with was knowing what to order for people. I know what titles nationally sell well, but was unsure of what my customers were really looking for. So I had no problem asking them what they were looking for or having them suggest titles to carry in the store.
Kleefeld: What about the broad shift from customers purchasing individual issues to waiting for collections? Again, coming to this discussion as a new retailer, what has that meant for your in terms of setting up your store and what stock you carry? I would guess you'd be at an advantage in that sense since you wouldn't have years of back issues taking up real estate. Or have your customers been more traditional in that regard, on the hunt for elusive older issues?
Doll: I have my customers that are looking for current books, and then I have the trades people. It's about a 60/40 mix (issues/trades).I knew that the trades would be a learning curve for me, but I really didn't realize how many people would wait for trades. Even with the new 52, I have customers that are waiting for the trades to come out instead of buying the single issues.
Kleefeld: You're also stepping into a market that's had a lot of discussion recently about competition from both pirates and publishers themselves who publish digitally. As someone who's coming to the situation without a long history of comic retailing, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Doll: As for the market going into same day digital, I feel that digital is helping the comic industry. It's getting more people to read comics. If you think of it, there really aren't that many comic stores around anymore. That can be attributed to many things: comic store owners retiring, readers being slighted at the stores (in many different fashions), and old fashioned economics. There are many books being published now that have a digital code that you can enter in the respective company's database and boom, your comic is there on your computer. It's the same way with DVD's. You buy the DVD, and you get a code for a digital copy. I really feel that the digital era is only going to help comics, not hinder it. When you think of it this way: What would you pay for a digital copy of Action Comics #1? Now what would you pay for a near mint/mint condition Action Comics #1?
Thanks very much, Mike! I know opening a new shop of any kind is difficult, so I wish him all the best. I'll also mention that he's trying to finalize details about hosting some "draw-ins" on Free Comic Book Day in May. Details about Green Dragon can be found on their website and Facebook page.