On Business: Variety Comics

By | Monday, September 21, 2015 Leave a Comment
Last week, Variety Comics announced that they would be shutting their doors permanently after over forty years in business. From their Facebook announcement...
Variety Comics was present at the dawn of mainstream comic book culture in America. When it first opened in the summer of 1974, the Punisher was just a few months old and those perennially teen-aged Mutant Ninja Turtles would not arrive for another ten years. Sadly, after 41 years of profitable operation, we are going out of business. The final day will be October 31st, 2015...

We would be remiss to leave the stage without mentioning Variety's patron / father Rich Vitone. He is sadly - and fortunately - not here to see the end, but he would no doubt be proud of this 41 years of success, 34 of which he saw from behind Variety's counter before he passed away in 2009. Those of you who remember him know that Rick was a unique character who endeared himself to those lucky enough to warrant his attention. He was sometimes brusque, but if you were ever harangued by the master (and who wasn't?), pay it no mind - it probably wasn't personal. In fact, if Mr. Rick were still here for these final moments, he'd likely conceal his true feelings by barking at the last customer of the last day: "Finish up and get out!" But it's my belief that what he'd really want to say is: "Thanks for everything, boys. It's been one helluva ride." I'll be God-damned if it wasn't.
I've never visited the store, so I can't speak to it first-hand, but from the descriptions I've read, it was very much the type of comic shop that was perfectly typical in the early 1980s. One of the reviews I read was raving about the place, but still said, "Many of my observations about the store can be seen as valid criticisms by shoppers. The store is definitely a mess. There are stacks upon stacks of books, trades, magazines, and boxes. You will feel the need to wash your hands after going through the back issues." The reviewer loved it in part because he could find strange gems amid the chaos, but he also felt it is "a shrine to the reverence we once held for comic books without the frills."

As of 2011, the current owner Vinny Nguyen had never visited another comic shop. Ever. He grew up going to Variety as a customer, and took over the place from Vitone.

I suspect that gets to precisely why the store is closing. It's not just that they're catering to a type of customer who's increasingly rare in comicdom. It's not just that they've kept the old wall paneling and haven't added "frills" to the store itself. It's that, despite the acknowledgement in their closing statement that they've witnessed a great deal of change in the industry since 1974, they haven't done anything about it. They've seen the industry change, but felt that they didn't need to adjust to those changes. Frankly, that they've taken that approach and survived this long astounds me to no end.

I've talked many times about my dislike for nostalgia, and it would appear at first glance that's what Variety has been banking on. Customers walk in and say, "Wow, this looks like the shop I used to go to when I was kid!" That might work as a shtick, but that's not actually what they're doing. Because nostalgia is not simply lifting the past and bringing it to the present; nostalgia lifts only parts of the past, blurs the rough edges, and places it within the context of the present. So you recreate the best bits -- say, the 1970s stylings in the building and furniture with 1980s superhero posters on top of that -- but leave out the uncomfortable parts -- say, the actual counters that have had four decades of use and are beat all to hell. Simply not updating anything doesn't sell nostalgia so much as just make everything look old and used.

I don't mean to knock Variety or it's owners (past or present). Selling comics is NOT an easy task, and to do it even for the few years that the current owner has been at it is note-worthy. Not to mention just the general shame for the industry as a whole every time another comic shop closes. I have a nothing but sympathy for anyone connected with the shop.

But it should serve as a reminder to other shop owners that this is how capitalism in the U.S. works. As harsh as this sounds, you need to adapt or die. Simply continuing on because that's the way we've always done things will inevitably, if sadly, lead to obsolescence.
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