My Changing Relationship with Comic Shops

By | Thursday, September 24, 2020 2 comments
Anrdoid's Dungeon

When I was a kid, I didn't have a "my comic shop." There wasn't anything close enough for me to get to regularly, so I relied on subscriptions for my new books and local comic conventions for back issues. When I got to college, there was indeed a local shop I could get to but the manager there was a real asshole, so I didn't go there often. (You know how some comic shops managers, particularly those back in the '80s and '90s could be jerks in the vein of Comic Shop Guy? Yeah, this guy was that certainly, but he was just a straight-up asshole too. He ended up running that shop into the ground a couple years later... before the late '90s bust. Think about that -- he couldn't run the shop decently even during one of the most lucrative periods of the direct market!) A little while later another shop opened nearby and, although the guys there were nice, they were very much NOT cut out for running a business and it closed after less than a year.

I didn't actually find a shop that was reasonably run, that I could get to on a regular basis until I was in my mid-20s, after I'd been actively reading/collecting comics for over a decade. Then, for the next ten years or so, that was my weekly Cheers. I'd stop in on Wednesday after work and there'd be a round of "SEAN!" and we'd all chat about whatever was in comics news that week. I'd hang out for an hour or so, and then head home with $20-$30 worth of comics.

I eventually changed jobs and was commuting in the opposite direction, so it stopped be feasible to hit that shop on the way home. And it turned out that there was another shop right around the corner from my new job, so I started going there. I got to know the owners/managers there, but before I really became a regular staple for the Wednesday crowd, I ended up moving to another state. I bounced around for about half a year, and when I finally settled in a new permanent residence, I was thrilled to see there was a comic shop barely over a mile away!

I was less thrilled when I stopped in and discovered it was one of the worst shops I've ever been in. I honestly have no idea how he manages to stay open, particularly when the Chicago area has so many great shops in general.

But what I think is more interesting is that, by this point, my buying habits had changed significantly. See, up through my early 30s, I pretty much only bought Marvel titles. I did start branching out as I got into my 30s but to pretty direct tangents in a similar vein: sci-fi and fantasy. I'd occassionally pick up something like an autobiography or historical fiction, but typically only if it was getting a lot of good press. But this meant that I could walk in to most comic shops and find the titles I was regularly looking for.

As I got into my late 30s and early 40s, the Marvel stuff started dropping off, and more esoteric, independent stuff was catching my interest. Stuff that a lot of shops wouldn't normally stock. I'd wind up ordering a lot of it online, sometimes from Amazon, sometimes from an online comic shop, often from either the publisher or creator directly.

But here's the interesting thing: even though some semi-local shops might carry these books that I'm primarily interested in, I don't have any desire to visit them. Because the camradie that tends to build up in those shops, even though they might have a good selection of independent books, still tends to be centered around the best selling direct market books: Marvel and DC. The chats and discussions that I hear in those shops is the same that I used to participate in back when I had a "my comic shop." Which was fine when I was actively following Marvel, and keeping tabs on DC, Image, Dark Horse, etc. But since I don't really follow those publishers very closely any more, I can't really join in the banter around what's going on in the X-Men right now or who the latest Justice League member is or anything like that. The discussion is around comic book superheroes, not the medium of comics itself.

There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not what I'm interested in these days.

So if the discussions I'm having about comics aren't particularly tied to the week-in-week-out cycle that following lines like Marvel and DC entail, I don't really have a need to hit a comic shop on a weekly basis. And, further, if I'm not interested in the discussions being held at most comic shops anyway (and, to be fair, there are shops that do focus on something other than superheroes -- just none that I can reasonably get to on a regular basis) I don't really need to actually go to a comic shop at all. I can perfectly contently order my comics through a mail delivery service like Mile High or Lone Star Comics have. Which is what I've been doing for the past couple of years. The discounts I get offset the price of shipping, and any back issue ordering I do can piggyback off my monthly shipment so I don't have to pay additional shipping to have back issues sent over.

I'd be curious to learn how mail order shops have been doing since the pandemic started. Honestly, I don't think I've heard anything one way or the other. I'd assume their businesses have increased, like most online retailers, but that's just a guess. I know brick and mortar shops took a big hit this year, but I'd be curious to hear how many of those customers switched to ordering online entirely. Presumably for safety reasons initially and possibly for convenience later. Or has the lure of the comic shops being a destination in and of themselves -- which I've been arguing for YEARS is the only real way shops can continue to stay afloat -- drew people back more quickly than other retailers.

Regardless, I find it curious that my relationship with comic shops in general pretty closely tracks with industry retail trends. Although the trends seem to be more correlation than causation. I'll be interested to see how brick and mortar shops come out of the pandemic, and how it will affect their general business models from a long-term perspective. What are they doing now because of the pandemic that they end up continuing afterwards just because customers like it? What will they change later because of new buying patterns cusomters have adopted? What about stores that don't adapt -- will they go out of business quickly or will we see a long, slow decline? Lots to keep your eyes on, to be sure!
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Matt K said...

I don't know if you saw anything about this by chance, but a comic shop opened in Lakewood this summer. I find this interesting for a couple reasons.

1. The timing. I first heard that this was in the works no more than a week before the lockdowns. Wow. They went ahead anyway, after a delay of several weeks, but damn I can't even imagine.

2. Lakewood as a comic shop market. Pro, it has always seemed like such an obvious place for one, given the population, the demographics, the "feel" of the community and its attachment to small shopfront businesses. Con, Lakewood is only a few miles from one of the best shops in… the state? I would certainly guess that Carol & John's is the best comic shop in northeast Ohio at least.

Also, Superscript just seems like a great store name, at least if you're a comics person and a typography person. I am curious what kind of approach to they're taking to the overall challenges of this retail niche.

I don't know because I haven't been there yet. I don't purchase comics more than a few times a year, but I would have checked out a Lakewood store… except I'm still stayin' TF home as much as I can. If both of us make it to some sort of post-pandemic world I'll certainly drop in, but for now, I'm just wishing them lotsa luck.

I hadn't heard about them, but oof! What a lousy time to launch ANY business! I get it -- they've obviously been working on this since WAY before COVID was even a thing, so their options are basically 1) do nothing and just drop money on rent and utilities without earning any income, or 2) open anyway and just do the best you can, all things considered. I mean, your average new business doesn't start making money until Year Three or Four anyway and you've already got a ton of sunk costs, so what else have you got to lose at that point?

Just judging by their web site, it looks like they don't focus nearly as much on superheroes as Carol & Johns seems to, plus they have a heavy gaming aspect, so there could be enough support there for both businesses. I don't know the area market that well, obviously. I'm honestly surprised the nearest shop to me remains open given that I can get to three other FAR, FAR superior shops in maybe 15-20 minutes. So maybe Lakewood can sustain that level of support too.

Yeah, man, best of luck to them! Not a position I'm sure they're thrilled about, but if they can launch and survive for a few years in this climate, they'll definitely be okay in the long run.