By Michele Brittany, West Coast Correspondent
Founder of Free Comic Book Day Joe Field established Flying Colors Comics located in Concord, California in 1988 and for the past dozen or so years, he has been moderating the panel "So You Want to Be a Comics Retailer?" with the goal of providing tools and information that can help individuals who are taking their first steps into the comics retail business. For this session, Field was joined by Ryan Haggerty of Ryan's Comics in Murrieta, California; Terry Stevens of Star Port in Lynchburg, Virginia; Christina Blanch of Aw Yeah Comics in Skokie, Illinois; and Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling in Toronto, Canada. In addition, Diamond Comic Distributors VP Chris Powell, who has over two decades of retail comics store experience, rounded out the panel.
Field began the hour asking each panelist to describe how they got started. Birkemoe got his start in the business as an employee of the story that he eventually bought in 1998 when the owner had decided to sell the store. His shop focuses on alternative and children's comics. Blanch has been in business for a couple of years, having bought out an owner when they had decided to sell their comic book store. Blanch is partnered with Tiny Titans and she opens new stores associated with a comics creator. Stevens has been a comic book owner for approximately one-and-a-half years and he states that he is an "absentee manager" so he has five employees. The shop is situated in a mall, so it's open seven days a week. He has the added benefit that there is a university nearby. Haggerty and his dad started up in 2009 and has focused on being a hybrid store that includes vintage and new comics, D&D and gaming. Powell has been a storeowner for over 20 years, but the last three years he has been working with Diamond Comics.
Before jumping into the retail business, Fields encouraged prospective business owners to consider joining the Comics Pro mentoring program by going to comicspro.org. And Powell added that Diamond Comics has a team of customer representative that will work with retailers for their first 90 days to help them navigate the ins and outs to running their new business. Powell also recommended reaching out to retailers with similar specs of the business you would like to create so you can solicit advice and tips. And, if you are more of a book reader, then the books Why We Buy and Tilting Windmills were suggested readings.
Powell stated that the cost of opening a store is higher now because customers will expect the store to carry a broader range of stock. The clientele is no longer young men between the ages of 18 and 25. An audience member asked how much money would it take to open a store. Fields stated the answer varies and depends on the store's location and start up stock, which depends on the level you want your shop to be for your intended customers. Fields asked what the panelists had paid to get into their business. Haggerty said about $200,000; Blanch said about $70,000; and Birkemoe excluded himself because he bought out a business that already came with stock and fixtures. Fields said it is possible to start up a comic book store in the neighborhood of $50,000. Powell advised going "a mile wide and an inch deep" with the stock. Periodicals to start will run $200 – $300 and trades, at minimum $5,000. However, Powell added that before that first load of comics, it's imperative to have a mental picture of the store's stock.
Once the doors open, to get and keep customers will require anticipating what customers are interested in and what they will want to buy. Blanch recommends determining what areas of business are missing. Perhaps there is a book retailer in the area that carries graphic novels and trade paperbacks, then it may be financially smart to carry less of those items and more of something else that will bring customers into the store.
Fields said that he talks with his customers to see what they like because he knows that what he likes is not necessarily going to be what his customers will like. Haggerty confirmed that a misstep in ordering can be detrimental and difficult to rebound from.
The practice of discounts was asked by the audience. Powell discourages fixed percentage discounts and said that it is better off providing good customer service and stock. Fields agreed and stated he doesn't use discounts. Stevens provides a couple of options, which seem to work. Blanch will give a discount if a customer has at least 10 pulls on their subscription list. However, she added that she will not hesitate to pull a customer's discount if they don't pick up their issues within a particular timeframe. She cautioned that every store is different and different programs work.
What other methods are helpful to new storeowners? Haggerty hosts events at his store because he can use these opportunities to bring new customers into the store and to make money back on ordering mistakes he has made. Blanch said that she will package issues together as a way of moving stock that has become stale. In addition, she said just moving the stock around the store will make it look as though it's a new item. Birkemoe stated that he has worked with his competitors so that they don't come into direct competition with each other's available stock.
At the end of the hour, Fields reminded attendees to check out the mentoring program at Comics Pro and he hopes that next year, someone in the audience will attend and tell him they were able to successfully start a comic retail business.
Event photos were taken by Michele Brittany.
Michele Brittany is an independent popular culture scholar and semi-professional photographer and editor of James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy (McFarland & Company) as well as the forthcoming book Essays on Space Horror in Films, 1950s – 2000s. Read her reviews and analysis on the spy/espionage and space horror genres via her blogs at Spyfi & Superspies and Space Horror Films. Follow Michele on Twitter: @mcbrittany2014.