Rod Lamberti of Rodman Comics writes weekly for Bleeding Cool. Find previous columns here.
I have written about this before, and I thought that revisiting the subject might be good. The future of the comic market will be influenced by new comic stores. A lot of comic collectors wonder what it would be like to own their own comic store — to be able to have a job involving something they enjoy. Part of the reason I write these is to give people a glimpse of what owning a comic store is like. Now, it isn't going to be the same for every store. A lot of variables affect a store. Location, population base, money invested, and more shapes a store.
I do wish there was something out there that would help new comic store owners. Not money-wise, but knowledge wise. Or training. Business degrees aren't going to be nearly enough. I talk with other store owners in the strip mall that we are located in, and what they deal with is a lot different than what a comic store deals with. Oftentimes they are baffled by the fact we have one vendor and one vendor only for comics. Non-returnable product available only through one vendor blows a lot of other store owners' minds.
In my perfect world, something like Kitchen Nightmares would exist for comic stores — a team to come in and turn a failing business around. There is no handbook on running a comic store — or if there is, I have never seen it.
But by no means am I saying a new comic store should be exactly the same as others. When a store is getting ready to open, the first things the owners should ask is: why would people shop here? What makes this store different from other stores? It would also help if there was a group that would go in, answer any questions a new store owner might have, and offer constructive criticism. Like everyone else, I am human; I can get locked into a mindset or way of doing things that could easily be improved on. I know there are online groups that can help, but face-to-face is still a way better form of communication.
As I have stated in the past, if Rodman Comics continued to operate like it did in the first year of its existence, it would be closed now. I had to learn and adapt. Over the years, the store became established — known. We built up a customer base.
The most important thing I would stress about opening a store is to save up for it. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that lack of funds kills a business. I also have heard stories of people ending up with a lot of debt after a store does not make it — part of the reason new business owners should save up money. We Americans on average are not very good at saving money. Saving money up for a business also means being responsible and being disciplined. Both are important when owning a business. Yes, bank loans are a way to open up a business and are the typical way a business gets its funding. That said, banks do not give away money. That loan is paid off with interest. As it should be, since banks are a business. Odds are unless money is no object, it will become an issue. Having cash on hand means having a cushion or wiggle room if something unexpected happens.
Make what you open have the best chance of succeeding. Is my store what I dreamed it would be? What I would like it to be? No. As a youngster or even now, my ideal fantasy store would be bigger. It would also be like a theme park, with comic-related props. An Avengers meeting room table, a huge Millennium Falcon hanging from the ceiling. The walls looking like one was in Superman's Fortress of Solitude. And even more. Why didn't this happen? Why didn't I make the store closer to my ideal vision? Money. It would cost a lot to make it the way I would like it to be. Plus, investing money into a property that isn't mine is less than ideal.
After I first opened, the fuse box at the store broke. My lease states I have to fix everything but the roof. The air conditioning is currently broken; I get to fix that. After getting two opinions on it, they both came up with the same amount to fix it: around $2,500. I didn't get it fixed since it is now winter time, though obviously I will have to before it warms up. As a joke, we put out a collection can for the fix. The Magic players thought it was for real and are worried come summer they will be playing without any air. I even told them $2,500 is how much it will cost to repair it. No way did I think a collection could make it past $50 bucks.
Diamond will give more help to an established store looking to open up another location than to a brand-new store. I personally think that is foolish. New blood and new people are needed if the comic market is to truly grow. We were new once.
I am also glad I didn't listen to Diamond all those years ago. I was told I had ordered low and should order more. I remember saying that I was brand new and had no real idea what the customers would want before I opened. Thankfully, I did not increase my order. My "low" order was still too much. For Diamond being the only comic vendor, they really weren't much help at the time. Granted, this was over seven years ago, so maybe they are better now.
I don't understand why Diamond wants to charge for a comic shop locator service on their website. Wizards of the Coast, who sells Magic the Gathering, has my store listed on their website for free. Even Wizkids, the makers of Heroclix, list my store for free. I would bet those two sites have better traffic for would-be customers than Diamond has.
Paying for product when it arrives was a real pain. After some time, I managed to get better terms and not have to pay an invoice so quickly, which really helped.
DC's Bob Wayne's idea of letting comics arrive on Tuesdays instead of Wednesday is the best new idea that has happened in the seven years I have been open. Granted, Diamond managed to make sure to charge us $4 a week for it. Does it really cost Diamond anything more to send UPS a day earlier than they had been?
What had been happening is since UPS's hub is miles away from my store, I learned I couldn't just let UPS deliver the new comic shipment on Wednesdays. It could arrive here at 10 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon. This really made for a bad Wednesday, and a reason for customers to shop at stores that were getting their shipments much earlier. So I arranged to drive down to the UPS hub each Wednesday and pick up the shipment so I could have them ready for when we opened on Wednesdays.
Sadly, even when I was paying C.O.D. for picking them up, UPS would at times have my shipment out for delivery even though I picked them up every Wednesday — and at times my shipment would wind up at another store. I remember asking, "How come other stores would get my shipment when I couldn't even get my shipment unless I paid for it?" I wasted a lot of time driving around trying to track down my shipment, on top of trying to get to my store and set up for the next day.
To be truthful, if Tuesday delivery had not started up, I would most likely not have kept my store open. It was too much of a hassle and gave a big edge to the stores that were close to the UPS hub over my store. They could just have their shipments delivered before they opened, and I never received another store's shipment while they very well could get mine. It made little sense with my store being in another town, but it happened.
After more than seven years, one would think more improvements would be made to help comic stores. No — it has been the opposite. More complications. More barriers. I went to improve my terms with Diamond so I could get an extra week to pay my invoice, and I was told they wanted to see my books. I was like, I don't get to see your books, and my business kind of depends on you being open. I told fellow business owners about it in the strip mall here, and not one of them had ever been asked by any of their vendors to see their books.
The reason I thought it would be simpler and better as time went on is not that I expect entitlements; my line of thinking is the better it is for comic stores, the better sales are, which means more sales for Diamond.
Recently, a new headache came up. Wizards of the Coast is making things more costly for stores by requiring them to have background checks on their employees that deal with Magic the Gathering. Who gets to pay for the background checks? The stores.
So, still really serious about opening up your own store?
If you are, then you can easily get ready. Save up money. Research. Plan. Have goals for the store other than to make money. Some of ours are to get kids into reading, keep gaming fun and casual, get new people into comics, and so on.
What do you plan to do at your store? Do you want it to be an extension of you? Do you want it to become a typical business where you can step back and have it running on its own and make money? Is the purpose of this store just so you yourself can play games with others? Is this a way to avoid getting a "real" job? I am serious about the last two. People have come in telling me they went to another store and had no idea who the employees were because everyone there was playing games. When multiple people tell me this, it shows that these employees aren't taking the business seriously. I do at times play games at my store, though I also have an employee behind the counter available to help anyone who comes in.
If you want to improve the odds of your newly open store surviving, then being on hand and putting in a lot of work is a good thing. Ideally, as time goes on you can have a staff on hand and work more behind the scenes.
Be ready to adapt. Be ready to still be challenged, even after being in business for years.
At the end of last October, everything looked great. I had an outstanding staff, though I also knew they were overqualified and some would move on — they had degrees in other fields that they would be going into. But I thought I had an ace in the hole — a person who was overqualified, but willing to help. Well, a big corporation with millions snatched them up on me. In no way do I want to hold anyone back, though. I will never be critical of anyone for doing what I would do if I was in their place. The economy is doing great, or so we keep hearing. But Toys 'R' Us is in trouble. Comic sales in 2017 were weak. A comic store here in central Iowa closed at the end of 2017. Magic sales hit a snag in November. But, yet somehow the economy is indeed enjoying low unemployment. Which is great. Everyone that wants a job should be able to work.
Opening up a store is risky. Though, as Captain Kirk would say, "Risks are part of the game if you want to sit in that chair."
The flip side, though, is that when everything is going good and I am feeling invincible, it doesn't last. I get knocked back down to earth usually quickly. Another thing I remember is Han Solo's quote to Luke, "Don't get cocky, kid."
Again, some of these points I have talked about before in previous columns. I thought it might be good to bring some up again.
A business is a gamble. I have been known to gamble. When I gamble, my goal is not to lose more than $60. That is the amount I am comfortable with. I have been told many stories about stores that have not made it and the debt they've accumulated. For that reason, Rodman Comics started out small. At one point I did look at other locations, but decided to stay. Our fixed costs are low. By having them low, I can do things like exclusive Rodman Comic covers, free T-Shirts with the store's logo for our customers, Free Comic Book Day, and more. Does that mean I don't want to see the store grow? Of course not — right now, though, I am glad we are the size we are. People say the internet will kill physical comic stores; heck, I can use the internet to sell. Online, no one cares how big of a physical storefront we have.
In all, my personal opinion and advice for opening up a store is to save up money. Yes, I cannot stress that enough. Prep. Research. Learn. Be prepared for setbacks. People are human. Some will come through and renew your faith in humanity while others will teach you depressing life lessons of how people can be. All part of the fun of dealing with the public and dealing with fellow human beings.
I would wait until the comic market starts to improve before opening. You'll need every advantage when opening up a new store. Open up in an area not being served by an already established store. Why cannibalize a customer base? A new store means a new start with a new customer base.
If you have a question or a subject matter that is comic related and would like a future column to tackle it, feel free to contact Rich Johnson and let him know.
Next week I write about the collector's mentality — what publishers need to do to help get people to stay with collecting and get new people into collecting comics.
Thanks for your time, everyone.