Long Read: An "Extinction Event" for the Comic Shop or "Too Stupid to Quit, Too Dumb to Die"?

Today, I have been talking to comic book retailers, publishers and distributors alike, looking at the effect that the coronavirus pandemic is having on comic book stores and the comics industry as a whole, and it is not looking good. To the extent that this could mean the end of the direct market as we know it. Comic stores have stood stronger than other print media stalwarts like the bookstore and magazine stand, as well as other physical media stores such as HMV, Tower Records, and Virgin. But Bleeding Cool has reported repeatedly in the past that many comic stores survive from one month to the next and that a 10% drop in the comics market could mean that half of comic stores close up shop.

Long Read: Is This An "Extinction Event" For The Comic Shop As We Know It? Or Are They "Too Stupid To Quit, Too Dumb To Die"?
London, England – January 13, 2018: Color comics adverts on a window shop in London, England. Editorial credit: Alexandru Nika / Shutterstock.com

Well, we have seen a much greater dip than that in just the past two weeks. If we do see a large collapse of a lot of stores, the debt that they owe Diamond Comic Distributors would likely sink Diamond too. And no one has the ability to scale up infrastructure for a replacement worldwide distribution system like Diamond these days. Comic publishers would be shutting up shop too.

The cracks are starting to show. Diamond UK will be getting their comics two day late next week, with comics going on sale on Thursday. After that – well there may not be any more deliveries at all, also at a time where Comixology have put the European price of comic books up by between 50-70% overnight.

While publishers are talking about reducing the number of titles they offer for July significantly, pulling back on already-announced projects and events, looking for a hardcore of top-selling books and stripping away anything that might otherwise just help them get the numbers up. There are also talks about a top-down emergency relief plan from the big publishers to help the two thousand-plus comic stores on which so much of those publisher's continued profitability depends. There's even talk of dropping digital comic books entirely in the short term, to bolster comic store performance.

I talked to a lot of retailers. A lot. And while there are mixed experiences, everyone is aware of the serious and significance of what is happening right now.

Brian Hibbs of Comix Experience, San Francisco, told me,

"We are closed to walk-in trade, as mandated by the government. My expectation is that we are the "canary" on this, and such closures will go wider and wider over the next two weeks, possibly culminating in Martial Law. It's possible things could be shut down for months. Sales are radically off (duh), and even our aggressive attempts to setup curbside pickup, shipping, or pay-now-we'll-hold-your-books have yielded a tiny fraction of the income we need to remain viable without drastic intervention by the largest publishers. What we NEED is an immediate extension in everyone's sales terms by at least 30 days, and probably more like 90, as well as all shipments from 3/16 and later being fully returnable via affidavit. We need production of marginal material (15k or fewer copies might be a rational line?) to be paused or cancelled. And so on. Every Bleeding Cool reader should (RIGHT NOW, *before* things get further shut down!) set up a preorder list with their LOCAL comics store, because stores everywhere are starting to slash their non-returnable orders. Let your local store know you support them. Make no mistake: this is an extinction-level event for the Direct Market, but cool hands and firm leadership from the top could absolutely mitigate a significant portion of the damage, if not eliminate it outright. There is an amount of volume that, if lost, means that selling comics are therefore non-viable as a business. If the bottom third of stores goes away, the overwhelming majority of Marvel and DC comics will suddenly become deeply unprofitable, which could crush out the next third of stores. DC and Marvel need to be showing serious leadership right now. It's been 72 hours of silence instead."

Calum Johnston (no relation) at Strange Adventures in Canada told me that he agreed with the motto "too stupid to quit, too dumb to die" and that he was,

"offering pick-up curbside, doing deliveries, stepping up our mail orders, working on improving our web presence. Trying to think of other things to do as well if you have any ideas. Checking in with some of my colleagues to see what they're having to deal with and sharing ideas and support whenever possible. I'll be slinging comics in some form or other for the rest of my days, but that's all I can be sure of at this point."

Enrique Munoz, owner of Comic Hero University in Fullerton, California, told me,

"I choose to stay optimistic while still being realistic about the current situation. Yesterday, comic book Wednesday, we had customers that came out and thanked me for being open. The business day ended at a 30% drop for me from a normal Wednesday. I am sure that it's going to drop harder as the days go on. The most frustrating thing for me is the lack of any real help from Diamond and the big two. Image sent out a public message that was something any of those three could have said. Diamond's only help so far has been, if you need to close your store, call us so we can stop your account. Really?! Thanks, guys! Marvel's response was to offer digital copies to buyers. That's a great way to lose every reader. No official word from DC, but I'd prefer silence to what these other two are saying. With Amazon going essential only, it's a matter of time before UPS and all mail carriers do the same. I think it's time for discussions to be had that simply hit the pause button on comics. Everyone is working from home, Marvel, Diamond, and DC, but we're still forced to be out there selling comics and risking our health. We're still being invoiced and charged for the product. Look at what's happening with the biggest entertainment industry in the world, the movies. All theaters are closed. TV shows are stopping production. Movies are being delayed indefinitely. Let's follow the lead of these giants and do the same. As I mentioned earlier, I'm optimistic. Putting a pause on things will be like when a tv show goes on a midseason break. The people are still there to watch when it returns. Depending on what the world is like on the other side of this, there's no reason to think comic readers wouldn't be the same. I think the idea needs to be discussed before the rug gets pulled out from underneath us and they are forced to stop. We need to figure out what our options are going to be when that happens because it is going to be eventual. We need to stop thinking about how to make extra money and start thinking about what we do with a long term pause of comics publishing and distributing. I'm still young enough to where I can find another line of work. I want to sell comics. I want to read comics. We'll figure this situation out and we'll deal with the consequences. For now, everyone should be home with families worried about having enough food to last this thing instead of worried about a Diamond bill or if a pull subscription is going to get canceled."

 Stephen Korka, of Korka Comics in South Florida, with three locations serving Miami, Coral Gables and Fort Lauderdale told me,

"Thanks for reaching out. Of course during these uncertain times everyone is hurting economically from the top down. The service, entertainment and retail industry (excluding Amazon and Walmart apparently) are hurting in a great way. The comic book market fuels a loyal fan base but is supported by people with disposable income. Given the current state of the economy, disposable income is not a reality for most. In the market of print media which arguably is slowly dying off as younger generations move away from traditional reading material, this is concerning. Comic shops are for the most part the very definition of small business in America. Less than 10 employees, in a lot of instances ran by families. With the increasing cost of rent in many areas of the country, many shops have a very small cushion to protect them from closure, but can't afford days let alone weeks of closure to pay their rent. In addition as many know, Diamond Comics is the only distributor if you want to sell comics. As of March 19, 2020 they are continuing to send orders weekly and requiring payment as usual. Keep in mind these orders that are being sent were ordered months in advance, with the opportunity to adjust a few weeks out from ship date. With the massive drop in business, many shop owners would probably like to adjust if not cancel their orders all together. There are some publishers that have been pro-active in recognizing the hardships shops around the world are experiencing. Image, Dark Horse, Vault, have all allowed for full returnability. Though this helps, retailers are waiting on the big two Marvel and DC Comics to take action. We as shop owners know that all the publishers and distributors across the board are going to take hits here. Though nobody wants that, these companies will lose a large chunk of their market share when their customers, the shops that provide to the customers are no longer in operation. The solution is simple though many want to paint is as difficult; all rent and mortgages need to be suspended. Creditors need to suspend late payments and interest, not forgive debt owed, just suspend it. Utilities need to suspend payments. Diamond Comics and other distributors such as EE Distribution, Funko, Hasbro, etc need to suspend any shipments and money owed. Yes all of these companies will take a hit and they like small business owners, consumers and just people in general will have to look for support from our government. The world has never experienced something like this. We are economically paralyzed everywhere. The rules are being written as we go and we are in a moment of conscience and doing the right thing above profit and status quo."

Long Read: Is This An "Extinction Event" For The Comic Shop As We Know It? Or Are They "Too Stupid To Quit, Too Dumb To Die"?
Johannesburg, South Africa – July 05 2011: Inside interior of a Comic Book Store
Editorial credit: Sunshine Seeds / Shutterstock.com

Edward Greenberg of Collector's Paradise in Winnetka, Noho and Pasadena, California, told me,

"So far, we have been able to do fine, through social reach to our customers, some new procedures which are working well, like curbside pick ups, shipping out orders and offering free shipping to local customers. We have cut our orders in FOC to the bone and have asked several vendors that we order direct from (FUNKO…) to reduce upcoming orders placed. We have not cut employee hours this week, as we are open, with our regular schedule. Tuesday was one of our biggest Tuesdays ever due to customer support for our efforts, and Wednesday was fantastic too. We are waiting to see what our local and state government plans to do as far as closures, and have a plan in place for that, ready to announce to our customers if closures are announced. Long term health of our industry really depends on what Marvel, DC and Diamond decide to do in the next 48 hours. I applaud Eric Stephenson from Image Comics for having such an amazing understanding of our industry's interests. Image's public behavior this week has earned them a lot of future consideration with my three stores, for sure. Retailers remember how publishers treat them. Boom's success this past year has a lot to do with how they treat retailers. We have ordered a lot of products in advance for many years, not returnable and totally on our dime. This crisis needs to be shouldered by Diamond and the big publishers like Marvel and DC. I find it outrageous that smaller publishers who do not have the financial giants like AT&T and Disney behind them, GET our situation. Dynamite, Devils Due, Image and others have taken on the burden for their products offering returnability or delaying products all together. If Marvel and DC don't do the same, many of us will not be here a year from now."

Michael Lerner, the owner of Pulp Fiction in Culver City, California told me,

"I don't want to be one of those "sky is falling" people, but I've been saying what you wrote below for a while, basically, most stores probably survive month to month, and any kind of event (like say Marvel deciding to self distribute comics digitally via their website) or disaster (like this coronavirus) that disrupts the entire industry, could very well end the industry as we know it. And its not just comic book stores in this case, I think you are going to see radical changes in peoples lives, behavior, income, etc, and all this will change the entire retail environment everywhere, as we know it. The scary part is the vast majority of people seem to think this is going away or be a lot better in 2 weeks or a month. They don't seem to realize we don't have a cure, that all we are doing right now is trying to keep the disease to a manageable level. I have a background in biology, and unfortunately know we are, best case scenario, probably 18 months from a vaccine available to the public, and probably another several months to produce the amount of vaccine needed, not to mention trying to inoculate billions of people…not a pretty picture. Basically what we are seeing right now might be the new norm for the next couple of years. And retail will have to adapt if it wants to survive. Realistically mail order (Amazon) will probably thrive. Telecommuting will become much more the norm (one of the few "winners" in all this will be the environment). Socializing is going to be mostly digital. And most retail as we know it might be gone…I don't know too many restaurants, bars, brick and mortar retail stores that can survive with just curb side pick up (if that's even allowed). These businesses will have less customers, as a fair amount of people will have less money, having had their hours cut back or lost their jobs altogether. Even the people with jobs/money will probably be less inclined to spend on discretionary type items (like comics). And two years down the line, peoples behaviors and patterns will have changed, and the public may be used to doing everything at home / digitally at that point…who knows if we ever lure enough of them back to brick and mortar establishments. Best we (retail store owners) can do is make changes to how we do business, and hope enough people keep coming in….and hope the various publishers and Diamond keep sending us comics! Keep working and fighting til there's nothing to fight for!! Here at Pulp Fiction we are already changed our methods of operation, setting up a curbside pickup program and we are working on a way to get our customers their weekly comics via mail if they don't want to come in – because we would be shipping locally, our post office tells us if we ship out Tuesday, our customers will still have their comics on Wednesday, so they won't lose that "new comics Wed" experience and have their comics same time as everyone else …and we are looking into doing some kind of Facebook / live group chat, with other programming as well, on Wednesdays, trying to create a "virtual comic book store" visit for all those that miss us and that trip to the store…will keep you updated and get you a link if/when we do this, I think its something all stores should explore."

John Robinson of Graham Crackers Comics with twelve stores across the US had a more blatant appeal,

"We heard from IMAGE COMICS here. We then heard from DYNAMITE COMICS here. Why 24-48 hours later haven't we heard from MARVEL COMICS or DC COMICS ? Are these not the two industry leaders? How are they leading? Do they both seriously think it's business at normal? Why no PR statement on how they're addressing this crisis by working with their retailer and distributor partners – aside from extra cleaning and letting some staff work from home?"

Robert Josephson of Mayhem Collectibles in Des Moines and Ames in Iowa adds,

"These are troubling times. No comic shop of medium to small size can afford to close. Unless a plan to compensate from the state and government comes to life, very soon. I have staff who have reported that they will not work until the middle of April…due to the possibility of contracting Covid-19. We are cleaning and sanitizing as much as possible, but the inevitability is how soon before we are closed? I hope to find that answer to keep my employees safe and keep my business going. Just as I'm typing this another employee has called to say that she had to move home because of the college eviction. This is a most frightening time."

James Borders Jr had only just opened a comic book store in January, ComixLounge, located in Escondido, California. He told me,

"this virus is definitely effecting us along with every small business in America. We'll be starting a GoFundMe to hopefully get some donations to help pay the rent because our Landlord and banks do not seem to care about the impact this has on our newly formed shop, and want their money in full and on time. Marvel isn't helping any by continually pushing product that people do not want, and locking things that people do want behind ridiculous meet or exceed qualifications. DC seems to want to follow their lead into obscurity. The independent publishers like Ablaze and Source Point Press remind me of Image in their early days, and they give me hope for the future of comics. We'll see, things definitely need to change, and change fast, to get people back on-board. We have a different business model than most comic stores as we also serve the gaming community with our gaming lounge (tabletop, trading card, RPG, console, VR) so hopefully that helps us out because we are still open, and people need somewhere to go while they're stuck at home and out of work."

Scott and Chris of Pastimes Comics, Games, Gifts & More of Asheville North Carolina, tell us,

"We always try to remain positive in trying times and at this moment in time (3-19-2020) we are remaining open our regular hours, massively sanitizing and cleaning (we always have though) and keeping a decent distance from each other. As all of this goes on, we are watching business increase. We have had a store close in the last couple of weeks, and most of the increase, I'm sure, comes from that. We really read our comics and focus on them and not much else, so the people in town are coming to us for things that are being missed. Having said that, we are always monitoring any and all rules and complying with anything we are told. There are never times when the store has and over abundance of people in it and we are pretty keen on saying things like, "We'd love to have our normal conversations but we have to keep it brief today." We are also offering a curbside pick-up, or you can paypal us and we can mail your books to you. Image Comics and their FOC return-ability program are an amazing thing, just like everything BOOM is doing to help stores out. I don't see how increasing my orders more than I normally would, could help bolster business but the thought is an amazing and generous one. We don't like the thought of shops that would order more product than they can realistically sell and Image have to take it back, that seems like it would cause more damage down the road, but that's with not much understanding of how Image Comics (or publishers in general) operates. Remember though, you'll still be out the money for the price of the book until it is made returnable. We would love to hear anything from Marvel or DC about maybe overshipping side books, 1-shots or mini-series and overall reduce the number of titles they are putting out, especially with things like Empyre and Death Metal. Get a great core group of books, focus on them and the sales will come. We look at FOC every Friday and will see what adjusting we need to do at that point. We don't see the collapse of the market as anything but more of the same talk we've heard for many, many years. There will definitely be an altered convention scene, but how deeply it affects our store will be minimal as we take part in very few conventions as professionals. Whether that comes across as naive or crass, it's not meant to be either. It's meant in a, let's try to stay positive, mode. Honestly we really just want everyone to be safe, do what you need to do to protect you and your loved ones, and let us know how we can help."

Long Read: Is This An "Extinction Event" For The Comic Shop As We Know It? Or Are They "Too Stupid To Quit, Too Dumb To Die"?
NEW YORK CITY – NOVEMBER 30, 2018: Fantastic Four Comics in a comics shop. This comic has been the first from Marvel.
Editorial credit: GagliardiPhotography / Shutterstock.com

Brandon of Brandon's Comics in Tempe, Arizona is even more optimistic, saying,

"I think that you are jumping the gun. Stores that don't understand how to use ebay and social media are going to take a big hit. I feel that if they don't understand how to use these things they need to do what I did and find someone younger to teach you. I have talked to every single customer I have about what they do for a living, how this has affected them and some have actually got more overtime and others have even got raises. Let's face it. Nerds are smart, this is why we have good jobs and education. We will prevail. Diamond is letting us hold off on orders if things get crazy for the stores. They said to just let them know when to stop and start again which is fantastic. A store owner holding an order for a week or two to regroup wouldn't be a bad idea. It's not throwing in the white flag. Talk to your customers and explain. You're not going to lose them, they will respect what your going through and be loyal as long as you have been loyal to them. I'm more worried about my parents. People are going to flood the market with keys and you are going to see a decline in high-end books, but it will make more people happy, But, as soon as Cons come around people will be back to spending and those people buying keys right now WILL MAKE OUT! Fewer Diamond accounts means fewer sold comic books. I feel the demand will be there, but you WILL have a spike in new release sales on eBay. People are about to pay top dollar for things that just came out. Flippers will make money. My eBay is going nuts right now."

Chris Galloway of Top Dog Comics in Augusta, Georgia also sees the bright side, saying,

"Here at our store we have seen very little slow down. We sell not only new and old comics, but also toys, games, and sports cards. We did start offering curbside pick up this week and so far 1 person has used that option. We also offer shipping and some customers have used that as well. I have always set goals and watched daily customer count and yesterday (Wednesday) where we usually have 60-75+ people in, we had 51 through the door. Only 3 "normal" Wednesday subscribers didn't come in yesterday. We are taking extra cleaning measures, but otherwise its business as normal. We sell fun and many people find that to be "essential" especially when times get tough. I have placed extra restocking orders for trade paperbacks, games, sports cards and comic/card supplies to make sure that we have plenty of inventory to cover our customer's wants and needs in case of the distribution centers having to make cuts on shipping and replenishment. We strive not only for great customer service here but also we treat our customers like close friends/family, they come in not only to get the collectibles they love but to share some laughs or to vent about their stress, or tell us about their week (good and bad), and this week they have come in to share some laughs and escape from to stresses the world has moved into during this trying time. I can't speak to the direct market collapsing, but I can tell you that here we keep the world spinning as best we can with a clean store, a positive and friendly staff, and we just try to help our community make the best of every day."

There seems a strong call for a consolidation of comic book products in the months ahead, and extension of payment terms and returnability across the board and maybe, just maybe, comic stores will be able to pull through. But plenty are hurting now and some have already closed permanently. I understand that there are high-level meetings going on right now, I hope that they take into account some of the issues being raised right here, right now, on Bleeding Cool. If any other retailers would like to comment, in the knowledge that you will get the ears of the industry, please e-mail richjohnston@bleedingcool.com and we will run a follow-up tomorrow.

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

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