Look At Where We Are & Where We Started – Comic Store In Your Future

Rod Lamberti of Rodman Comics of Ankeny, Iowa, writes Comic Store In Your Future weekly for Bleeding Cool. Find previous columns here.

2020 forced the comic industry to change. Resistance to change is human nature. Knowing what to expect is comforting. Being in a routine is comforting. Change happens; rather, we want it or not.

On October 10th, we will celebrate ten years of Rodman Comics. More recently, I started writing for Bleeding Cool. When I first starting writing these, my goal was to help people who were interested in opening their own comic store. Why? I went through an expensive education. My plan for what the store was and what I thought it should be was not sustainable. I had to change. A Year One comic store owner is quite different than today's comic store owner. I had no desire to change; I was ignorant and proud. I thought I had the answers to open a store. My love of comics and will power would guide me through, I eagerly believed—thousands of dollars later and the realization that this might not work out. I decided if this did not work out, it would not be for lack of trying. I would not just give up. I also decided I needed a line in the sand of how much I was willing to lose as reality set in.

Look At Where We Are and Where We Started, Comic Store In Your Future
Photo from Rodman Comics – Comic Store In Your Future.

I did a lot of foolish things when I first opened. What did and did not work for me does not mean it will or not work for another store. Each store is different due to location and customers. Here in Ankeny, Iowa, we have a population of over 65,000 people. Not exactly Houston, Texas, or New York, New York population levels. However, our rent is a lot lower.

One of the first things I quickly reversed was not selling online. My original thought was, I wanted as much material available as possible here for in-store customers. What happened? Often that hot comic, that could have sold online for a pretty penny dropped in value. A comic that could have sold online for $40 when it was hot dropped to $10 or lower. Especially when we first opened. Meaning, we had a small customer base due to being new. Selling online became a good revenue stream. I started with eBay. I tried going the cheap route with online selling through our website. I learned going cheap could cost a lot of time and headaches. I lost a lot of time and went through a lot of aggravation trying to get the online market place on the cheap. Our online market place does not do a lot of online sales, though it is good for showing what we carry. If someone googles us, they learned we carry trades, statues, graded comics, Heroclix, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, shirts, and more. They may see something they are interested in and, if they are in the area, decide to check out the store in person.

I designed the back issue bins so I could put countertops on top of them and play HeroClix. The original HeroClix maps were much bigger. On the day we opened, I learned the hard way that Magic the Gathering happened to have a brand new set released on that day. I did not even know Magic the Gathering the card game was still around. I had played it back in the 90s, even going over to the owner of Dragonfire Comics to play it with groups. For whatever reason, after a few years, we stopped playing the game, and Dragonfire stopped carrying it. We just drifted out of the game. I would learn that Magic the Gathering was still around the hard way on opening day. I would also be hard-headed and not carry Magic for a while, despite the many requests that I do. My attitude was, this store would be for purely comics and comic related material such as HeroClix. After finally breaking down and carrying Magic, it proved to be another good revenue stream. Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic the Gathering, has less interest in stores such as ours as the years have gone on. For years we used to be able to order directly from Wizards of the Coast and had great customer service. Sadly, at least for us, Wizards of the Coast stopped selling directly. Wizards of the Coast has been pushing for stores to become "premium" stores. Stores are more dedicated to gaming and pushing their products. Thankfully our main focus on selling and not gaming helped us a lot this year. Meaning stores with gaming spaces could not use them for a while or still are unable to due to the coronavirus.

A big mistake I made was going along with what other stores do; free gaming. Gaming stores took one of the things that people can not do online and made it free. Going to a bowling alley, one rents a lane to bowl on. The theory of allowing free gaming is that by allowing people to play for free, they will buy while they are in store such as one does at a bar. For us, we just had a bunch of freeloaders. We were babysitting for free, while actual babysitters made more money. Customers would ask me why I did not have more gaming events, and I would tell them too many people hang out for free and point out things they did not notice before. Soon people would be telling me how they went to another store and noticed no one was spending any money. Everyone was hanging out for free. They weren't doing anything "wrong." Hanging out at a business for free was allowed. When we had Magic Appreciation (Magic the Gathering version of Free Comic Book Day), our store was the most packed it had ever been with people. Sales were almost non-existent, a few sodas and waters sold. A waste of time. Something Wizards of the Coast must have decided because they ended Magic Appreciation, and the players did not even notice. We ended free gaming, and though had fewer people showing up for paid gaming events, sales were much better. The freeloaders stopped coming, and more people that were willing to spend money started coming due not being crowded out by freeloaders. Also, odd fact, after ending free gaming, we have not had to plunge the toilet. Clog free for years now.

Oh, the good old days, this one I still shake my head about. When I first started holding gaming events here, I would play with them. On Friday, we would close at eight and then start gaming. Friday nights at first were for Heroclix, and Saturdays were for Magic. Yes, we at first did not do Friday Night Magic. By playing with gamers, I thought it would help build a connection. I was very wrong. It was time I should have been using to work. And of course, the Magic players that I did actually build a connection with back then ended up moving.

Desperate, that is how I was during our first year. Working a lot and not making money. People would seize on that and try to low ball me. Basically, try to take advantage. I learned once you give a person who asks for a discount on something, they expect one every time. Discounts are for sales days. I still get people who want something for less, though now I just tell them no, and it is a lot less of a headache. Granted, I get some people upset when I tell them no. "What, you don't want to sell anything?" If I let people set their own prices, we will be out of business in no time. I would love to buy a new Corvette for ten grand or less, though Chevrolet, the company behind Corvettes, would lose money. Many people do not care if another person loses money as long as they feel they are getting a "deal."

I was worried about the wrong numbers. Selling is the most important thing we do. It brings in cash flow. Sales and profit are the numbers we need to be most concerned about. Facebook likes, Google reviews, online reviews, are not nearly as important. When dealing with large groups of people, it is impossible to keep everyone happy. We do not have an adult comic section; that person was disappointed. We are not going to start one. We can order adult comics for people if they like, though we try to be a family-friendly store. People get upset when told no. We can not allow people to set their own prices. Selling everything for a penny would be putting ourselves out of business. Entitlement is very common nowadays, unfortunately.

Long term planning. When we first opened, my plan was ordering for the long term. Meaning, I order a lot of a first issue, so down the road, we would have them for new customers to start a series. Ten years ago, that seemed like a good plan. Long term was not Marvel's publishing plan. Captain Marvel, Captain America, Thor, Avengers, and so many other Marvel titles have been restarted so often that people really do not care for the series previous first issue. New people often see so many different first issues and are puzzled by the numbering. Just trying to find the right volume of an issue number from a past issue with all the different covers can be challenging. Marvel would even get lazy and reuse Marvel Now for another wave of titles. DC New 52 issues other than Batman (which oddly enough are more in demand than older Rebirth Batman issues), Green Lantern, and Aquaman are dead here in store. Comic publishers have forced comic stores to be short term. Meaning, get a comic out the door as soon as possible. In my experience, this also hurts trade paperback sales. Who wants a new 52 Action Comics trade even though it is by Grant Morrison or any Marvel trades from either Marvel Now eras? The material is not that old, though it has no bearing on currently published comics.

The customer is not always right.

How could one make so many mistakes? I learned that to change and grow, I needed to learn. Making mistakes is how one learns. I started saying a lot here, "We can try something new, and if it doesn't work, we can change it or not try it again." Having egg on my face was worth growing the business. Swallowing my ego allows me to try to change for the better. At times as a comic store owner, the change will be forced. This year is a lot of forced change. There was a lot of outcry over DC leaving Diamond. Somehow the end of the comic industry would happen. Overlooked was that Diamond failed to ship comics and was unable to pay the publishers. The comic industry has not grown for years. A shakeup needed to happen. Repeating the same thing over and over again (for twenty-five years) and expecting different results is insane. As I have written in the past, I thought having only Diamond as the sole middleman to ship comics was a bad idea. My example was, what would happen if Diamond had a warehouse fire? I also wrote about how, when I went to up my terms with Diamond, they wanted to see the stores' financial books, just to give me one more week to pay the Diamond invoice. I thought, wouldn't it be more important for me to see Diamond's books? Apparently that line of thought was more important than I thought. Diamond basically closed due to cash flow issues. Comic stores will have a tough time selling new comics if none are coming out.

With all the mistakes I have made, with all of the changes that have happened in the comic industry, why do I keep doing this? My love of comics is still there. My customer base is the best it has ever been. We have always had some great people customer wise. We have been lucky to get even more great people as customers. I never opened the store to make more friends. I thought as an owner; I would have to keep "space" when we first opened between myself and customers. Currently, we have a lot of great people as customers, and that makes it all worth it.

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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