Where most areas - even big cities - in the United States might be home to one, maybe two comic book stores, New York City might have the largest concentration per capita of funny-book purveyors. More than that, New York hosts not just big chains, like Midtown Comics, but also a plethora of smaller, independent comic book shops, like Brooklyn’s Bergen Street and Desert Island. So MoCCA Fest was the perfect place to host a discussion about the art - and commerce - of running a comic book store.
The panel was anchored by the CBLDF’s Alex Cox - himself a former store owner, of the much beloved Rocketship in Brooklyn - with Tucker Stone (Manager, Bergen Street Comics), Gabe Fowler (Desert Island Comics), Thor Parker (Midtown Comics), and Robert Conti (Manhattan Comics, and Brooklyn Comics) on the panel.
The first topic of discussion was curation, with Cox turning to Fowler - as Desert Island has the smallest floor space. “It’s similar to deciding what you want to cram into your apartment,” said Fowler. “I never say no to a kid who walks in with stuff they’ve made... I was once just like those kids, so I want to be more accepting of that. I don’t think that’s a curatorial process. That implies you say no a lot, and I don’t do that.”
On the other hand, Conti finds it changes from area to area: “Our Brooklyn store is what I’d call a boutique store, because we have two middle schools around us. Archie outsells Batman there, two to one - which is crazy.”
Moving to talk about kids comics - and kids buying comics - Stone chimed in, “If somebody is an adult, they’ll buy comics from anybody... But kids are pure. They like comics for qualitative purposes only. If something isn’t good, they won’t read it. Kids are the absolute best audience for comics, and dealing with them is the most satisfying thing I get to do. When parents find a store that will cater to their kids, and not just to them... They’ll come back.”
Talking about keeping more adult comics away from kids, Conti lamented that he now has to read everything to make sure the books are, in fact appropriate for children. Stone jumped in, joking that, “I think DC and Marvel have been really helpful in making... Hideous, s**t comics, so when [customers] see Bone, they see it’s well drawn.”
Turning to Parker, Cox asked about community outreach at Midtown Comics. “Having Marvel and DC blocks away from our store is really advantageous for us,” said Parker, adding that when writers and artists are in town, it’s easier to have them in the store for a signing or talk, because of the distance. Fowler added, about his own events that, “reading a comic is a private experience, while watching a band is a public appearance. I try to bring the band experience to comic events.”
Cox then started a discussion about how things have changed in retail over the years. “Stores, in a way, have become showrooms,” said Conti, talking about how customers will check prices on their phones before buying. “The customer has become my biggest competitor because of smartphones.” Fowler agreed with this point, asking that he politely asks people not to use the phones in their store. On the other hand, Stone said that, “Any customer who is going to come into our store to buy things purely on a price level is only going to be satisfied by the Internet.”
Interestingly, Parker said that Midtown is taking the opposite tact, launching an App for the iPhone that lets customers check for prices online, as well as buy back issues from the chain’s warehouse while still inside a physical storefront. Stone agreed, saying that he felt no customer would walk into a store, get ready to buy something on their phone, and then say, “Wait, no, I’m NOT. I’m coming here every week from now on!” He clarified that people will buy where they want to buy, a retailer just needs to make their store as appealing and inviting as they can for the customers who want to be there.
Cox then went back to Stone’s comment about s**t comics, asking how you sell something you don’t like. “I thought people wanted to sell people what they like,” said Stone, “but it’s way more interesting to me to find out what people like, and help them find that.”
“I think one of the reasons we’ve done so well is that our owners came in as businessmen, not as comic book fans,” added in Parker, clarifying that they’ve become comic book fans over time, but that’s always kept Midtown focused on the bottom line - rather than over-ordering books for the sake of fandom.
The panel then opened to questions, with the first question addressing how Manga sells in their stores. Parker said that Midtown orders about 80% of what’s in Previews, though they had to scale it down. However, he added that with bookstores purging their content, sales have been going up rather than down. “If your store doesn’t stock Manga now, don’t invest in it,” said Parker, but clarified that if you do already carry Manga, stick with it.
The next question was about how you open a store and make it financially viable, to eyerolls from the panel. Cox jumped in, saying, “It changes from community, it changes from street to street... It’s impossible to answer.” Stone added that he felt comics is one of the only industries where, “Commerce has always won,” but that you can’t let that dictate what you do in the long - or short run.
This was followed up with a question from The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald about the utility of pull lists. Conti said that he has customers who want the Pull List - and those who don’t - but that, “We’ve got roughly five hundred dedicated customers who are coming in every Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, and their buying habits stay the same.” Stone chimed in that Bergen won’t be buying Before Watchmen, except for customers who pulled it now. “We won’t have it on the wall,” said Stone. “It’s not useful for graphic novels, it’s not useful for small press... It’s only useful for the weekly stuff.”
ComiXology’s David Steinberger then asked Stone from the audience to clarify why Bergen isn’t selling Before Watchmen, to which Stone said, “We’re gonna lose money, we’ll probably lose customers... It was a decision that was made. When I heard that decision, I said that’s a bad idea... That’s an explanation that I’ll have to give over and over again. As time has gone on, as I’ve seen online response to that project... This is just gross, and we don’t want to be part of this one. We’ll participate with the grossness they did to Kirby on the Avengers books, but this one...”
After that, a regular guy who was an actual audience member, and not a reporter or owner of a popular digital comics outlet asked what the retailers sell on their website. Fowler said that he only sells books they make themselves: “Everything else is sold elsewhere,” said Fowler. “I don’t want to compete with that.” Parker, on the other hand, said that Midtown considers their website - and their warehouse in Queens - their fourth “location.” “It’s a very healthy stream of revenue, we have subscribers all over the world,” said Parker.
And that was it! All the audience members left to open their own comic book stores, and the industry was saved. The end.