Happy Harbor - Behind the Counter, Behind the Wheel

Jay Bardyla of Happy Harbor Comics doesn't just think outside the rack. He thinks outside his store, outside his town, outside his country.

For the past two years, the Canadian retailer, 2007 winner of the Joe Shuster Awards' Harry Kremer Award for Outstanding Comic Book Retailer, has taken his customers outside the scenic river valley city of Edmonton, Alberta, 1,800-plus miles to Comic-Con International. His 2008 San Diego Land Cruise took 11 days and covered six U.S. states and a Canadian province.

Why jump from retailer to entertainment director on a cross-country bus trip? On a dare. A part-time employee told him that, as much as his customers always wanted to make the trek to Comic-Con, Happy Harbor should make it happen.

"It was about 5 years ago when he put that seed in my head," Bardyla said. "But about 3 years ago, I decided, let's give it a kick of the can." Bardyla got on the phone and started figuring costs.

Happy Harbor's service makes going to Comic-Con an easier affair. For about $1,700, Happy Harbor handles planning, check-ins, arrangements for passes and entertainment along the way. Bardyla says he doesn't organize the trip to try to gain customers or drum up business – he sees it as a service.

"It certainly was never done with the intention of trying to generate more customers," he said. "It was something cool we could do for our customers, and they could spread the word to their friends, and hopefully geeks can have a good time all around."

Bardyla said the trip continues to evolve, and the second year gave him an opportunity to avoid previous road blocks.

"The first year we went on the trip, I said, what are the cool things to do along the way? Unfortunately that ended up being a huge mistake," Bardyla said. The plan was to drive along the U.S. West Coast, but driving through the mountains and hitting the big cities at peak traffic times slowed the tour down. "By the time we got in and out of Seattle, we hit rush hour. So we got logjammed in Seattle. We were planning to go to the Cartoon Museum in San Francisco, but by the time we were approaching San Francisco, it was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. To get to the museum, you have to get right into San Francisco, and the bus driver said, if we do this, we're not getting out of San Francisco tonight. There's no way, because the traffic is insane."

In 2008, Bardyla took a more direct route. Rather than planning to hit certain big stops, the bus made more small stops and added a two-day stay in Las Vegas.

"Overall, it became a better trip, and everyone had a great time. We'll keep offering up the trip year after year, and as long as it's viable, we'll run with it," he said. Bardyla is also making a splash closer to home. He's raised thousands of dollars toward literacy with his approach to the 24-Hour Comic Day, in which cartoonists stay overnight in a comic book store, attempting to create a complete comic book in 24 hours.

"Every year, if you want to participate at Happy Harbor, and you want to sit there for 24 hours and draw to your heart's content, you have to go out and raise money for the Literacy Foundation of Alberta, which is now called Literacy Alberta," Bardyla said.

How the participants raise the money is up to them, whether it be a page sponsorship, an hourly sponsorship, or just a flat rate. Bardlya said most participants line up multiple sponsors. And Bardyla's efforts to do something good outside the walls of his store haven't gone unrecognized. CTV, one of the major networks in Canada, approached Bardyla to film a 15-second public service announcement promoting 24-Hour Comic Day.

"It was great. You were watching Desperate Housewives, and all of a sudden you see the Happy Harbor logo on there, and you're just like, wow, I never thought I'd see my store having ad time on one of the biggest TV shows in North America," Bardyla said. "And through that, we raised $2,800 in 24 hours for literacy," he said.

"Pretty much all of us learned to read through comics, therefore, why can't we return the favor and help other people learn to read and get all joys and benefits out of it that we do? So that's a very strong motivator for people as well."

Bardlya shared several tips for other stores looking to sponsor big events. "The biggest tip is start far in advance. Inevitably, you'll always end up scrambling for stuff at the last minute, but the further away that you start planning and preparing, the less scrambling you'll do come event time," Bardyla said. "My second thing is, not necessarily get as many people as you can helping you, but get the right people helping you. … As the head organizer you should always be focused on the big stuff, and leave the little things to other people."

Bardyla says comic book stores should be aware of their greatest resource – their customers.

"You can never get to know your customers well enough. And once you learn who your customers are and what they do, you'll be amazed at the contacts that you'll build and the resources you have at your disposal," he said. "I can't do everything myself, and my customers appreciate the things I try to do for them and the community as a whole."

For more information about the Happy Harbor Land Cruise, visit

www.HappyHarborComics.com. To find out more about 24-Hour Comic Day,

visit http://www.24hourcomicsday.com.

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Matt Price is the co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics (www.speedingbulletcomics.com) and blogs daily at Nerdage (http://blog.newsok.com/nerdage)

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