In America's tough economic environment, small businesses close their doors every day — often without many people noticing. But when comic shops get in financial difficulties, a whole community of people are affected, and the response is often significant.
In San Francisco, when the local Comix Experience stores were struggling to keep up with the city's rising minimum wage, fans of the shops rallied in support of owner Brian Hibbs by joining a "Graphic Novel Club" that's helping boost profits. The service, which is available nationally, offers club members monthly picks of new graphic novels chosen by the Comix Experience staff, as well as online access to events and "cool swag."
"We're doing this in order to not close," Hibbs told Newsarama. "It expands the notion of what our store does, which is foster community and promote new comics. And we're trying to do that on a national scale. The intention is to keep the brick and mortar stores going as long as possible. It is my belief that we're going to hit our goal by the time the last of the minimum wage hike happens."
And when the owner of Alternate Realities in Scarsdale, New York, announced he would shut down the store, filmmaker Anthony Desiato (who based the award-winning My Comic Shop DocumentARy film around the store) began chronicling the experience of long-time customers and fans through an ongoing podcast.
"Each week, I'm talking to different people — owners, customers and employees — and the one thing that keeps coming through is just how hard it's hitting all of us, and how devastating it is to lose this hangout, this second home," Desiato said. "The podcast, for me, is sort of therapy. It's my way of coping with it. I wanted to do something creative, and that's what I landed on."
Joe Field, director of the ComicsPRO retailing organization and owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California., said comic shops develop a unique "sense of community" that's rare in other small businesses.
"For customers of comic shops, it's not just the stuff they're buying, but where they're buying it from, and being a part of it," Field said. "That's why digital comics aren't outselling print comics. The community's not there in digital. The comic shop experience is such a personal thing for everyone who's involved with it."
Despite the news about some shops struggling, Field said comic book businesses are doing well overall, with Diamond Comic Distributors reporting to retailers in February that the number of Diamond accounts grew incrementally in 2014. But he said there's always a chance, with small businesses, that something can come along that cuts into margins.
"There are sometimes seemingly little things that can throw a business off course — we've seen recently, the stuff with the minimam wage in San Francisco going up to $15 over the course of the next couple years, and how that's made things almost immediately more difficult for the comic shops there, and other small businesses," Field said. "Every time there's an increase in price somewhere along the way, that's an increase in pressure on a small business."
"The nature of small business is that you're always on the edge," Hibbs agreed. "Most small businesses are not insanely well capitalized, making money hand over fist. Most of us are doing this because we love doing, not because we're making buckets of money doing it. Now, having said that, we've been in business for 26 years. And for every one of those 26 years, we've been profitable. We've never paid a bill late in our entire life. We've always met our financial responsibilities."
"But now we need to grow our business past just the walls of the two stores," Hibbs said. "The walls of the two stores have always been fine up until now, but we need to raise more money outside of that."
With the Graphic Novel Club — as well as the separate Kids' Graphic Novel Club, which features books for boys and girls ages 9 to 13 — Hibbs is able to keep his current staffing level at both Comix Experience stores, while offering an additional service to his customers (and national fans) of the shop who don't even live in San Francisco.
"We're relatively well known as having good aesthetic taste," Hibbs said. "We've got a pretty good reputation. I didn't want to do e-commerce in a way that competed with Amazon or something like that. It's not how I want to sell comics. We want to sell people the comics that we really like — the ones we're really passionate about, the ones we believe in."
Field said the "Graphic Novel Club" idea is not only an example of a comic book community supporting a local shop, but it's also characteristic of the type of evolving that shops have to do to stay economically healthy in a changing comic book market.
"This day and age, where the demographics have changed, and we have all kinds of different people from different backgrounds — male, female, young, old, whatever — coming in, we make a conscious effort to connect with each of them in a way that means something to them," Field said. "That can be giving parents the first comic to give to their brand new baby, or it can be inviting people from the local senior center to come out and check out our nostalgia section. It's all about community."
For Desiato, whose current podcast highlights how attached people are to a comic shop that's closing, it's not his first time experiencing the negative side of comic shop retailing. His documentary By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story (which just won "Best Documentary" at the Phoenix Comicon Film Festival this past weekend) was also based on a comic shop owner who had to shut down his store at a local flea market.
"It's all about his final days at the market, packing everything up — it's really heartbreaking," Desiato said.
Field said ComicsPRO is trying to help new owners navigate the biggest pitfalls for comic shop owners, through mentoring programs. But he said there are never guarantees.
"It looks like an easy business from the outside," Field said. "But the skill set that's needed in order to be a long-term successful retailer, I think, is more than most people really are able to wrap their minds around. Being a small business owner has never been a ticket to luxury, and it's not an easy job. It can be fun, but it is not easy. And when a shop closes, there's a whole community that can potentially die with it."