Comic book retailers, many of which are small businesses with few employees, are already experiencing significant changes because of COVID-19 — with canceled events and lowering sales. But they’re bracing for even greater negative impact in the coming weeks.
“I think this will have a dramatic impact on the market,” said G. Scott Tomlin, whose two stores — Comics Dungeon in Seattle and Corner Comics in Kirkland, Wash. — are at the epicenter of one of the hardest hit communities in Washington state.
“Many stores are on a razor’s edge already. I would expect this will push many stores over the edge. The timing is not good for our industry,” he said.
Small Businesses Most Affected
Joe Field, the well-known California retailer who came up with the idea for Free Comic Book Day, agreed that most comic book stores are too small to survive significant decreases in sales or any major changes made by the government or publishers.
“If the government mandates closure of small businesses, it's going to seriously impact the whole of the comics business,” said Field, who owns Flying Color Comics in Concord, Calif. “Many retailers might be able to go a couple of weeks with no business or greatly reduced sales, but anything more than that and things will look bleak for lots of shops. I've done my best to run this business in a responsible way, making sure to have some operating capital. But I really doubt that'll be enough if this situation goes on for months.”
Tomlin said he hasn’t seen a reduction in regular customers to the stores — although he’s expecting it — but the restrictions on events has already negatively affected his Washington stores.
“Without a doubt, COVID-19 has already cost us tens of thousands of dollars in revenue with the cancelation of two local comic shows,” Tomlin said. “Additionally we had two signing events canceled. All of this happened after we placed higher orders for those events. We are already talking to vendors and services we owe money to, so we can make arrangements.”
Leo McGovern, buyer at Crescent City Comics in New Orleans, said he has little worry short-term, because they’re accustomed to having low foot traffic either during hurricane crises or summer in general. “But the biggest future problem might be unsold stock — if we're closed for any long stretch of time and are forced to pay for product we can't sell,” McGovern said. “We're taking a hard look at FOC numbers and debating how much to cut back.”
Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie’s Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz., is one of the smallest shops we surveyed, which presents another problem:
If he gets sick, the shop will have to close.
“As the two weeks paid leave doesn't apply to small businesses, I need to keep the money flowing or lose my business and my home,” Harris said.
That said, retailers like Harris are trying to be proactive. Harris has scheduled a half-off sale for Saturday, but then Harris is closing the doors starting Sunday to minimize public contact. “While I'll be at the shop, customers will call or email ahead for appointments to pick up their books,” he said. “No more walk-ins.”
Benn Ray, owner of Atomic Books in Baltimore, Md., has also decided to go ahead and close the inside of the store until the end of March. He and his employees will instead get customers their books via home delivery, by appointment (at the door) or through their online store.
“We want everyone to stay safe and healthy, and closing feels like the responsible thing to do,” Ray said. “You can email or message or place orders online for pick up or local deliveries within two miles of the shop. You can contact us to shop by appointment. Subscribers, we'll still have your books for you, so just knock.”
Cliff Biggers, owner of Dr. No’s Comics & Games SuperStore in Marietta Ga., said he’s making plans to run books to customers’ cars or send pull lists via mail for the next few weeks. He’s also trying to keep all his employees working and earning money, even in the expected sales downturn.
“We are aware that potential problems could have major effects on our business,” Biggers said. But he added that although the store is important to him, his employees are more important.
Ryan Seymore of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio, is offering mail order subscription to all pull customers, and Kyle Puttkammer, owner of Galactic Quest in Buford, Ga., and Lawrenceville, Ga., is hoping the extra time at home might get comic book fans to buy reading material and entertainment products.
“We are encouraging families to discover new board games to pass the time,” he said. “Our larger gaming events like regionals will be certainly affected, but we've seen a lot of ups and downs in our 30-year history. We currently have an excellent team and have plans in place if things change. There's always something to do at the shops, especially with the recent collections we've been buying.”
Retailers are also keeping an eye on the distribution network that gets their product to them each week, as well as the feasibility of Free Comic Book Day, which is scheduled for May 2. And if the government begins closing all non-essential businesses, it would be disastrous for the future of the direct market.
“The downturn customer traffic will be a lot worse if there are restrictions on deliveries, the shipping of product from one side of the country to the other and the interruption of production,” said Field of Flying Color Comics.
“Sad to say it likely wouldn’t take too much of a disruption to put some shops out of business. If any of our main suppliers are forced into an interruption of their production, it could have ripple effects through the industry,” he added. “It’s really the domino effect. When sales decline, there’s likely to be a decline in work hours available for staff.”
“I expect Diamond and UPS as well as the printers and publishers to have to deal with reduced work forces or companies being shut down,” Harris said.
McGovern in New Orleans said that, although he’s hopeful that we won't see a large chunk of store closures, he does fear it could happen. “Ultimately, if a chunk of the direct market falls, the corporate publishers may find it easier to create direct-to-consumer platforms for print comics to be sold through, or move lower-selling titles to digital only,” he said.
“Honestly it could be catastrophic,” said Seymore of Columbus’ Comic Town. “Sales dropping, cash flow dying and the looming threat of nonessential businesses being closed including our industry. What also would be a death bell would be UPS, the Post Office and FedEx needing to close.”
“We are also keeping an eye on how our distributors and Free Comic Book Day might be affected,” Puttkammer said.
“So far, we’re just trying to be smart the way we do our business and we’ll do our best to ride this all the way out,” Field said.
Overall, however, comic shop owners are hoping their preparations will bring them through the challenges ahead — and that similar efforts in the community will bring their customers and employees through safely as well. And although we all care about the direct market, retailers understand that it’s still just entertainment.
“Typically I am a glass half full kind of person,” Seymore explained. “All bad situations usually pass. In this moment I am scared for my family, guests, employees and everyone we interact with. A new career would suck, but the loss of those we care for would be infinitely more painful. This is real-life scary, not whether or not the next relaunch of a title is going to sell.”
“Comic books are a very low priority when our lives and our nation are on the line,” Harris said.
“It's unfortunate that the world is facing these challenges,” said Puttkammer. “But we'll get through them together.”