The Frederick News-Post in Maryland wrote a whole item about local comic store owners dealing with the reality of collapsing businesses elsewhere:
Superheroes, once confined to comic books, broke into mainstream pop culture over the last decade. T-shirts emblazoned with their images and logos fly off the shelves of major retailers. Superhero movies smash record after record. And TV shows entertain millions weekly.
That popularity hasn’t quite found its way back to where it all started, though: the local comic book stores.
But that didn’t stop John Frazier from expanding his business, Brainstorm Comics & Gaming, to a second location in Walkersville late last year, joining their first store on North Market Street in Frederick.
“If you’re saying it’s a sinking ship, why would anyone want to get on?” Frazier said.
It’s Frazier’s love of comics and his belief in the industry that keeps him going, and willing to make bold choices like expanding his business.
The new location has an emphasis on back issues — older issues that date back as far as the 1960s — and board games. Frazier has seen continuous growth in the business since he bought it five years ago.
Still, as in any other business, there are challenges.
One of the biggest challenges is the same one many small businesses are facing: Amazon and other online retailers.
Jon Cohen, owner of Beyond Comics in Frederick and Gaithersburg, said that many people come in to look at products they want, and then immediately try to find them cheaper on the internet.
“We do a lot to compete, but people are so in tune about saving an extra penny, so the retail stores try not to be jaded,” Cohen said. “Because all we get in our face is, ‘Do you discount this, what’s this, will you match that?’ We’re paying thousands and thousands in local costs just to be open. … That’s our biggest fight.”
Frazier agrees that many people are looking to get a better deal. He tries to persuade customers who might turn to e-commerce to see the benefits of shopping at a local store.
A good way to compete with e-commerce is to offer discounts on various items that are just as good as what an e-commerce site offers. I realize these managers have rent to pay, but if this is the reality today, and they want to operate a physical store, then obviously, a discount strategy must be sought and experimented with.
And interesting that one of the retailers emphasizes back issues, since an audience alienated from modern mainstream superhero fare clearly prefers what the past has to offer. But as the following says, there appears to be a segment who’re less interested in the comics if they saw the films:
Superheroes have successfully made their way into the worldwide pop culture mainstream.
For Beyond Comics, superheroes are more accepted, but the movies have also diminished the need to read a comic book.
“And if so, they’re not going to walk in and say, ‘I need an Iron Man comic,’” Cohen said. “I just saw the movie, so why do I need to read the comic book?”
Cohen says that people do come into the shop looking for a comic similar to the movies. Some movies borrow heavily from a comic’s storyline — such as the last Avengers movies, which were based on the Infinity Gauntlet storyline. That graphic novel was Cohen’s most popular book of 2019.
But other books are a harder sell, he said, because they don’t directly correlate to a movie. For example, Spider-Man has hundreds of comics in the original title and then numerous spinoffs, none of which, Cohen said, directly correlates to one of the movies’ storylines.
“I can’t give you this great concise starting point or anything like that, except in a graphic novel, and then it might not be the current version they’re doing in the movie,” Cohen said.
Do they mean comics adapted from the films proper? Because Sean Howe argued that if you make a comic look like a blockbuster movie, it’s bound to botch. Though if you take Marvel’s recent rash of poor artwork as an example, they’ve taken a downward plunge even further, so those wouldn’t appeal to moviegoers so easily either. But, this does strongly hint moviegoers by and large have no interest in the source material, and those who saw the live action Scooby Doo movies likely never bothered watching the cartoons on TV either.
Frazier sees the movies and TV shows as another way that new customers might get involved in buying comics. Instead of trying to find an exact match, he asks the customer questions.
“Did you like the relationship aspect of it, did you like the villain, what aspect of the movie spoke to you most?” Frazier said as an example. “And then I try to think of a graphic novel or a storyline that encapsulated that feeling, not necessarily the storyline.”
He never wants to ostracize people who come in after watching a movie or TV show, because he too felt ostracized by the comics community after he became interested in comics during the “Death of Superman” storyline in 1992. Frazier felt like he wasn’t being taken seriously because he was getting into the hobby during a peak pop culture moment. He said some stores alienate people who get into comics after watching the movies in the same way.
While I do want to admire his interests in the medium, I feel disappointed he was getting into the hobby based on a negative occurrence taking place in a notable franchise. Especially if you take a closer look under a magnifying glass at what took place in Superman’s whole infamous 1992-93 story arc, not the least being the destruction of Green Lantern’s hometown, as I’ve mentioned before. Why should anybody get into comics based on trash like that? And if some notable superheroes were getting married, all without involving the kind of PC that’s killing entertainment today, would they be willing to get into comics based on something to admire? Or, if the wedding of Superman and Lois Lane had occurred sooner, would he have jumped in based on that? I sure hope so, and the same for Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson’s wedding as it happened 33 years ago. The whole idea of Superman dying – which may have really set the tone for what was to come in following years with other superhero titles – is not what I’d call a “peak” moment in pop culture.
The article later turns to GNs:
Cohen used to carry about 100 graphic novels in his store. Now he carries about 5,000.
Graphic novels are bound, hard- or softcover books that tell a story concisely, much like traditional novels. Additionally, comic books will collect six or more individual monthly issues into a graphic novel, which are easier for readers to collect when a story is far into its run or is already over.
The shift to graphic novels can be attributed to a variety of factors, Cohen said, such as the hope to appeal to more “classic” book readers, who would prefer to read a story with a more polished beginning and end, rather than investing in a serial, monthly story.
“We knew we could carry the books and do well, and it’s just grown and grown and grown,” Cohen said.
Graphic novels have also helped attract younger readers. For example, Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, which are aimed toward middle-grade girls, have sold millions of copies in the last decade.
“Teachers and librarians love [children’s comics] because kids want to read and there’s really good reading in it,” Cohen said. “My wife scoffed and then read ‘Guts’ [by Telgemeier] and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is really good.’ … That’s why everyone loves this woman.”
Frazier has a kids’ section in his downtown location and hopes to build one at the Walkersville location as well.
“A lot of stores kind of ignore the younger readers. … Without getting the younger readers, you’re killing your future,” Frazier said.
The popularity of graphic novels, however, means investing in pricier products.
“Carrying 5,000 graphic novels means you’re sitting on thousands and thousands in costs of inventory, and you’re only going to sell how many a month?” Cohen said. “So the thing we’re always trying to do is get rid of the ones we don’t sell, or let them sell out of the inventory.”
This is especially difficult when Amazon can afford to sell the books at lower prices than small businesses can. Amazon can also get discounts from the publisher itself for ordering in bulk, which a small store that will sell only a few copies of each book cannot afford to do, Cohen said.
Cohen said that most monthly issues — or “floppies” — will sell only one or two copies in a store of his size.
This is fascinating info too, confirming pamphlets that only tell a sum of parts rather than a whole is no longer working for the industry, and it’s time to make a shift. Particularly when you take company wide crossovers into account, something this article doesn’t clearly mention, even though Infinity Crusade comes up at one point. Indeed, why didn’t they get into how the crossovers have become the ruination of the mainstream? Variant covers (also unmentioned here) have to shoulder blame too, but the crossovers are what really turn people off as they steer one lone book out of whatever story it was trying to tell with its own protagonists and into something involving far more players than necessary, and all lacking story merit.
Another reason Frazier wanted to expand Brainstorm was so he could sell an extensive collection of back issues. He started buying comic book collections of older issues years ago and has since amassed more than 250,000 books.
He needed a place to put all of them — and the smaller store downtown wasn’t going to hold them.
“I think it’s an untapped market for a lot of people, because collectors still want those older issues,” Frazier said. “They want to be able to go and thumb through things, and find that issue they’ve been missing and they’ve been hunting for quite some time.”
For completists, I’d say it’s still a good idea to have the option of buying trade collections available, and there’s only so much better stuff from past decades not yet reprinted in a trade that should be, by all means. As for the back issues, it’s great the manager thought of that, but if they’re more recent mainstream stuff from the 2000s onwards, I just don’t see the point, and definitely not if it’s connected with awful crossovers like Secret Empire. At the end:
While Cohen is optimistic about the year to come, the optimism ends somewhere.
“If anybody asks, ‘Should I open a comic shop?’ the answer is no,” he said.
If anybody does, however, they should avoid selling new pamphlets, and make theirs a store almost entirely devoted to paperbacks/hardcovers. If the publishers won’t accept such an arrangement, I guess that’s why you should turn away from the business and not opening a specialty store.
Originally published here.