Saturday, July 17, 2010

"...truly a model of how a comics shop should be run.""

The above quote wasn't meant to be ironic, but it should have been. I mean unless the idea of a 'model' store is one that goes out of business....

There is a famous comic shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. which has been open for five years, that apparently has just had it's doors locked. I'm not going to say the name of the store aloud, because I really don't want to get into an argument with the national fanbase; but no one pays much attention to my little old blog, and those of you who read BMWJAMAGEH probably don't care. I can take anything Buster can throw at me, but comic fans scare me.

(google " brooklyn, comic shops, " further hint -- 'what blasts off?')

Anyway, the owners blame "real estate" problems.

They say further:

" partner and I are suddenly making some large life decisions about what comes next. We love the shop, and as fun as it is, we have to figure out what makes sense for us on a practical level."

First of all, I have to say that's a real shame, because it sounded like a great shop. And yet,....and yet..... as another comic retailer was so imprudent to ask: "But was it profitable?"

From the above information, I'd have to guess no.

I've mentioned before, and I'll say it again; no one will EVER SAY they went out of business because of not making money. Usually there is a good excuse. It's only human. It's almost always a problem with the lease, or insurance, or the partner, or....or....just about any other reason.

Saying you have a "real estate problem" is like saying a guy who has a stake hammered into his heart died of a heart attack.

The biggest two reasons stores go under. 1.) Not making enough money. 2.) Not having enough fun(burnout).

Or both of the above.

To handle the latter reason first, I'm guessing, again based on the owners comments, that it wasn't quite as fun as they expected:

"Comic retail was never something either of us wanted to do forever, and if it happens that we close, we had a great five year run, and look forward to what comes next."

They leave open the possibility that they'll be back, but it sounds a bit wistful. It's a strange statement in some ways -- when you start a store, you need to be very committed. It puzzles me that someone would invest the time and energy it takes to get started, just to have a five year window.

Anyway, I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a guess that the very elements that made the store famous contributed to it's demise. Listen to the description of the store in the article and comments:

"With a lineup of art shows, parties and signings including release parties for the last edition of Scott Pilgrim, Achewood, Brian Wood, Top Shelf and many other notable books, (insert comic shop) has been the center of a social scene in its gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, as a gathering place for comics readers and creators."


"On a more personal level, we’ve spent many a sociable evening at (insert comic shop) hobnobbing with colleagues and friends. It’s the kind of place you want to hang out in and a model for the way comics shops should be run."

This description, along with the killer hours: 11:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M.; Seven Days a Week:
are enough to make me shudder.

Sounds great, if you want to work 77 hours a week -- and I'm guessing from the social aspects of the above descriptions, that it often went well beyond 10:00 P.M. -- or you're making enough money to pay for others to work the extra hours, (and a basic problem here is that for 'special events' you really need the owners there.....) Or if you want to eat, drink, and sleep comics....

Me, I'd like to go home in the evenings and kick up my heels.

So am I arguing against excellence? By no means, but I am saying you have to be realistic about how much you can keep doing....and doing....and doing.

See -- while your customers can pick and choose when to "hang out" (and I suspect hanging out is almost always bad for business -- I wonder really if Norm and Frasier and Cliff were really good for Cheers, or just nursed the same drink all evening long....), you are committed to a major time suck -- and perhaps not getting paid enough for the pleasure.

Here's where Dave will pop up and tell me how well 'special events' do for the bookstore in Sunriver, and I believe you, Dave, I really do. But I'm still going to try to make the case that you have to be careful just how many 'special events' you do; and you have to be conscious of how much money you're making, and how much hassle it might be, and whether it detracts from what you do on a regular basis, and whether people are rewarding you with their cash, or just lavishing their attention and praise on you. (Lavish attention and praise and .50 cents won't buy you a cup of coffee these days.)

Because you're in the business to sell books -- or comics -- or booze, or whatever, and everything you do needs to be in service to that goal -- and NOT the other way around. Sometimes when I hear bookstores explaining their problems, it seems as though they are more concerned about all the accouterments than they are about actually selling books.

The current bookstore model seems to be -- provide meeting space, and drinks, and soft couches, and tables, and let people look through books to their hearts content, and stay open late and have signings and club meetings and so on. Well, except for the 'drinks' part, libraries are already doing most of those things, and they are supported by non-profit and governmental monies. Huge stores like Barnes and Nobles apparently have a model that works on the above premise, but small stores are a different species.

But what about selling books?

Well, that ain't very glamorous.

So those are my answers to the second part of the equation: Not Having Fun Anymore.

What about the first part of the equation: Not Making Money?

Well, here too, I think the description of the store is very telling.

"It was also in the forefront of the graphic novel store revolution, as comics shops evolved from stores that relied entirely on the weekly periodical market to ones that operated more like bookstores with wide ranging material for all ages stocked in-depth."

That plus the pictures of the store, which show it to be gorgeous; and "...clean, well-lit, well-stocked and open to anyone of any age or gender." I can't argue with that last part, except....well, how much did it cost?

I'll tell you a little secret. I have enough money and credit and experience, that I could go out right now and spend money on a fresh new large space in an expensive area of town and buy brand new fixtures and lights and carpets, and display my wonderful product face out and carry all the best graphic novels and have space to sit and talk and having meetings and so on and so on.

So why don't I do it?

Because 1.) I'd go out of business within a couple of years, and leave a beautiful corpse; and 2.) it would be absolutely exhausting, stressful, and terrifying.

But, hey. People would love the store as long as it lasted! And they would be shocked, shocked! that their favorite store is going out of business.

There's sort of a reason that most comic shops still carry those pesky "weekly periodical" comics, and don't look like a fashion boutique,and have cheaper rent, and even go so far as to -- gasp! carry those dusty old back issues, and action figures, and decorate their stores with posters of spandex heroes, and have reasonable hours and the owner works most of them, and so on.

I think -- I have to believe -- that the kind of excellent store mentioned above is possible. Not only that, they exist. I try to be that store, myself. Each owner's level of energy and commitment will be different and that doesn't preclude special events or large investments in overhead -- but you have to be careful you don't reach too far too fast; because whatever you make part of your business plan you have to keep doing...and doing....and doing....

I subscribe to the theory that if you want to stay in business -- if you want to enjoy your business for more than a few years -- you need to keep it simple and basic and within budget and keep reasonable hours and focus on selling product. Plan to keep doing it for years and years and ask yourself; what is a reasonable level of expense and effort? Keep it to the basic and simple plan of profit and loss.

Because that's hard enough. You can grow into excellence, but I can almost guarantee it will take more than 5 years unless you're just throwing money and your very blood into the pit.

So...what happens if -- at the end of five years, and you're exhausted and your landlord is raising the rent and you haven't made much money and your significant other is grumbling and the industry looks like it's going to go through some major changes and you have a signing that night but you haven't really had the time to read the graphic novel and the author is a bit demanding and the last event you held a patron threw up all over the Sandman statue and you didn't get home until after midnight and your employee just called and says he can't open for you and the shipment of graphic novels the author was going to sign haven't arrived and you have to run down to UPS to pick it up and your anniversary dinner with your significant other will just have to be canceled and your roof has sprung a leak and the landlord says it isn't his fault and those shiny new carpets and fixtures are starting to look older and the neon Superman sign you paid 600.00 for just went out and you had horrible day in sales and will have to pull money out of your meager savings to cover the shortfall and it was money your significant other had hoped to use for vacation....and the landlord calls and starts playing hardball again.....


Having a store that operates on reasonable hours (that you can work yourself, if necessary)

and who's goal is to sell product with or without fanfare

and which makes a small profit because you're careful about overhead,

but which you are proud of the inventory and you go home at night

and stop thinking about the store because you know the bills are paid....

well, that looks pretty attractive at that point. Doesnt' it?

You may not make it as the standard-bearer in the national media, the example that is used that "all" stores should follow, but...well, you'll live to work another day. You'll get up in the morning and want to go to work, and sell books and comics, and have nice little chats with the customers and --you may dream of the 'perfect' store, but you know the perfect store isn't possible.

Finally, I'll leave you with another -- apparently non-ironic comment -- about the 'model' store: "Thanks....for proving the concept."

Well, no. Actually, it didn't.

1 comment:

Duncan McGeary said...

One last thing: stores who have their doors locked with inventory still inside usually means one thing; unpaid rent.

Just saying...