Thursday, May 27, 2021

 Sabrina says some guy came in and complained about our pricing on Pokemon. 

Here's the thing. At $6 a pack we are literally making half as much profit as we were making at $5 a pack when we could buy at regular wholesale.

Half as much profit. 

I mean, it's ironic to say--"Hey, we are charging $6 bucks, but we're also limiting you to 3 packs." Because if it was money grab, that's what we'd do. 

So the guy does the usual thing of complaining about speculators when he is obviously a speculator, and then saying he can get something somewhere at a price less than we actually paid, to which the response is always, "Gosh, what a deal. You should go buy them there!"

The one bright side of this is that Sabrina gets to actually see a small slice of what drove me out of the sports card market. I wouldn't just get one of these guys in per day, I'd get a dozen of them, day after day, month after month, until I started blowing up at them. And then one day,  I just stopped.

I will stop selling Pokemon cards too if it gets any worse. It's not about the money--I was hoping to satisfy demand and bring people into the store, but life is too short to put up with abuse.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Niche markets are...well...niche.

A couple brilliant insights after 40 years of retail. 

If you want lots of customers, locate where there are lots of people.

If you want lots of sales to lots of customers, sell what appeals to the largest number of customers.  

I think most businesses start out in the opposite direction. They locate in a place where they think they can be the main focus of that area. For instance, the one store in a small town. Or a "neighborhood" store.

It took opening stores in Sisters, Redmond and two in Bend to realize I was wrong about that. In fact, each of the two stores in Bend did better than the store in Sisters and Redmond, for the simple reason that there were many more people to draw from.

There is built-in limit, a ceiling, to how much business you can do in a small town. You become dependent on a small core group of customers, which creates problems. You have to constantly cater to that small group--in essence, you become hostage to them. But more importantly, you aren't drawing from a large pool of possible customers.

For a long time, the only reason Bend was feasible was because of the tourist trade. That's still more or less true. 

Meanwhile, I was also selling a niche product, mostly comics, but surrounding them with other niche products such as card games, toys, games. 

Even new books were for the most part designed at first to appeal to customers I already had. 

But Bend was growing, downtown Bend was booming, so I finally brought in the full range of new books, and all I can say is--wow. 

Turns out that having a product that appeals to a large part of the population is the way to go. 

There was always going to be a glass ceiling on the niche products, even if we were doing better because of the increased foot traffic. But combining the increased foot traffic with a product that has a wide appeal, and bamm, you realize that the glass ceiling has just risen.

One downside, I suppose, is that you pay for the increased costs of locating in a city or a downtown area. But having access to many multiples the numbers of foot-traffic customers will usually pay for that. It's a mistake to move away from a busy location to save a little rent. As I put it, "Don't trade $2000 in rent reductions for $10,000 in customer loss in foot traffic."

The other downside to carrying mass-appeal product is increased competition from the Big Boys--the corporate chainstores. Yet, if you are in busy location and you're doing a good job, you'll still get a slice of the market. A small slice of a huge market can be better than a large slice of a small market.

A third downside is that the producers of product that has mass appeal are often difficult to work with. When I first approached the book distributor, Ingrams, a couple of decades ago, they didn't want anything to do with a comic shop. They discovered differently, in a big way, but meanwhile I struggled to find access to books.

Forget toys. It's almost impossible to get a reliable supply chain for toys--they really only want to deal in large quantities. Games are available, but the mass appeal games such as Monopoly and Scrabble are so cheap in the chain stores that I literally could save money by bypasssing the distributors and buying from Walmart. (Which I refuse to do--thus, we carry niche games, Euro-games mostly.) 

So, yeah, there are actual reasons I didn't get into a broader appeal product line until later in my career--but, boy has it been an eye-opener. It's possible it played out the only way it could have played out--that is, I ordered more mass appeal product as it became available to me.

But I also think I was scared away from new books for a long time because of all the horror stories I heard about how hard they were to sell and how Amazon and Barnes & Noble were putting all the bookstores out of business.

Turns out, at least so far, new book are much easier to sell than "order in advance, blind guesses on numbers, one chance to get them, non-returnable, changes of artists and writers at any time" comics. I still love comics and have no reason not to keep selling them, but they are a niche product and always will be. 

Which is a big part of their appeal. 

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that selling lots of new books will help sell all the niche product too. Which seems to be happening. Best of both worlds, I do believe.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Parking garage a work in progress.

It remains to be seen if the changes to the parking garage are a good idea.

So far, almost every time I enter or leave the garage, there is a car in front of me that is having trouble figuring it out. So far, the city has an employee at the entrance to help. 

Their hope, apparently, is that when enough regular users have gotten used to the process that they won't need someone there. 

This doesn't take into account that at certain times of the year we have more tourists than locals shopping downtown--by probably a significant margin. Those people are always going to have trouble because the parking rules are anything but intuitive.

Meanwhile, the garage is full of cars, so it must be working at least for that.

I suspect they are going to have to make changes. Getting a ticket at the entrance, then having to find a small chamber at the opposite end of the garage to change for an exit ticket, and then using the exit ticket to get out. Well, that is always going to a hard thing to figure out. (Signage? you say? No one reads signage...:)


So if I have this right, there was part of a 35 million dollar grant available to the city of Bend to buy a motel for a homeless shelter.
The first place they looked at was less than "top-notch" so they rejected it, setting the city to the back of the line. There are now more "qualified" applicants ahead of them than there is money and they are in jeopardy of not getting any grant money at all. 
But at least the homeless aren't getting a less than "top-notch" shelter.
I think the problem I have with this isn't that they turned down an inadequate facility is that I doubt that it was either/or. That there were perimeters and time to make adjustments and they weren't made. I have no proof, but surely they were given time to check out the facility first before they signed an agreement. 
Seems to be a pattern with Bend. Create a bus line on the cheap without adequate funding, buy cheap buses that break down immediately, never really have the funding to do it right so the routes and the times are inadequate. 
Spend millions on the edge of town for a mixed used location without making sure the transportation routes have been adequate upgraded and without securing any tenants in advance. 
And yes, (my high horse), close the streets without any evidence that it is helpful to downtown businesses--and indeed, threaten to close the streets permanently even though even a little basic research of towns that have already done this would warn them off.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

We have changed Masters...again.

All the news about Warner Entertainment merging with Discovery and not one mention of DC Comics. This happens whenever the giants start trading around assets. Comics are such a small piece of the business that they are almost an afterthought. 

No, not almost--they are an afterthought. 

Which of course is dangerous because it shows how little they really care. Dinosaurs stomping around, not worrying about the creatures scurrying beneath their feet. 

The Discovery channel is all about creating as cheap and disposable "reality" programming as possible. This is their stated intention. 

Big time gambles like Game of Thrones, or Warner movies, or...not even part of the equation...publishing comics?  Not so much. 

Twenty years ago I watched a news conference announcing the merger of AOL and Warner. I listened to their reasoning and it made no sense. I bunch of buzz words but no real logic. I remember thinking..."Oh, oh, they don't know what they're doing."

Last year I read an article by the head of AT&T about merging a communications company with an entertainment content company made no sense. Buzz words with no logic. 

This dropping of Warner into another company's lap is just a way of getting rid of a bad deal. None of it worked.

We've been dealing with the consequences of that for the past year. DC Comics left their long-time distributor, Diamond Comics, let go much of their knowledgeable management and--at least for me--became a minor player in my business. We kept ordering, but I could see that there was a huge problem, especially with getting reorders of graphic novels. 

Then, just a couple months ago, Marvel also left Diamond Comics and went to Penguin Random House. Again, a huge disruption and very uncertain future. I don't have a whole lot of faith that PRH can pull it off without a ton of learning mistakes, which we small fry will pay for.

Which leaves games, toys, and independent publishers with Diamond, with--at best--30% of the market they once had? What happens to all the dozens of small publishers if Diamond goes down? Where do we get our toys and posters and t-shirts and all the other ancillary product? Getting accounts with the manufacturers of such items is almost impossible; you must order large quantities, not always of your own choice. Toys, especially, have only been possible because of Diamond.

The future looks uncertain, to say the least.

But not to worry. I have been pivoting for a few years now. About 3 or 4 years ago, comics started declining in our store. This isn't new--comics go up, comics go down. It's been constant for 40 years. We've always been able to adjust to the level they end up at. (Sometimes, just barely.)

But keeping up with the travails of comics is a full-time job. That was all right. It was our job, and in a way, it kept us going because no one else can really do it. Chain stores bring in comics every few years and it always fails because it require way too much care than they are willing to put into it.

I call this "heavy-lifting." 

When comics started declining 3 years ago, I realized that it would require some intensive effort to keep sales up. Graphic novels have always been significant in our store, but I decided to pivot from new monthly comics as my main concern to giving more space and time to GNs. 

Sure enough, GNs went from being half of our comic sales to 2/3rds our comic sales.

At the same time, I decided to go all in on board games and--most especially--new books. This turns out to have been the right decision.

I still give the same space and time to monthly comics--but I'm depending on them much less. It turns out that when you include kids books and young adult graphic novels and overall entertainment books to the graphic novel and comic mix, you have a potent synergy. 

So I'm hoping that Marvel and DC and Diamond and Penguin Random House and all the other players can make the change without too much damage. But it won't be enough to really change what we're doing. 

We have to find ways to be independent and at some distance from the stomping of the Dinosaurs.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Watch out. Be careful. Make sure it's what you want.

Comic stores popping up on a couple of industry sites and telling all about their expansion plans.

I have some thoughts on that.

Over-expansion is one of the classic mistakes for small businesses to make for a couple of reasons.

1.) Basing your expansions on current booming sales can mislead you. Booming sales always level off eventually. 

Mean reversion, or reversion to the mean, is a theory used in finance that suggests that asset price volatility and historical returns eventually will revert to the long-run mean or average level of the entire dataset. Investopedia.

When it regresses to the mean, you're stuck with higher costs, but the sales no longer justify them.

2.) It may not be what you really want. 

Look, it's the American way. Success breeds success. You're offered a promotion, you take it whether you like your current job or not.

I came up with a corollary to the "Peter Principle." Let's call it the Duncan Principle just for fun. If the Peter Principle is that an employee will be promoted to their level of incompetence, then the Duncan Principle is that a business will expand to its level of incompetence.

So, yeah, when I opened four stores I discovered that I didn't have the experience or capital to pull it off.

But even more importantly, I discovered that being a manager behind the scenes, managing a roster of employees, and crunching numbers wasn't what I really wanted. I had to remember why I'd gotten into the business in the first place--to hang out with people and enjoy it. 

So I inserted myself into the conversation to say, "Watch out. Be careful. Make sure it's what you want.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

 what's it like to be a cat?

a cat in full.

cat doesn't answer, 

cat doesn't care.

A smile on his face,

in love with nothing,

loving the nothing,

the peace, the moment,

a cat reposed.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Alone in the room

she breezes in 

the room lightens 

and fills with joy

checking in

with the cat,

who acts dotty.

We laugh

and she snags the cat,

the door swings open. 

and they're gone.

Her laugh

lingers in the air

A wave of contentment

should I ever forget.

Friday, May 7, 2021

 The Fairy's Wings.

The fairy's wings beat faster than a hummingbird, the thrum sounding like a dirge, which was all the more disturbing because the flight of a fairy is meant to lift the heart.

Fairies aren't meant to fly for long, they are meant to fly in joy. To dance through the air, to swoop and to sing. Bursts of happiness, allegros of movement. But this fairy flew in one spot, her wings bending under the weight of her fear.

The rope was tight around her neck. It burned from the human touch, the rough hemp sawed through her gentle flesh, tighter with every beat of her wings, with every small dip in flight. She had never flown in one place for so long. The ropes burned her bound wrists, blood flowing and splattering, her wings coated red and heavy. 

Why had he done this to her? She had given herself freely to him, betraying her own kind. He was so big and strong, he could have easily snapped her neck with his rough hands. Hands she had enjoyed, scratchy yet comforting, the human sting intoxicating.

His friends had laughed when he attached her to branch of the tree. It was a stout branch, the thickest and closest to the ground. Her full weight wouldn't bend it at all.

She could almost touch the earth. Her toes had brushed the dust, a spurt of fear and her wings thrummed faster. But no, she mustn't burn her energy away so quickly. She settled into a rhythm as night turned into day.

She was alone. Cast out. Humans hated her, fairies flew from her. The branch above her was sprouting spring foliage. She had always loved trees, flitting through the forest, rising and falling at her whim, brushing the soft leaves as she passed.  

The rope tightened and this time the spurt of fear didn't left her but seemed like a heavy blanket had been dropped over her shoulders. The blanket was soothing somehow. The music of her wings dimmed. 

She settled softly. 

The branch didn't bend.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Gatekeepers of the Gatekeepers.

 If I was to order for Pegasus Books every book that looks good--and that's like every other one I see--I'd be buried in unsold books. For me to pull the trigger there has to be something else; a known name or series, a stellar review in the NY Times, a personal interest in a subject, a request from customers, a cover I can't resist and so on and so forth.

That doesn't mean the books I didn't order aren't probably just as good as the books I did order--they probably are--but means I have to find a way to sift through all the offerings.

Imagine an agent sifting through hundreds of authors, except instead of being able to order a couple hundred books a week like me, they can only take on a new client every few months, or every year, or every decade, depending on how deep their roster of authors already is.

It's not the book an agent is taking on, though that is the entry ticket, but the author. Meanwhile, the Big Five publishers will not accept any offerings without an agent, with a few exceptions. Agents are the Gatekeepers for the Gatekeepers, making it an arduous, time-consuming, and it must be said, somewhat arbitrary process. 

I'm reading a book by James Blaylock, one of my favorite authors: "The Knights of the Cornerstone." He's a wonderful writer, whose  writing is so smooth and effortless that it's pure pleasure to read. I suddenly had an urge to orders some of his books but there was only one title available through Ingrams. 

That seems to happen a lot. Authors I love, who are without a doubt extremely good writers, don't have any books available to buy. 

I'm asking you--what chance to the rest of us have?

Monday, May 3, 2021

 I had Sebastian Gorka in my store the other day. He was a perfectly nice-seeming fella, but damn if I didn't want to say his name aloud in deep, portentous, English-accented tones:

Se-BAST-ion GORka.

I mean, it's the perfect supervillain name.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Using the word "evil."

Using the word "evil" to describe someone is usually pretty much over the top. I mean, Hitler. Stalin, Mao. Evil motherfuckers.

Anyway, there is one person in my lifetime who I had a visceral reaction to that seemed stronger than was warranted. All I know is I hated the guy.

Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric for many years and while in charge considered the "best" CEO in the world. But reading an interview with him 20 years ago was enough to make me want to assassinate him.

For example, it was his philosophy to fire 10% of his workforce every year. 

This is evil. But it's also stupid on the face of it, and it represents all that is wrong with corporate America. It's shortsighted, to say the least. It was just the tip of his psychopathic iceberg. Repellent and alarming that he was so lionized.

So sure enough, twenty years later, General Electric has crashed. Big surprise. Most of the blame is laid on his successor, but only after Fucking Welch squeezed the corp. (corpse?) for all it was worth. The corporate practices he instigated came back and bit them in the ass.

 See: "Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric," by Ted Mann and Thomas Gryta.

So I'm going to say this out loud. Corporations aren't efficient or smart. They are the end result of market forces pushing one company to the top, usually because of small factors, and only later is that success documented in a Confirmed Bias sort of manner. 

Big corporations are big. That's all. They are dinosaurs who crush everything beneath their feet until they go extinct.

They all go the way of Sears and Montgomery Ward and Barnes and Noble and Blockbuster and...well, all of them eventually. I've seen some rise and fall in my forty year career as a small business owner. 

But they make millions, billions! I hear you say. Yeah, well, somebody will, and these behemoths just happened to be enabled. Fuck them.

Thoughts while ordering this week's books...

Worried about diversity? If current books are any indication, the pendulum has swung the other way. Lots of diverse voices represented these days. Then again, it should be said that there is lots of ground to make up, too.

Surely there can't be a market for this many young adult books. Which all look the same. They all look good, but they can't all be good, can they?

All our problems will soon by solved by the self-help books offered. And we'll all be skinny too, because of the diet books. Surely it's just a matter of time.

There can't possibly be a market for this much manga in America. Or, if I was writing a manga, the title would be, "There Surely Can't Be Room for This Much Manga, but buy Mine!"

Star Wars is great. I love Star Wars. But how could so many Star Wars book exist? Wasn't there a time when I was the only store in town that had a selection? 

DISNEY!!! Apparently Disney believes if there is room for Star Wars and Pixar and ...whatever ... there is room for every nook and cranny to be filled with something tangential. I have a feeling Disney is paying for placement of their books on these ordering lists (which probably represent a small fraction of what is actually being published.) 

The amount of money that is being lost by not having in-stock early issues of most popular manga is mind-boggling. These publishers must know a year or more in advance that they are going to be on Netflix or whatever, yet every single time a new anime comes on, the manga is sold out. Months and months are going by without any Demon Slayers or My Hero Academia or Avatar: the Last Airbender, name it: If it's wildly popular it isn't available, at least during the peak selling time.

There are whole categories of books I skip because they have zero appeal to me. Yet, I rag on most bookstores for not carrying sufficient genre books like SF and mysteries. I have tried to sell romance and chick-lit books (probably not an acceptable term anymore) but I can't seem to sell them.

I've always prided myself on hand-selecting the books for the store. In fact, for years I ignored the bestseller lists. But when I expanded to being a full-on bookstore, I jumped in. What I'm finding is--if I check the number of copies that the wholesaler has on hand, that's a pretty good indications of what they think will sell. So when I order a book based on that number, I basically jumping the bandwagon. Same as when I check the New York Times every day or when I check any bestseller list. But my bookstore is still more quirky than most, thank goodness.

I'm finding that some bestsellers are better for my store than others--usually because they have some hook that makes sense among the selection of books I have. Then again, a bestseller is a bestseller. What I'm learning is--unless I know what the bestseller is and why, I can wait a week or two before ordering it to see how it plays out in the real world. So a middle step between ordering all bestsellers and ordering none. 

Sometimes I look at the bestsellers and think, "I guess I really don't know what people like." But then, from the numbers of customers who tell me I have "their" books, maybe I know what my customers like. Probably because it's the same things I like.

So many books that look and sound interesting--but I have to pass on. 

I used to think that we couldn't sell hardcover mysteries in Linda's used bookstore because they sold new. But now I realize that I can't sell them new, either. Because my bookstore is drop-in and browse, while anyone buying a hardcover mystery is getting it on purpose? I buy some anyway because--at worse--I get to read them. 

There has to be a limit to how many unicorn books we can sell--but we haven't found it yet. 

Ordering books is now taking hours and hours, over the course of days. But I love it.