Saturday, May 28, 2022

A blessing in disguise.

Nothing worse than popping up on another person's website and pointing out how much better you're doing than they are. So I'm going to comment here and hope it doesn't seem out of line.

I just read a long column from a major comic retailer about the costs of doing comic books and how it is becoming unprofitable. In my own case, this isn't hurting me nearly as much. For a very odd reason, which I'll get to later.

First, a little background. Ever since the comic market collapsed in the middle of the 90s, putting about 3/4th of the retailers out of business, the surviving comic shops have been serviced by a single distributor. Diamond has had a monopoly, but their discounts were good enough for most comic shops to do well. The biggest drawback was shipping costs; bad enough that we had to pay for shipping at all (when most other distributors have free shipping above a certain volume), but it appeared to most of us that Diamond was charging more than they needed to for shipping. My suspicion was that the high discounts from Diamond were compensated by extra shipping costs.

There was a lot of grousing about Diamond for other reasons, most of which to me seemed unavoidable. 

Well, the complainers finally got their way, and both DC and Marvel have found new distributors. DC went with a new distributor, Lunar, who is basically the largest online vendor of new comics--in other words, our largest online competitor and a discounter at that. Not something to cheer.

Meanwhile, Marvel went with Penguin Random House, (PRH), the biggest book publisher in the US.

You should know that DC and Marvel account for something like 70% to 80% of the comic market. The unavoidable problems have only gotten worse, in my opinion, but the biggest change are the discount levels. 

Most shops discount levels got lowered. In compensation, we now had the option of getting free shipping for Marvel, and lower cost shipping for DC. 

In my particular case, it was a wash. The free shipping for Marvel covered the discount lost almost exactly. I'm getting the same discount for DC, slightly lower shipping costs.

Meanwhile, Diamond's shipping costs seems to have skyrocketed. The availability of graphic novels is confusingly spread over many different distributors and also suddenly more difficult to find in stock. We can't drop Diamond because they are still the distributor for most comic shops for everything other than Marvel and DC.

The drawback for me was that ordering from PRH is a very complicated and confusing procedure. It seems almost impossible for me to keep track of what, when, and how much I am ordering without spending hours pouring over the accounts. When I did the math, it turned out I was only going to save a couple hundred bucks by going with PRH for our Marvel comics. Frankly, my time and peace of mind were more important to me than that. If there is one thing I've learned in business, it is to keep strict accounting of my costs, both financially and in the way of time and effort.

I decided to continue to order my Marvel comics from Diamond at a much lower discount level. Still not sure that was the right decision, especially if Diamond is unable to survive. But in the meantime, I know exactly what I'm paying and when I need to pay it. So far, it's been worth it. 

Now we're being informed that our discount might even become lower. That will, indeed, force me to order Marvel from PRH.

So we now face a situation where our discounts are less, our shipping from Diamond is even higher than before, and the amount of time and effort required to keep accurate records has skyrocketed. 

Here's the thing. It isn't really hurting me that badly. This is for a strange reason.

See, I've never been able to make a living on comics alone. Bend had never given me sufficient volume of comics sales to keep my business open. From the beginning, I've been forced to diversify in order to survive.

Meanwhile, in bigger cities, comic shops were able to specialize in comics and do well.

The more I diversified, the better the shop did. Now sales are spread over new books, toys, boardgames, card games, comics, and graphic novels. 

New comics are only 10% of my total business right now. I'm not willing to give up on them, even though they take up probably 1/3rd of our space. For one thing, graphic novels sell better because of our comics, though I could probably still sell graphic novels if I was strictly a bookstore.

So my advice to all those comic shops that are currently dealing with the onerous discount levels and shipping and handling costs of comics is to diversify. It'll be hard for many of those shops, especially if they aren't in shopping areas with foot traffic, but it's the safer way to proceed.

I worry for the industry as a whole. I hope it isn't too late.

But Pegasus Books of Bend will do fine; better than fine, our sales are way better than they were only a few years ago. Diversification, especially into new books, has brought in enough money for me to diversify even more; a virtuous cycle that is still paying dividends.

All because I've never had the luxury of being strictly a comic shop. A blessing in disguise.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Either you are or you ain't.

I've run into these sort of Facebook posts a lot lately.

Such as "when" I'm depressed, such and such happens. Or the idea that they swing in and out of depression.

This is not the kind of depression I experienced. 

I don't understand this "when" I'm depressed, or the idea that you can come in and out of depression. With my depression, it was full time, all the time. And when I came out of it, it was very, very slowly. I mean, it took years and there never was a moment when I could say, this is "when."

Is this a case of diagnosed clinical depression?  Or just someone feeling sad? 

Or maybe I'm wrong and there is a type of depression that comes and goes. I get that there is bipolar--I suppose that could be it. But the way these people talk about depression it seems like they come in and out of it daily.

But, yeah, depression wasn't just a mood I was in. It was a sickness, a chemical imbalance. I can't say it didn't happen because of some choices I made, because I eventually came out of it at least partly from some choices I made. But it was complete and total when I was in it.

I don't wish to dismiss people's feelings of depression, but I wonder if this kind of "depression" isn't just mood changes and not the deeper, more complex total depression. Because clinical depression is damn severe and not something that comes and goes. At least, that was my experience. 

It worries me that people might think that people can just choose to not to be depressed. In a way, it diminishes the real problem

Instinct versus the tale of the tape.

This is one of those times when I trust my intuitive instincts more than the actual numbers. 

The tale of the tape is actually rather encouraging. Up significantly in January and February, down 3% in March (the previous year had been stupendous), up by 5% in April, and so far this month up by 8%.

But that isn't how it feels. It feels like it is slowing down. 

Things to take into account: the stock market has dropped by 20%; gas prices are over $5 a gallon; the world seems even more uncertain than usual. 

You'd think these circumstances might have an effect.

At the same time, though, I think people will come to Bend despite all that. The type of tourists who shop in downtown Bend aren't discouraged by a bit of a downturn. 

However, I think they are likely to spend less money. 

The other circumstance that I need to take into account is that the store is absolutely packed with saleable merchandise. For probably the only time in our history, I've been able to order everything I wanted, even side products like jigsaw puzzles, enamel pins, and standups. We have significantly more product than last year, especially toys, but also more of just about everything. It's been a virtuous cycle: the more I make, the more I can spend; the more I can spend, the more I can make.

So the feeling of slowdown has to be contrasted to the fact that I have more merchandise to sell. So far these two factors are cancelling each other out. 

I'll just have to play it by ear.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Sisyphean futility of stocking a store.

Here's the thing, Dunc. You can't both save money and spend it. The store is an unending need. You have to pick a level of shortages that is acceptable, that doesn't really affect the sales level. You've long ago passed that level. I could probably run down the inventory by 25% and it wouldn't affect sales.

Instead, I look at my stock (this week) for authors like Robert Crais, Daniel Silva, Alan Furst, and I see three or four copies, and I'd like to have more like ten or twelve, and so I order more. They are stackable and they fit. 

(It's pretty weird when you order what you can fit in, instead of what you may need.) 

Last week I got a huge order of toys. I spent two days trying to arrange room for them. In the end, I had one small 4' Japanese figure that I couldn't find a place for. I wandered around for an hour trying to figure out a place for that one figure. If anything symbolizes the Sisyphean futility of stocking a store, it's that. (The next morning, I found spot instantly by moving my other Japanese figures slightly closer together.) 

So what did I do the next week? Ordered another huge order of toys. 

I can rationalize this because we spent two Covid years without much access to toys. Stuff I ordered last summer still hasn't arrived and probably won't. Stock while you can! my brain insists.

But it's unending and never quite done. It never will be. I shall have to live with my inadequacies forever, unless I intend to buy every building in downtown Bend and fill them with every book and toy in existence, and even then...

Saturday, May 14, 2022

It's my world, and you are my guests.

So I'm working 9 or 10 days in a row. Both Sabrina and Ashley have come down with Covid. They seem to be fine, but...

I hadn't been in contact with either one of them for more than a week, so I've been OK. But 9 days in a row is the longest stretch I've done in a long time. It's turning out fine. It got slow just at the right time.

We're still ahead of last year, which was a banner year, so things are really humming right along. I probably spent too much money stocking up too early for summer, but that should all come back when summer gets going.

It feels slower, but I think that is being equalized by the fact that two record-breaking years in a row has given me the resources to completely and totally stock the store, so sales may not be as fast but they are steady. I think we did a lot of business last year because of my assiduousness in tracking down hard-to-get material. Now that Manga and Pokemon is more readily available, they've slowed down a bit. On the other hand, we really are super-stocked, so I think that makes up some of the lost ground.

Working every day, I can get more into the swing of things. I'm actually quite charming, most of the time. I mean, I've always been socially awkward, but this is my place, and anything you do long enough, you learn to do well. I've learned to turn the awkwardness in humor.  I sometimes have situations where I charmed some folk and they come back and I don't remember them nor am I in quite as expansive a mood, but mostly...with the money problems gone away, it's easier to be comfortable with people. 

It's my world, and everyone is a guest to my place. I like that.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Book Envy

People find it odd to see two bookstores on the same street only five stores away from each other. It doesn't seem to affect us, and I doubt it affects Dudley's. I suspect we're both doing well. 

I probably make less sales to locals than he does; most of my business is drop-ins. As a result, I often see people coming in my store that have already purchased from Dudley's. Again, that is fine: I'm sure the same thing happens to them.

I'm always curious about what the customers are buying. I try to sneak a look. Sometimes I even ask to see. Usually, in a selection of, say, five books, I'll also carry at least one or two.

I drop into Dudley's occasionally, take a look around.

I'm itching to ask Tom, the owner, in Jack Nicholson's Joker voice, "Where do you get all these marvelous books?"

So, for context, most bookstores get the same bestsellers. Not to put them down, but they seem the same. Of course, there are always variations.

We're a bit different in that I concentrate on backlist books. I've tried to have a unique store and I think I've succeeded in that. 

Dudley's has a selection of books that has the new bestsellers but also a bunch of books that, for want of a better word, are "tasteful." I immediately have an attraction to them.

Thing is, until I see them at Dudley's, I didn't know where those books came from. I have a number of lists I check each week, but I somehow miss a lot of the books that Dudley's have. It's different from the book envy I have of Barnes and Noble. They simply overwhelm me with their selection: to the point where going into B & N feels uncomfortable to me. 

Anyway, Tom obviously has lists that he's going through that I'm not seeing.

Big confession here. Because I concentrate on constantly reordering backlist, buying new releases has been more of a hit or miss proposition. Over the last two years I've made a conscious effort to have a good selection of new bestsellers. I pay attention to the "New Next Week" lists from Ingrams and, of course, the NYT's bestseller lists.

Frankly, my space is so limited that a new book outside of those lists has to somehow call attention to itself. When I look at the catalogs, the number of books I want far outstrip my budget. Nevertheless, it's probably time to pay more attention to them.

My biggest trick is to order books that people ask for, even if I haven't heard of them, on the supposition that if one customer goes so far at to request a book, there will be others who want them. I have to be careful to check to see if are viable and not some harebrained request for a book no one will ever want. It takes some overall knowledge and intuition to suss that out.

But in the meantime, I'm always looking for that book that really pops out with attraction.

So Tom Bean, if you're reading this, tell me your secrets!

Monday, May 9, 2022


Unlike most bookstores, I don't do returns. At first it was because my volume of new book sales were low and I was being very careful. It was the way I was forced to do it with everything else I sell, so why not books?

But as the volume of orders for new books increased to being the largest part of my store, I started to think I was missing a bet.

So I started to set up a system for book returns. I would need to keep track of the invoices, store the books I intend to return when the paperback version shows up, figure out the procedure, pack up the books and send them off.

When I assembled my first batch of returns, the total credit ran something like 1.2% of monthly sales, but represented at least half a year of orders.

Even if I increase the number of preorders dramatically, which is the main reason I'm even considering doing returns, the credit I'd get would probably never exceed 1% of sales.

So, frankly, it isn't even worth the effort. 

I can keep the books in stock, most of which will be First Editions after all, and if I can sell even a few of them, it would compensate for keeping them. Space is always a problem, but it's a separate problem and one I'm accustomed to dealing with. At worse, I can create a half-off shelf, but I probably don't even have to do that. I simply need to offer a discount to any customer who shows interest in a hardcover book that has a paperback version.

It means being careful. It means doing "Just in Time" ordering. I probably means ordering mostly from Ingrams with two day shipping instead of Penguin Random House with one to two week shipping, even though Ingrams offers 10% less discount. This is more significant a loss than the 1% I lose by not returning books, but is something I pretty much have to do anyway if I want books on a timely basis.

Basically, it means sticking with what is working.

I'm well accustomed to ordering on a non-return basis. In some ways, it keeps me in check. Knowing that anything I order is going to stick keeps me a little more cautious than I otherwise would. As the saying goes, no one ever lost money selling out.

It's probably even more work to constantly monitor sales on a Just in Time basis, but again, it's what I'm used to and I even kind of enjoy it. Versus the hassle of boxing and shipping and accounting that is the return process and which bores me to tears. 

So for now, I'm sticking with what is working. If any of you would like a hardback version of last year's big sellers, there'll be a chance I have one in stock...