Monday, January 24, 2011

How On Krypton Did I Get Here? Part Six: "This Place Rocks!" -- The "Cheers" of Comic Book Stores

By The Comic Book Pusher

I launched the retail operations of The Comics Club in August 1994 with lots of fanfare and fun, but the months and weeks leading up to the grand opening were quite a challenge. I had other career options to consider, but none of them were as sexy as the idea of running a full-time retail business.
   One of those options was continuing my journalism career as a writer for Entertainment Retailer, a new publication being launched for retailers by the good people at Wizard Entertainment. You may have heard of another magazine they publish: Wizard: The Magazine of Comics, Entertainment and Pop Culture.
   I had been in contact with Joe Yanarella, who at the time was the managing editor at Wizard, about a series of articles I had proposed for Entertainment Retailer. As fate would have it, just after Joe contacted me with the go-ahead to write the articles, I signed a three-year lease on the space for The Comics Club's new retail store. I contacted Joe, explaining that I would not be able to do the articles after all. He was very understanding, and wished me well on the launch of the new store.
   I had another option beyond The Comics Club and freelance writing, which was to launch my own publication. After a lot of research, a lot of revising of the plan for a new magazine or newsletter, or book publisher, I focused on the paths of being a freelancer or launching the retail operations of The Comics Club.
   Now, you may be thinking, "What gives, Mr. Pusher? Don't you think a career in journalism is considerably 'sexier' than owning a comic book store?"
   Truth often can be a relative thing. The truth to me is that they both are sexy, each in its own way. I would have loved to write for the magazine and launch the retail operations of The Comics Club simultaneously, but getting the retail venture off the ground was consuming so much of my time that I knew I would not be able to give my all to either project if I attempted both. It would be unfair to myself, to Joe and Entertainment Retailer, and to The Comics Club as well. I decided it was the optimal way to give the store its best fighting chance in an already crowded market of similar stores. (There were three other comic book stores within three miles of the plaza where I rented the retail space, and that does not include the half-a-dozen or so sports card stores, of which several also sold comic books.) I decided to forgo the other option and focus solely on The Comics Club.
   Months in advance I began promoting the new store at local collectible shows. I was at one such show in Hollywood, Fla., handing out fliers for the upcoming grand opening of The Comics Club's first retail storefront. I came up to a table operated by a local comic shop owner. He was sitting behind the table reading a comic book, seemingly completely oblivious to me. I had never met him, although I had been in one of his stores before, (I believe he had three back then). I handed him a flier. He continued to pretend that the space I was occupying didn't actually include me.
   "Hi," I said cheerfully. "I'm opening up a new comic book store. Here's a flier about our grand opening sale. It's going to be a lot of fun." I placed it on the table in front of him.
  Without looking at the flier, and without looking up at me from his comic book, he said, "Only a fool would open up a comic book store right now." Then he proceeded to reach over and crumple up the flier and toss it to the floor, where it rolled under the table and landed squarely at the tip of my right boot.
   What I was thinking right about then and what I actually said were two very different things. When I was younger, I was much better at concealing my true feelings than I am today.
   "Well, it was nice meeting you. Happy trails," I said, with considerably less cheer than before, and walked away.
   That man was one of many future competitor comic book pushers I would meet over the years. Most of them, unlike that guy, have been very friendly people. Some of them even became my personal friends, and still are to this day.
   Even if some of the competition would be less than friendly, it was my plan to become a strong competitor, but keep business as friendly as possible with the other comic shop owners. I believe that to be the best course of action for competing small businesses if they all want to stay healthy. That probably holds truer than ever in today's difficult economy.
    My original business plan for The Comics Club called for the opening of at least two more stores in its first three to five years. But beyond the plan was something deeper and more important to me. I wanted The Comics Club to be like the neighborhood bars I remembered from time I spent in my hometown of Wyandotte, Mich. When you walked in the door, several voices from around the room would greet you by name. You felt at home among the familiar, smiling faces. I wanted The Comics Club to be like that; like the Cheers of comic book stores. A home away from home where everybody knows your name. 
   Here is a little confession about The Comics Club's interior look -- it was inspired by another comic book store. It's not a copy of that store, but that store was a major influence on how I originally planned the layout and design of The Comics Club. That store was The Comic & Gaming Exchange in Sunrise, Fla.
   I was a regular customer of The Comic Exchange, as we called it for short, from 1986 until I began buying comic books directly from Capital City Distributors in 1992.  The owners of The Comic Exchange at the time were a couple named Jan and Bill. The store was neatly divided into two main sections, with comics on one side and games on the other. They had every department within those sections well organized and well stocked. The store was always clean and well-lite. Whenever I walked in the door, Jan or Bill or one of their employees would greet me by name. Even when they didn't know a customer's name, Jan and Bill would give them a friendly greeting as they came in the door. They made us feel welcome and at home. That is how I wanted my customers to feel when they walked into my store.
   In fact, I wanted to go a little bit further. I wanted to give an even greater impact. I wanted a new customer's first impression, even customers familiar with stores like this, to be a little "Wow!" moment for them. To achieve that, I made a few essential decisions about the store prior to opening that would emulate the best qualities of the The Comic Exchange and other quality retail stores I had seen in the past.
   I decided to start with a 2,000-square-foot space rather than the industry average at the time of about 700 to 1,200 square feet. Even now, new customers are often surprised to walk in and find the interior of the store to be so big. It's not what they expect. I've had more than one customer mention that walking into the store was like walking into the "TARDIS" from the Dr. Who science fiction television series.
  I also made the isles wide enough to allow several people ample room to easily find merchandise in any given department. Two large X-Men and Dungeons & Dragons video game machines stood blinking and flashing in the front of the store, tempting customers to come inside and play. Six tables, each with six folding chairs became arenas of battle for collectible card game tournaments and, later on, a meeting place for members of our gaming club, "The Comics Club Gamers Alliance". The front of the store was decorated with bright, positive images of Superman and other colorful heroes, leaving the darker, more mature images often associated with some gaming products and action figures for the back of the store. That gave the customer a bit of a "down the rabbit hole" experience as they journeyed deeper inside. I had covered all the angles within my means to give to and get from them that "Wow" moment I was hoping for.
   My efforts were rewarded when, a few days after opening the store, a little towheaded boy no more than seven years old walked a few steps into the store, then stopped, tilted his head up, slowly taking in his surrounds. He then looked straight at me with wide eyes and a huge grin and said, "This place rocks!"
  I knew I was home.

Next time in "Confessions": 
How On Krypton Did I Get Here? Part Seven: Life is What Happens To You While You Are Making Plans For Your Life

Remember to visit these fine websites:
The Comics Club's Online Store  A Hero’s Last Resort for comics, games, toys and more!
The Comics Club's Amazing Wonder Emporium So much stuff, so little time! Browse isle after isle of wonderful, whimsical goodness!
The Comics Club @ Cafepress Wonderful, whimsical words and images on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs to pillows and more!
Princessitude! It's a princess thing! Every girl's a princess. The ones who know it have Princessitude! 
Princessitude @ Cafepress  – Find something for the girl with Princessitude!
FunnyVet.com The World's Funniest Doctor of Veterinarian Medicine!
The Adventures of Mr. Happy A FREE web comic widely known to temporarily curb the debilitating effects of boredom!