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My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.
THINGS AND STUFF
In my experience, it's the rare comic shop that only carried comic books. It'd be nice if I could get by selling comics, only comics, and that's it...but a little diversification never hurts, so long as the items are reasonably related. (We had a store across the street several years ago that sold both guns and lingerie. Yes, really.) So for this month's column, I thought I'd go over some of the product lines we have in our shop, plus a few that we no longer handle.
Here are the items that we currently carry:
NEW COMIC BOOKS: Well, duh. Can't hardly be a comic shop without 'em (though I've been in a few stores that have tried). We try to carry darn near everything, coming as close to a "full line" comic shop as is feasible. Maybe we don't have every single new comic on the shelf, but we're a whole lot closer than those shops I've seen that describe themselves as "full line," then mention how they skip over most of the independent companies when it comes to ordering time.
Of course, there are some comics that I can't blame anyone for not wanting to carry. But, I guess if people want X-Men, we'd better stock it.
OLD COMIC BOOKS: Boy howdy, we've got a lot of them. I realize this is more the exception than the rule nowadays, as more and more stores move toward the trade paperback model (more on that in a moment), but quite frankly, I like having lots of old comics around. Plus, the fact the fewer stores deal in old comics means more customers coming to us for them.
If you want to read more about my thoughts on back issues, may I refer you to a previous "Behind the Counter" column?
MAGAZINES: Well, with a Barnes & Noble and a Borders both within spitting distance of our shop, carrying magazines can be a bit tough. I can always tell when one of those stores managed to get the new Heavy Metal before we did, since our copies will then gather dust on the shelf. Fortunately, though, we manage to beat them to the punch about 95% of the time. Other media mags, like Starlog and Fangoria, used to do well for us, but I think with the advent of internet fandom news sites, with which our clientele is more likely to be familiar, sci-fi and fantasy mags suddenly find themselves slightly redundant.
GRAPHIC NOVELS / TRADE PAPERBACKS: Whether you like it or not, this is where a good portion of the marketplace is headed. As unit prices increase on the staplebound periodical books, many comic fans are preferring to wait to get their storylines in more sizeable chunks. Even if the cost of the graphic novel is equal to, or even greater than, the total costs of the comics reprinted therein, the perceived value appears higher. A $15, 144-page graphic novel just plain seems like a better deal than six $2.50 comics.
And, of course, as resistance drops to higher-priced squarebound reprint books, original graphic novels have proliferated and succeeded as well. Graphic novels and trade paperbacks have gone from being novelty items to being a large percentage of our store's business. I don't believe the monthly books are ever going to go away, but collections and original graphic novels have firmly established themselves as an important alternative.
MANGA: I don't like to separate this out from "graphic novels," but the increased impact of manga on the comics market necessitates singling it out. The convenient size, the even more convenient price points (usually $7.95 to $9.99), and the wide-ranging subject matter make these attractive to non-traditional comic fans...i.e. young women. The rush to jump on the manga bandwagon has flooded the market with more titles than I know what to do with, and there is a bit of a learning curve in determining which titles to keep a backstock on and which to happily sell through on, but it's worth it to widen our customer base.
T-SHIRTS: Quite frankly, I think we could use a few less t-shirts around the shop. Sure, ordering a few out of each monthly catalog doesn't sound like much, but if they don't sell, they sure pile up right quick. Some t-shirts always sell, like the logo shirts -- the Superman "S" shield, the Batman logo, even the Green Lantern logo -- these are nice, simple designs that always appeal. You can go too far in that direction, however, such as when DC released "Metal Men" t-shirts that simply had the atomic symbols for each metal represented in the team. Big whoop.
TRADING CARDS: In the early to mid-90s, trading cards were huge, spurred on by the quest of comics "investors" looking for the next big collectible. Marvel Comics pumped out card series after series after series after series, DC Comics followed suit, and every comic company seemed to have a set or two, or a dozen, of their own.
Eventually, the trading card market...well, it didn't crash, exactly, but the early '90s explosion finally petered out, mostly from Marvel flooding the market with set after set after set and customers getting worn out from trying to keep up. Nowadays, card series based on movies and, believe it or not, Garbage Pail Kids cards (both the new series and some old boxes we have floating around), sell the best. And when we bust open some boxes to make sets for sale in the store, the chase cards we find usually make for some good eBay fodder.
POSTERS: These generally do very well for us, particularly the simpler images focusing on just one or two popular heroes or teams. Parents like to find superhero posters for their kids, so keeping a Batman or Spider-Man poster on display on a wall usually guarantees plenty of sales on them. The Fathom and Lady Death and other bikini girl posters do well, too, but I try to keep those in the poster display case instead of hanging them up on the wall...those are just a bit embarrassing.
TOYS: It used to be that carrying toys was a fool's game, particularly if you have any chain toy stores in town. Anything you could get, the other stores could get more of, faster, and cheaper. With the advent of toys available only (or, at least, first) to Diamond accounts, we finally have a very slight advantage over the Toys R Us stores.
However, even then, toys can still be a bit of a crapshoot. The McFarlane toy lines have declined in popularity over the years, with too many coming out too frequently, and many customers only being interested in the figures short-packed in the case lots. The phrase "peg warmer factory" may be a bit harsh, but it's reasonably accurate. The DC Direct figures are a little more puzzling...some sets do extremely well (like the recent Elseworlds line), while others just sit there and look at you sadly (like the Batman Villains line from a few months ago). Another phenomenon I've noticed is that DC Direct has gone from having no Batman or Superman figures (due to a toy licensing agreement with another manufacturer) to having too many Superman and Batman figures.
STATUES: Mostly, we just get these in as special orders, since at the price points they generally sell for, just getting them on spec can be a risky proposition. We still have statues floating around that we ordered years ago...even after reducing them in price multiple times, they don't move. I know some stores can move statues like nobody's business...we're just in a non-statue area, I guess, aside from those couple of customers who special order two or three a month.
A couple years back, it seemed like every statue we were getting in had something broken inside. One statue in particular, a tall anime-based female figure, was accompanied by a small cat statue whose tail was invariably broken off in the packaging process. We had to go through three of these (calling in the damage to Diamond, returning the statue to the distribution center, waiting for the replacement) before we finally received one that wasn't broken. We're now in the habit of opening up every statue we receive to check it for damage...which, quite frankly, makes me nervous because I'm afraid I'm going to break it!
The following are a few things that we've carried, at one time or another, that we've either dropped completely or reduced considerably:
ROLE PLAYING GAMES: This may take a little explaining. A couple decades back, there was a dedicated gaming store in town which had gone out of business. Shortly thereafter, people starting coming into our store, asking for Dungeons & Dragons and other items of the kind, which we didn't carry. Far be it for us to not cater to a demand, so we starting to carry role playing games, to great success.
However, role playing games can have their problems as well. While the money we made on RPG items was nice, especially compared to comic book sales (one gaming item could bring in $30, while one comic book could bring in, what, $2?), the risk was much higher, too. If someone introduced a new gaming system, it was rarely just one book. It was usually a series of books, like a gamemaster guide, a player's guide, a monster guide, or along those lines. You'd have to order the full line to entice people to try out the game...but if nobody bit, you were stuck. Even if people did like the game, there's no guarantee the manufacturer would support the game for any length of time.
In recent years, a full half of our store was devoted to carrying role playing games, but, for various reasons (primarily the desire to refocus the business on comics), we sold off the games section of our store, with the end result of two separate businesses now being located under one roof. While I miss the customers and money the games used to bring in, I don't miss the high distribution bills, and I certainly don't miss getting cornered by the occasional enthusiastic gamer who has to tell me, at length and in exacting detail, his last battle with that massive kobold army.
COLLECTIBLE CARD GAMES: In the early 1990s, we got in a few packs for some card game called "Magic: The Gathering." Didn't have a box for it, didn't really have anywhere to put them, so we just kept them up by the register, hoping somebody would take pity on us and buy them. And there they sat, unpurchased, unloved.
One day, we received a phone call, asking if we had any Magic cards in stock. "Why, yes," we told the person on the phone, "we have, oh, say, about six packs." The person told us to please hold them, as he would be driving up from Los Angeles (about 60 miles south of us) to pick them up. We said we would, half-figuring the person would never show up, but since these cards were hardly flying out the door, it wouldn't hurt to put them aside for a while, just in case.
Well, the person who called did turn up, about an hour or so later, and bought all the packs, desperately inquiring as to when we could expect more to arrive.
I think at that point we began to realize that we had a new phenomenon on our hands. "Magic: The Gathering" really took off, as did some (but certainly not all) of its many imitators..."Pokemon" probably being the most successful of them. Once we began to deal in single cards for sale, my one little box of singles soon became several boxes and binders.
The collectible card games were also included in the gaming store sale, so they're now those guys' problems, not ours!
DVDS / VIDEO TAPES: How a distributor can get us to not carry a product line in our store:
1. Make sure we receive the items much later than every single other retail source on the planet.
2. Make sure our wholesale cost is higher on said items than other outlets' retail prices for the same items.
And that's why we no longer carry DVDs or video tapes.
POGS: Of all the things I've sold in our store, of all the items that we've been able to sell hand over fist, of all the products of questionable value and taste that I've sold over the years, pogs are the only things I've ever been ashamed of selling. I've sold pornographic comics. I've sold girlie trading cards with "scratchable" swimsuits, like lottery cards, where you can scrape away the clothing, revealing the nakedness below. I've sold Rob Liefeld comics. I happily admit to all of that. But only pogs brings shame to me and my family, makes me lower my head in disgust with myself, knowing that I've willingly sold cardboard disks (and the accompanying metal "slammers," and the long plastic storage tubes, and the holders for said tubes that could be clipped to your beltloops) to children. For money. At least collectible card games involve strategy, comic books involve reading...pogs involve nothing. Nada. Not a sausage...beyond, I suppose, developing the highly necessary skill of being able to throw things at a pile of little cardboard circles on the ground.
If I'm going to hell for anything, it's this. If you're reading this and I sold you pogs, I deeply apologize.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com. I loves me the e-mail, so send me some already!