Thursday, February 04, 2010

Online ordering, the death of small town stores, and what happened to kids?

Whatever happened to small town comic stores?

In the last ten years six small comic stores that I have frequented have gone out of business.  One of them closed due to a decision by the owner to spend more of his time at home with his kids, and less time worrying about operating a high overhead operation.  I understood the decision, but I also expected that the vacuum would be rapidly filled. It was, but the store that filled it lasted only a little over three years before it too was gone. The economic downturn hit it at exactly the wrong time, and there was no viable way for it to stay open and succeed during the downturn.

What's left?

The few comics that I still purchase (and may seem like a lot to you guys, but it seems like very few to me) I now buy online because the pricing is simply so much better.  I'm afforded the luxury of ordering from a U.S. supply house because a good friend of mine now lives in the U.S. and is in Canada regularly enough to deliver the comic books to me.  The difference, for me, is no tax (15% saved) excellent cover price discounting (average is about 38%) and no need to worry about a short shipment costing me my book (something I ran in to all too often as smaller stores got thinner and thinner on their ordering.) Against the almost 54% savings of this method I'm faced with one cost; shipping. It's a nominal amount for me because I have it shipped once a month, in the U.S..  It runs about $6.

There is no need for me to factor in the dollar differences, because they exist regardless of what currency I'm paying in.  If I buy in Canada, the difference has already been factored in to the Canadian price, and usually it's nowhere close to the actual conversion rate.  Somebody's making a few extra cents on every dollar (somebody always is!) when I buy in Canada.  I suppose the only downside is that here in Canada almost every store supplies bags and boards with the books, which this company doesn't do.  I've done the math though, and after I supply my own bags and boards I still save about 40% per book on average.

So that's how I get my books now.  It's smart, fiscally responsible and prudent.

It also sucks balls.

Every store that is available to me is either a large (LARGE!) store with no personality at all, like shopping in the Wal-Mart of comic book stores, a chain store (the McDonald's of comic stores) or it's a small store in a high rent area that has nothing to offer me in terms of incentive to shop there (like being a Tommy Bahama fan....which I am.)

Whatever happened to the true small town comic book store? The place where I could drop in on comic day and grab my weekly pulls, and then sit around and shoot the shit for an hour or two with the owner, the counter clerk, a couple of other patrons and somebody's hot wife. Some weeks the conversations and anticipation of upcoming storylines were more impressive than the reading I got to do when I got home.  I miss those times.  Some days I literally crave those times (although I confess that my wife DOES NOT miss them.)

My best guess is that two things have changed significantly.  The first is that there doesn't seem to be anywhere in a small town where you can get rent that isn't designed to make you go bankrupt in your first year.  Building a small niche store requires cashflow and time, and the rents that I'm seeing people ask for these days makes that almost impossible. When I go looking at the basement location in a small, dingy strip plaza, I shouldn't be getting quotes that are four numbers long/month.  I shouldn't be anywhere near that. With the housing bubble having burst in the U.S. last year, and the Canadian bubble probably going to adjust, if not burst, this year......why do landlords who own tenant properties think they can get $1500/month for a dump that will take $12k in renovations just to turn into a workable retail property? Who are they saving that space for?  A lawyer's office? A mini Wal-Mart?  Who's going to throw that kind of stupid money at them for their spaces?

The second problem is that despite the resurgence of comic characters in pop culture (a phenomenon that will not slow down as technology makes better movies and TV shows possible) there seems to be a general apathy towards the industry from younger people. When a small family run business opened up in Georgetown a few years ago, the comic book clientèle was almost exclusive over the age of thirty. You could count the number of regular comic buyers under the age of thirty on two hands.  Despite the fact that the main street that it was on had a farmer's market every Saturday morning in the warm weather months, and kids were out walking the street all morning while their parents shopped for fruits and vegetables, there was no tangible increase in store sales (although traffic escalated.)  Was it a failure to connect with the young patrons?  I'd like to think that the couple in question did everything they could to foster an interest in comic reading in anyone and everyone who showed any interest.Still, they didn't make it.  The store shut down about two years after it opened, and the biggest reason was that the finances just didn't work.


Overhead was too high, and sales were too low.

It's a real shame too, because while valuable cultural small businesses are closing everywhere I look, I can find an 'alternative lifestyles' shop in many small towns.  So our kids can shop for bongs, but they can't shop for comics.  Unless they go to Indigo, or into the city where some holdouts of the heyday of comics still remain.  But it isn't the same for them as it was for me. At 14 I would sit in the ice cream place next to the comic store on Wednesday afternoons and drink a milkshake while I read the week's books.  Does that sound hokey and straight out of Happy Days?  Because I would give anything to spend my Wednesday afternoons that way now.  And I feel for the kids who don't have that option.

Here's a scary thought; is the death of the small store a precursor to the death of the individual issue?  Will we be blogging in 15 years about the times when they used to sell monthly issues instead of semi-annual graphic novels?


Rude39 said...

I completely agree with you. One of the best parts about a small comic book shop, one that isn't a chain or a gigantic retailer, is the social interaction. The conversations and relationships one can form from such a niche hobby. That said, it would seem to be as though most comic retailers have to cater to more than the comic crowd to succeed. (I.E. The Gaming Community, Magic: The Gathering, D&D, so on and so forth.) Even with those alternatives lumped in with comics, many stores fail.

As far as why we see so few kids these days, part of that might have to do with just what comics have to compete with now a days. In the age where kids are growing up being able to access Facebook and YouTube form their phones, have DS' and PSPs tucked away in their pockets, comics may not hold the same appeal.

Of course, this last part is just speculation on my part.

A large reason why I don't read them anymore outside the trade paperbacks and graphic novels is because of a lack of venue. (In Louisiana, you have to live in No, Baton Rouge, or Lafayette for this sort of thing, and it's all chains. The smaller ones are in the middle of nowhere kind of places such as Mobile and Kenner.)

It does seem like comic collecting as a subculture is dying, or at least changing. Instead of flesh and blood communication, like everything else, online communities are formed.

Cam said...

Nice obserservations Jordan. To quote Dylan, "the times they are a changin'".