Ed Catto: The Retail Panel That Started 35 Years Ago
Another one of the panels I moderated at San Diego Comic-Con was called “The 7 Comic Shop Archetypes.” “Who Will Triumph, Thrive and Survive?” was the admittedly over-the-top subheading. The purpose of this B2B panel was to explore the business aspects of this retail outlet that serves as both the sentry guard and encouraging ambassador for the exploding world of Pop Culture. In many ways, comic shops are on the frontier of one-to-one customer service for many communities and customers.
I was excited to start this panel on that Saturday of SDCC, but I think it really started way back in the ‘70s. I clearly remember that point where I had graduated to buying my own comics each week. Before that, my dad had bought me a comic each Sunday after our traditional Italian Pasta Dinner. He’s a very generous guy, and sometimes still buys me comics. Now I had reached a point where I was really into purchasing comics myself with money I earned. Imagining myself as a “world’s greatest detective type,” I took great pride in discerning the shipping schedules for all the comics.
I learned that Thursday was the day they’d rack the new comics. And then I decrypted the Marvel monthly schedule. The Avengers always showed up on the first week of the month, then Captain America and Thor the second week, Spider-Man was the third week and Fantastic Four was always the last week of the month. This was well before the Diamond Previews catalog existed, and I was still a couple of years away from discovering fanzines like The Comic Reader.
So each Thursday I’d ride my bike down to Maxwell’s Food Store at Five Points in Auburn, NY. In typical upstate New York fashion, this was a wonky place where five roads intersected. Maxwell’s, a family owned store, was a kind of “prototype 7-11” style convenience store. When I was there, the stock boy always lurked about, suspicious that I would steal comics. After a while I tolerated that. But I never got used to the “aren’t you a little old for those funny books?” stare from them all. Thankfully, I think that’s stigma’s finally been erased for today’s comic buyers.
One day, on my way home, with my stack of new comics, I saw an incredible sight. Right next to the local barbershop, a man and a woman were moving boxes into the tiny storefront. (We never got our hair cut there – he wasn’t Italian). And they had a sign out front: Kim’s Collectible Comics and Records.
I was jumping outta my skin. I introduced myself and pestered them, anxious to go into their store. But they just weren’t ready and explained they were opening the next day. They gave me the “come back tomorrow” line, and I sure did.
The next morning, I was there waiting for them to open up…. and, as you can guess, I went back again and again.
Since then, I’ve always had the good fortune of having a great local comic shop in all the places I’ve lived:
- Comics For Collectors in Ithaca
- Million Year Picnic, New England Comics and Newbury Comics in Boston
- Chapel Hill Comics when I was doing my graduation work at UNC (“Go ‘Heels! Dook sucks!”)
- Joker’s Child when we settled down in New Jersey
- Midtown Comics & Jim Hanley’s Universe were perfect for a weekday visit when I commuted into NYC
And now I’m lucky that I can always rationalize a comic shop trip when I’m traveling.
Comic Shops are an important lynchpin for Pop Culture. They also represent a vanishing breed of community-based retailer. Most of us no longer have a neighborhood butcher, a neighborhood vacuum-cleaner-repairman or a neighborhood bartender. Even the person who does your hair probably doesn’t have an exclusive relationship with you. Some of us are lucky enough to have independent, neighborhood bookstores, but not many.
But to many consumers, comic shops are the place where they can find a friendly advisor as they walk down the perilous path of pop culture. And at the same time, they provide a real world “water cooler” opportunity to speak face-to-face with someone passionate and knowledgeable.
Last year at this time, Business Insider proclaimed, “The Comic Book Industry is On Fire, and it’s not just the movies.” Reporter Gus Luben talked about the increase in graphic novels and comics and about the perfect storm of media exposure and conventions. They projected the sales of just comics and GNs at $870 Million at that time. As you’ve been seeing if you’ve been paying attention, that’s all just increased and intensified in 2015.
In my job, as I help connect brands with pop culture in authentic ways, I know that more companies and marketing agencies take geek culture more seriously. Smart marketers understand how important comics shops can be in developing those conversations and relationships. You didn’t have to attend my SDCC panel to understand that.