I’ve loved comic shops ever since I rode my bike past Kim’s Collectible Comics and Records in the mid-70s. Kim Draheim, the owner, was one day away from opening the store. He told me to come back the next day. I did and I am proud to say I was his very first customer.
I get that same thrill every time I visit a new comic shop. I’ve been to quite a few since then. I am always impressed the way each one seems to be on the bleeding edge of Geek Culture, combining entrepreneurial courage with personal passion.
So I was so eager to start reading Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture. There’s a lot of great stuff in this book, and I wanted to learn more. I reached out to Dan Gearino, the author and he had a lot to say.
Ed Catto: Can you tell us a little about your comics background and business/writing? What makes you the right person to write this book?
Dan Gearino: I’ve read comics for as long as I can remember. Like many children of the 80s, my gateways were the G.I. Joe and Transformers from Marvel. I soon became a DC kid, though. I think I was hooked for life by 1985, with DC’s Who’s Who, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and my discovery of the Legion of Super-Heroes. In high school and college, I read the Vertigo books. Shade the Changing Man was my favorite, and I don’t want to reread it for fear that it may not hold up. Late in college, I found my way to DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis, and that’s when I started to read Palookaville, Eightball, Artbabe and a lot of the other great stuff that was coming out in the late-1990s.
As for my reporting background, I was an editor at my college newspaper in Minnesota. My first job at a daily newspaper was in Keene, New Hampshire, where I covered a little bit of everything, including the presidential primary. From there, I went back to my home state, Iowa, and covered the statehouse and politics. Since 2008, I’ve been a business reporter for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, covering manufacturing and energy.
Because of my experience writing about businesses, I could see what an odd duck comic shops are in terms of the model, and I could see that the shops have an unusually high degree of difficulty. That, along with a great cast of characters, made me want to take a close look. Also — and this is a significant point — there were no books out there about the business of comic shops, and I thought that there must be people out there like me who wanted to know more about the subject.
EC: The early days of the direct comics market is getting to be “a long time ago”. How did you go about researching it all?
DG: Much of my research was through interviews, largely because there is not a reliable written record of a lot of this stuff. Unlike the things I cover in my day job, comics were not a large enough business to attract much market research or professional media coverage. The fan press was fun for me to read, especially for the ads from early dealers, but was no substitute for a good trade journal. This changed later on when the Comics Journal began in earnest, and other publications, but that wasn’t until years after the dawn of the modern version of the business. Luckily, many of the people from the early days are still around. I was thrilled to find and interview Robert Bell, an early retailer in New York, and Jonni Levas, who was co-owner of Sea Gate, the first direct distributor of mainstream comics, just to name two people.
EC: How many comic shops have you visited? What are your personal favorites and did you come across any surprises?
DG: I visited at lot of shops. It would be a project to trace my steps and count them. Suffice it to say that there are many shops I visited that informed the reporting but are not mentioned in the book. As for favorites and surprises, I have a real fondness for Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; Legend Comics in Omaha, Nebraska; and Aw Yeah Comics in Muncie, Indiana, to name a few that I was unaware of before this project. There were several others that are well-known for being great, and were indeed great, such as The Beguiling in Toronto, Chicago Comics and Flying Colors Comics in California.
EC: What comic shops are next on your list for a visit?
DG: My list is long. There are a few stores I profiled that have moved or expanded since I last was there, plus many that I heard about for the first time after the book went to press.
EC: How would do you respond when someone says, “I’d like to open up a comic shop?”
DG: My advice would be that a new shop owner needs to be well-capitalized to be able to afford the kind of diverse inventory to have a strong start, and to weather the potential of a slow start. The amounts are different depending on the region, but $100,000 is a number I’ve heard more than once as a rule of thumb. This is very different from the 1970s, when someone could start a shop with their own collection and first month’s rent.
If you have the financing make a go go of it, my next advice would be to visit lots of stores and see what they do well. Many retailers will be eager to give advice, as long as that new shop isn’t in the same market. The best stores have a lot in common in terms of attitude and merchandising choices. Also, find a bad store or two, with disorganized stock and an indifferent staff, so that you can see how not to be.
EC: What comics are on your nightstand and from which comic shop did you buy them?
DG: My local shop is The Laughing Ogre in Columbus, which is a prominent part of the book. I have a big stack of comics and books, including recent issues of Saga and Paper Girls, a few of DC’s Young Animal titles. I also have lots of back issues that I’ve picked up all over the place, part of a seemingly unending to-read list. Lately, I’ve gotten a lot of old Jonah Hex, which I started to buy because of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s art, and then continued to get for the clever stories and the other great artists such as Tony DeZuniga. There’s a lot of Garcia-Lopez on my nightstand now, including some old Batman and DC Comics Presents. As for books, I’ve been reading Charlier and Moebius’ Blueberry, thanks to a great find at a used-book store. I also got some great new stuff at Cartoon Crossroads Columbus, a show here in town that everyone should check out. One of the guests was Tillie Walden and I got a signed copy of her new book, Spinning, which is ridiculously good.
EC: Who can argue with someone who’s reading Paper Girls and Jonah Hex? Thanks for your time, Dan.
Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture is available at comic shops and bookstores everywhere.