Last Thursday in this space, Glenn Hauman wrote about comic shop owners who can’t seem to adapt to the ever-changing retailing reality. On the flip side of the coin are the many industrious and innovative retailers who have indeed figured it out. These are the folks who have learned how to survive through the industry’s ups and downs, as well as through the nation’s economic upturns and downtowns. In the year 2017 (and I’m pretty sure it will be the same way in the year 2018) storefront retailing is a difficult game for anyone to play. And so, in this week’s column, let’s take a look at one Geek Culture entrepreneur who leaned how to play the retailing game with skill, pertinacity and grace.
Ash Gray has been running Comics for Collectors in Ithaca NY since 1981, and next month he’s expanding his store.
In the 70s, Gray started by selling comics by mail with ads in Alan Light’s Comics Buyers Guide. He eventually met a fellow mail order retailer, Bill Turner, who also lived in Ithaca, NY. Together they launched the Ithaca Comic Book Club. That led to next starting Ithacon, now the nation’s second’s oldest comic book convention. They pooled their resources to then open Comics For Collectors in 1981. This comic shop, in the shadow of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, was nestled on second floor of a downtown building.
The store’s business grew over the years, and soon they switched locations, expanding to a ground level location. During the boom years, Comics For Collectors become a regional franchise, spreading to locations in nearby Corning and Elmira. As the industry contracted in the early and mid-nineties, they hunkered down, closing those stores and focusing on the main location.
“We were in the middle of an economic downturn,” recalled Gray. But they had been there before and knew how to operate during these conditions. “I look back when we opened in the early 80s. Economists said it was a downturn when we started.”
Eventually, Turner would lose interest in retail, but Gray pushed on. “The current location gives us 750 square feet of retail space. But we’ve maxxed out on space. We have a lot of graphic novels and book type products,” said Gray. “We’ve tried to be creative in displaying in the last 10 years.”
And that’s what the expansion will provide for Comics For Collectors. Gray is able to add another 700 square feet in the adjacent storefront that is part of the same building. “This location become available when the bookstore decided to retire,’ said Gray. “It’s worked well for a number of local merchants. The bagel store has expanded. There’s a new waffle restaurant that did the same thing, opening a portal to their new space.”
Comics for Collectors will do quite a few things with their new space. “We’re looking to expand the selection and “viewability” of the product lines. What makes people pick up a book is the cover art. They pick it up, take a look and then decide to buy it.” So it’s important for Gray to display comic and book covers.
“It’s never good,” Gray noted, “when a lot of things get smushed onto the racks.”
The expansion will also allow the store to showcase more Young Adult graphic novels. Locally, both kids and parents locally have responded well to the lines of new graphic novels and comics inspired by creators like Raina Telgemeir. Ithaca’s a town of readers, and often families want to own the books they’ve read in the libraries, or want to get the books before the local libraries acquire them.
Comics For Collector’s additional space will also showcase board games like Settlers of Catan by Mayfair and Munchkin by Steve Jackson Games.
When it comes to these board games, Gray says, “I’m interested in education. These games can be intimidating.” So the expanded store will have an expert onsite Saturdays to help consumers sample and learn about the various games.
A strong comic shop is more than just a retail space to help locals acquire products. It’s about community, providing services and employing locals. Over the years, Comics For Collectors has employed many people, several of whom have gone onto careers in Geek Culture companies and publishers.
And along the way, Ash Gray has had to bob and weave, to change and to adapt to an industry that can be confusing and is always evolving. But he’s managed to do it for years. With this expansion, it looks like he will again.
• • • • •
Comics for Collectors Grand Opening is scheduled for Saturday, December 2nd, and will feature specials, activities and professional guests, including Steve Ellis and Laura Van Winkle. For more information, check them out on Facebook or Instagram.
I moderated a panel at New York Comic Con called The 7 Archetypes of Comic Shops. My All-Star panelists included several outstanding comic shop retailers. It was a fascinating time with lots of surprises – remind me to tell you about Marc (Aw, Yeah) Hammond’s Frank Gorshin story someday. We had a packed room and it evolved into a celebration of smart retailing and Geek Culture.
The new kid on the block was Jeff Beck, an ambitious retailer who just opened a comic shop called East Side Mags in Montclair, NJ. It’s a great store and you might remember I was impressed when I visited it during my marathon comic shop travels on Free Comic Book Day. I sat down with Jeff and here’s what he had to say:
Ed Catto: Jeff, your store looks great. Can you tell me how long you’ve been retailing, and the backstory of how you decided to open East Side Mags?
Jeff Beck: ESM has been open for almost a year and half now. I worked retail when I was in high school and college but never in a management position. Just a floor guy or stock room guy. Nothing special. I went to college for music recording/radio/audio engineering and ended up in the Audio Visual industry while trying to find a job more geared to what I studied. I ended up working for a major corporation that provides AV services in hospitality environments. My position was Sales Manager but I had extensive knowledge in setting up equipment, operation, etc.
I worked in this capacity for about a decade – working in hotels and conference centers. I met my mentor (and one of my closest friends) Nicholas Cox, whose open door policy of management exposed me to the ins and outs of running a business. We discussed P&L statements, payroll, management tactics, operational details, etc. and he really gave me the opportunity to understand what it was like to run a multi-million-dollar department. My last “tour of duty” was with a privately owned conference center company (startup) in Manhattan in which I worked (again) as Nick’s right hand man after we both had left PSAV. I loved working with Nick and we saw high levels of success.
I wasn’t satisfied though. I needed to be my own boss and had always dreamed of owning and/or running a comic store, as I’ve been a collector for over 20 years. With the knowledge I had, I began to work behind the scenes of my regular job to put a business plan together. Studying sales statistics, perusing websites, blogs and message boards for 2½ years, I finally had a viable business plan and saw growth in an industry most thought would “go the way of the buffalo” in this digital age. The day came, I dropped five resignation letters, and I was off.
Having been turned down for small business loans by five banks, three co-ops and a government agency whose management “switched hands” and froze their loan program, I decided to cash out every account I had in my name and went all in! And here we are today – each day better than the last – and from here, the sky’s the limit!
EC: It’s cool that your store name doesn’t have the word “comics” in it. Was that intentional?
JB: Yes. I guess. I needed a cool name that reflected my rise to being my own boss so I chose East Side Mags. East Side Mags is the name of a song by a NJ punk band called The Bouncing Souls. When I first saw them play, it was in a skating rink in West Orange called JT SkateZone! Now they tour the world and play with big name acts, the Warped Tour, etc. They went from being grassroots to being a highly successful musical act and that’s what I wanted to achieve as well. That this particular song came on in my car while waiting to meet with another prominent retailer who had agreed to meet with me and, being off one my favorite albums, seemed fitting. Especially where the “Mags” is concerned. I have had one person – a food delivery guy – who thought I was a gun store. He couldn’t have been more wrong!
EC: What type of clientele do you have? Is that what you expected?
JB: My clientele is really very diverse. It reflects the research I did but you never really expect to see what you see until you’re there. It’s like seeing pictures of the Grand Canyon then actually going to the Grand Canyon! I would say that my customer base is almost half female – showing a greater number of female readers as per the reporting I had seen from several news outlets. Also, I have a lot of kids and families as we have an extensive kids section of all ages material – great for kids to come in and grab whatever they see that interests them – without parents having to be concerned about content.
EC: It looks like you are very involved in the local community. Is that important to you?
JB: Community is very important to me. Anyone can open a shop anywhere but they’ll close their doors just as fast as they open if the community doesn’t find value in what the business does. Because of this I am very focused on the community at large, constantly adjusting our products and services to accommodate a diverse community.
EC: What are some of the activities you’ve planned at ESM?
JB: We host a monthly movie night where I rent a 6’ screen, projector and sound system, but instead of collecting money, admission consists of healthy food donations that are then brought to local food pantries. Bring a bag of brown rice – you get to see a movie! That deal can’t be beat!
We also host local (and affordable) art from local artists around North Jersey/Central Jersey and constantly rotate it to keep things fresh. We sell the artwork on a consignment basis so that the artists’ costs are covered and the remainder is split 50/50, ensuring the cost doesn’t come out of the artists’ half of the sale. We also work with the Montclair BID (Business Improvement District, also known as Montclair Center) and host art walks, sidewalk stroll sales, etc. and we stuff shopping bags with menus and business cards of other businesses around Montclair to help promote other businesses to our customers.
EC: What activities are ahead?
JB: We continue to do all the things already mentioned and I’m also looking into hosting vintage video game tournaments and free play as a possibility.
EC: Can you talk a little about how you’ve laid out your store, and what you feel the ideal mix of Geek Culture items is?
JB: Comic book stores, by default, are visually overwhelming. If you’re a fan or even know a little about it, you walk in and are immediately floored by the variety of comics, toys, accessories, t-shirts, etc. that are available. We have a large wall clearly marked with new arrival tags where the new issues are put up each week. We have large, customized bins to hold back issues – some going back to the 60s or earlier. On the opposite side of the store we have a large wall housing toys, action figures and novelty items. Trade paperbacks and graphic novels make up the other part of that large wall, with mature trades separated from Teen or Teen Plus trades. Above the toys and trades, we have shelving that displays the local artwork mentioned earlier with tags showing the artists’ names and where they are from in New Jersey.
We have a few glass cases housing statues and the more interesting or expensive/breakable items and a few spinner racks with more action figures and toys. We utilize some of the space for pop up tables with featured items. Right now Star Wars is pretty big deal, so we have a table of all different kinds of Star Wars merchandise.
We have two large chalkboard walls as well. One, right next to the new issues, is used for listing all the new comics that arrive each week to allow customers an easy (and colorful) layout of “what’s new” that week and roughly where they can find it along the new release wall. The second chalkboard wall is for the customers and kids. We keep a small bucket of chalk next to it that kids can use to draw absolutely anything they want.
Then we take a picture of the wall post it on our website. The sales counter, where the register is, has cards, some art and smaller items that people can look through. Behind the counter, on wall shelves, we have the “wall books” – basically any comic valued at $10 and up that we display and sell but do not leave in the bins due to the overall value of the comics themselves. Some items include or have included Iron Man #55 (first appearance of Thanos), Amazing Spider-Man #300, X-Men #1 from 1963, etc.
EC: During FCBD, you had the most extensive offering of Free Comics. Can you explain your strategy and provide any results or follow-up?
JB: Diamond Distribution has a number of titles available for retailers to purchase on FCBD. Some retailers, I guess, don’t get copies of everything and everyone has their own strategy when it comes to picking comics for FCBD. I got X number of every single comic that was available to me to purchase and essentially got rid of everything!
Granted they are free, but we also had a ton of people buy things in addition to the free comics. I think people saw the generosity in making the widest selection available and minimal prohibition (customers could take one copy of as many titles as they wanted) so they bought items as well to show support back to us for the great spread! It was a very “Do unto others” type situation. People felt the love so they showed us love in turn and it was an amazing day!
EC: What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned?
JB: I’m surprised at the number of indie comic book writers and artists there are out there! In a digital age when so many publications are being pushed to iPhones, tablets, etc. there are so many people out there with pen and paper, writing, drawing and marketing their own works on paper! I get at least two emails/phone calls per week with someone asking if we’re interesting in carrying their comics. I’m also surprised at how many people come into the shop and are interested but have never read a comic! We make first time recommendations for so many people. A lot of people must have had some negative experiences or something because they always tell us they wanted to [get into comics] but didn’t for some reason – someone must have turned them off to it.
But we thrive on a welcoming atmosphere where people of any level of comic knowledge can feel comfortable and our recommendations make it easy to get into the books! Like superheroes? No problem. Like love stories? No problem. Like zombies? Vampires? War stories? Different takes on historical events? Kung Fu? Music? Animals? Robots? Outer Space? Clowns? Feminism? Masculinity? We can find something for ALL OF THOSE!
EC: What’s your favorite comic and do you market it extra hard at your store? JB: I don’t know if I have a favorite per se but there is definitely a strategy to the comics I read each week. Yes. I read each week to keep up on what’s going on. I make sure I read the more popular titles like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, etc. I read as many #1s as I can get my hands on and try to keep reading into the #4 or #5 issues to get a handle on the story arc so when customers inevitably ask about a title, I have an answer for them instead of “Well, a lot of people buy it so it must be good” mentality. I also have a lot of indie/self-published works that I read as well and probably push those more than major titles – based on the fact that they are written and drawn both by an indie writer/artist who doesn’t have the benefit of DC or Marvel or Image putting out and distributing their work. I can’t say I push any titles in particular extra hard but try to see what the customer likes and focus on that. Being that I read a wide range of titles, I honestly feel that I can find something for anyone based on their taste in movies and/or TV shows.
EC: What’s your experience with comic conventions and where do you see them going in the next few years?
JB: I think comic cons are great! There seem to be an awful lot of them these days but when they’re done right – they exceed expectations! Organized, lots of talent, focusing more on the comics with a little media thrown in is where it’s at! I think as long as comics are accessible to people and tie into movies and TV (mainstream), comic cons aren’t going anywhere any time soon! It’s also great for comic fans because it gives them a chance to meet the minds behind their favorite comics and get their comics signed or get a sketch or commission done by their favorite artists, ask questions with regards to inspiration or favorite story and really interact with the people who make/create the things they love so much. Where else can you do that?
EC: Is it true you are a newlywed and had a unique Pop Culture theme for your wedding?
JB: I’m a big Star Wars fan so once we were announced man and wife, I grabbed my original Han Solo plastic blaster from my childhood, my wife put on a headband that gave her Princess Leia buns, my best man put on a Chewbacca mask and my wife’s man of honor held a plastic light saber. The audio guys played the throne room music from Episode IV and we marched down the aisle as man and wife! We also gave out Lego Star Wars key chains to all our family and friends as wedding favors!