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.
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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.