Welcome back to the Comic Pimp! As promised in last week's column, we're jumping right in on our cross-country virtual road trip featuring the brightest and best of the future of comic retailing.
To kick off this tour, we will first travel to sunny southern California where last August a new store called Secret Headquarters started to ensure that comics are no longer the entertainment industry's best kept secret. With a store like an art gallery and monthly art openings, these guys are really giving us all something new to love about comics and comic stores. Even if all you do is look at the pictures in this article, you're going to be blown away by how utterly unique this new comic store is.
But enough intro, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Dave Ritchie and Dave Pifer of Los Angeles' Secret Headquarters!
Comic Pimp: Let's get this interview stared out at the beginning... because everyone's got a first, and oh, do we remember them well! So tell me what was the first comic that kicked off your life-long love affair with comics and made you want to do comic retailing for a living?
David Ritchie: I have very vivid images of "Dr. Strange" and "Thor" comics that my brother and I found in the alley on the way to school in Chicago. A nice treasure that had me thinking that the garbage collecting profession might not be a bad option for me. I started stealing comics from 7-11 on a regular basis soon after…
David Pifer: A buddy of mine was reading "Dark Knight Returns" when it came out. I read that, and it blew-out my 12 year-old mind. Around then I met a real cutey named Sarah. Six years later I had enough of the girl trouble and started to read comics again.
Comic Pimp: So how about your secret origin? Before you guys opened up Secret Headquarters, what kind of things did you do for a living?
David Ritchie: Working in the skateboard industry for the past 10 years. First as a manager/buyer for a small chain of skate shops in Los Angeles from there moving in to the sales/management side for some of the bigger brands in the industry.
David Pifer: I've mowed lawns, grilled steaks, repo'd cars, been a Paramedic, a Bicycle Mechanic, a Lifeguard, a P.A., bagged groceries, run a G&E house, sold clothes, records, videos, sandwiches, yogurt, flowers, linens… I think my job count is somewhere around forty two.
Comic Pimp: (Laugh) That's quite a track record, Mr. Pifer!
As you guys both know, I come from a background of swanky restaurants, which has served me well in helping to create my shop's particular atmosphere and vibe. How have your previous life or work experiences helped shape Secret Headquarters? I know from talking to you on the phone that you're a couple of opinionated guys, and knowing what you do about how your experience has helped you... what kind of skills do you think every retailer should have before getting into the business?
David Ritchie: I don't know if we are opinionated as much as we are confident in our store's philosophy, which really is very basic: provide a clean, organized and inviting retail environment. As far as skills? Well… I think knowing your strengths and weaknesses is the most helpful. Knowing when to seek help in an area you lack experience or knowledge will keep you out of trouble. Dave knows a hell of a lot more about comic book culture then I do, and that is balanced out by my willingness to provide grief for him.
David Pifer: I'd say it's mostly confidence. I feel that I have something to say about most everything that I've experienced over the years. I have something to say about the comics I've read, and the business environments that I've seen or participated in. Before anyone gets into any business of their own, they should really stop and think of why they're doing it. It takes the same skill set you need to get by in your day-to-day life. I don't care how much you know about Dr. Doom, if you can't talk to another human being without coming across like an ape, then don't bother. So just be honest with yourself please.
Comic Pimp: Yeah, that sounds like great advice that I think could help out any retailer. So, all right, we're confident in our vision of a super-sexy comic book store, we're well-socialized, and we've got some big goals, but take us back a little bit farther. Tell me what inspired you guys to create Secret Headquarters. How did that come about?
David Ritchie: I think it really came down to wanting to create our own clubhouse. We have both been buying comics for years at different shops across the country. None of them were exactly what we wanted in a local shop. That and we both thought it was time to start working for ourselves. Nothing worse then watching your ideas collect dust.
David Pifer: I was tired of assisting this nutty Director. So it was time that David and I got to work on our own business. I think we'd been talking about opening something together for around ten years. Since we've both been skateboarding since we were little, that was the natural first business. Only it wasn't. So David pitched his comic shop vision and we started working on it the next day.
How do you deny someone that says; "I think we should call it Secret Headquarters?"
What is the philosophy behind your store? Mine is all about sex-appeal, sexy art on the wall, sexy nerds behind the counter, and sexy books on the shelf. How does your vision of what you want to do with comics retailing become a reality?
David Ritchie: I think all retail stores need to have a few basics down before they even think about being competitive or successful. Look at any well-run store in any area of retail and you will see that they are all clean, organized and safe environments. This goes for the biggest of chain stores to the most exclusive of boutiques. Not sure about these other shops. but we want to see women in our store and having a bunch of corny ass comic book posters covering the front window isn't going to allow for that to happen. Hell, I don't want to go into that store if I can help it. If I were a parent, I wouldn't want my kids rolling to the creepy comic dungeon either, which just kills a potential life-long fan of comic books.
David Pifer: Opening a "comic shop" wasn't enough. It needed to be a place people would talk about and be drawn to. Better yet, a place that they would want to share with other people. One that would "wow" the hell out of everybody, comic fans or not.
David Ritchie: We've had non comic book readers wander in to the store who were so excited with the place that they wanted to participate and support what we were doing. This means they walked out of the store with comics when they initially had zero interest in comic books. The atmosphere makes a difference. Truth be told I think comic books are not shown the respect they deserve by the average direct market store. How can anyone think of comic book culture as a serious art form/entertainment option when the local shop has stained carpet, a ceiling that is caving in and a half-eaten sandwich chilling on the mismatched bookcases?
Comic Pimp: Preachin' to the choir, my brother! God knows I could spend all day digging through back issues bins regardless of the age of the half-eaten sandwiches that adorn the bookshelves of some dark dungeon of a comic store, but a more diverse selection of types of stores can only make comics more appealing to a broader range of consumers, ya know?
So let's quickly cover some of the challenges that all retailers have to face, especially those who are wanting to bring in more non-traditional comic customers. Briefly, without giving yourself a brain aneurism, how you meet and defeat the challenges of lighting, racking/display, and ordering?
David Pifer: That's a lot of question. It's like asking Picasso to briefly describe how he painted "Guernica." I'm not saying we've mastered anything, we just do what we think makes sense. That makes me sound like a jerk, but I'm sticking with it. Just like when you (James) go shopping and pick a suit. I bet you gravitate towards the one that looks/feels right for you, and that's that. Either it's you, or it's not.
As far as ordering is concerned, that's an entire interview on its own. I don't think any of us is ready for that.
David Ritchie: That "what we think makes sense" is based on all of the stores, meaning all types of retail that we researched as well as some common sense. Which is also balanced with a bunch of "what the hell - let's give this idea a go".
David Ritchie: Real humble Dave. Real humble. I think I could use a drink…
Comic Pimp: Well then, let's talk about your neighborhood and clientele. I know you are located in the hip Silver Lake district in LA, which is well known for great art galleries, high and low fashion, upscale boutiques, and a great indy music scene. That seems perfect for a store like Secret Headquarters. How has your neighborhood shaped what you do and how you do it?
David Ritchie: First off, I couldn't believe that there wasn't already a comic book shop in the area. Silver Lake is a neighborhood that we were already going to and very familiar with. All of the stores are smaller independently run shops and I think we knew that our concept was going to fit in nicely without having to change it. If anything we visualized our space, and for the most part, created exactly what we wanted. Our own clubhouse that pays homage to comic book culture.
David Pifer: We've been rebelling a bit by staying open till 9pm. I think the area could be more of a night time destination but most stores, and even restaurants, close by 7pm. Hopefully that will change soon…
Comic Pimp: Staying open late is a perfect segue into what I was going to ask you next. Secret Headquarters does some really cool and unique special events at the shop. Why don't you tell my readers about what Secret Headquarters has got going on?
David Pifer: We have an art opening every month. We'll have a party for the artist and then the art will stay up for the month. Our next opening is going to be April 7th with James Jean.
Comic Pimp: That's tonight!
David Pifer: Right. After James, if all goes well, we're going to have Ron Rege, Sammy Harkham, Xamie Hernandez, Kikuo Johnson, Johnny Ryan, Jordan Crane, Steven Weissman and a Pressure Printing group show. It's been totally amazingly sick for us to be able to have these shows here. We're very lucky that everyone has been so receptive. I love it!
David Ritchie: Totally amazingly sick?
David Pifer: We also have a 16mm film night once a month. A buddy of ours has a beautiful screen, a pristine pair of projectors and about 200 original prints. So, we ask that everyone brings a chair, feed 'em beer and watch some cartoons.
Comic Pimp: That's sounds like a good time! Alright then, so how do you handle the marketing for these events? Because I've heard about them all the way up here in San Francisco. And while we're talking marketing, what's your approach to marketing the Secret Headquarters store in general?
David Pifer: We'll send out emails to the local rags. In addition to that we email our mailing list and print postcards that the artists design. Generally the push for the next show starts the night of the show that precedes it. As far as regular advertising, we did a small ad in "Drama Magazine." We're going to do an ad in the new "Comic Art Magazine," too. Other than that, it's mostly been word of mouth.
Comic Pimp: Well, it seems to be working pretty well for you guys so give yourselves a pat on the back. What kind of stuff do you have planned for the future of your store? Let's say Secret Headquarters becomes the industry standard for the way comic stores will be built and operated in the future. What's the future of comic retailing looking like?
David Ritchie: Shit. Comic books need to come to mind as an entertainment option just as easily as movies, music and video games do. Part of that is on the shoulders of the direct market and a ton on the shoulders of the comic book publishers and distributors. DC, Marvel, Diamond - all of them. Let's pool some resources and have a marketing presence outside of comic books and their respected trades. All we do is preach to the choir. We're available for consultations by the way. No kidding.
David Ritchie: I'm afraid that's not going to get us the Eisner…
Comic Pimp: Since you brought up the master of the artform, and this column is called "The Comic Pimp"... a perfect opportunity to you two to tell folks about the books that you're enjoying. What's your favorite book that you think people need to be reading?
David Pifer: If you haven't checked out "Runaways" yet, you are a bad person. While you're picking that up, check out "Lulu Eightball". It's a book of gag strips by Emily Flake. I really like it, and the word needs to be spread. So get to spreading.
David Ritchie: As far as new stuff - I think I'm most excited about Ashley Wood's "Swallow" anthology. I'm also pumped on WildStorm's "The American Way," which was a big surprise for me…
Comic Pimp: Yeah, all good reads. All right, to round this interview out I'm turning the floor over to you. Here's your podium to sound off on whatever you'd like. Go ahead and rant, gimme an ad, or just preach the gospel truth, whatever your heart's desire. Knock me out, baby!
David Ritchie: Comics Pro - would the idea of developing a shop mentor program be worth exploring? I know we would have been worse off if we hadn't talked with Brian Hibbs and our Diamond Field Rep. Dave Hawksworth in the beginning stages of SHQ. Thanks guys. Also, we are available for "So You Want to Open a Comic Shop" type Comic Con panels.
Comic Pimp: There's always been a lot of talk about mentoring programs and that definitely sounds like just the sort of thing that ought to be set up, by the Comics Pro folks or otherwise. But wait... this doesn't mean I have to give up my secret bloody mary recipe, does it?
David Pifer: We love you James, you sexy Bitch!
David Ritchie: Dave, some how I think we have managed to come off only slightly jerky with this thing. Congratulations!
Comic Pimp: Thanks Mister Pifer and Mister Ritchie. I was great showing off your shop and talking shop with ya.
You've seen the pictures and now you've heard what these new retailers have to say about a few things. I think the shop looks really interesting, and personally, I really like the path these two gentlemen are carving. So if you want to check out how these guys are rewriting the rules for yourself, I urge you to stop in and see what the Secret Headquarters is all about. Heck, buy a few books while you're there and give these new retailers some love while you're at it.
And why not do it tonight (April 7, 2006) when Dave and Dave are hosting James Jean's "Taciturn" art show and auctioning off the his amazing "Fables: Arabian Nights (and Days)" TPB wraparound cover?
3817 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Saturday, April 8th
In celebration of San Francisco's Alternative Press Expo, this event features the publisher Brett Warnock for the "Top Shelf Happy Hour" and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics ceremony.
Secret Headquarters Presents
JAMES JEAN'S TACITURN ART SHOW
Friday, April 7th
A gallery show featuring the art of James Jean and a silent auction of the beautiful cover to the seventh Fables TPB, Arabian Nights (and Days).
The Comic Pimp Download Zone
Here are some more downloadable previews of upcoming comics for your perusing pleasure. As always if you like what you see be sure to put a pre-order in with your local comic retailer... I can tell you first hand we love it when you pre-order!
THE LEADING MAN
by B. Clay Moore & Jeremy Haun
32 Full Color Pages for $3.50
From Oni Press this June
Here's a book been waiting anxiously for ever since I saw a preview at San Diego: B. Clay Moore & Jeremy Haun's Leading Man. This is Oni Press' first full color mini-series since The Nocturnals and it looks like it's absolutely going to be worth the wait!
Nick Walker isn't just Hollywood's hottest actor. When he's not romancing starlets and dodging the tabloids he moonlights as the nation's most top secret super spy. Tons of smart humor, lots of beautiful people, and more action on the set and around the jet set than you'll know what to do with! Yep, that's right... You're going to want to read this.
by Tony Consiglio
136 Black & White Pages for $12.95
From Top Shelf Productions this May
Friends of the mini-comics scene will know the brilliant Tony Consiglio from his awesome work on Double Cross and Lowjinx and I couldn't be more happy to get an oversized dose of his work on this tale of duplicity, larceny, treachery, and fanatical boy band fixation from Top Shelf.
In this latest book Consiglio tells the story of Cathy, Sasha, and Gerty three friends who could care less what the demographics say about middle-aged housewives... they are completely obsessed with the pre-fab studs of the boy band 110 Percent! But can their friendship survive a brush with the objects of their obsessions?
by Jason McNamara & Tony Talbert
110 Black & White Pages for $12.95
From AIT/PlanetLar in May
If there's one book I have been looking forward to the most the past six months, it's this one: Jason McNamara and Tony Talbert's Continuity. And, seriously, only Larry Young would have the gonads to put an entire graphic novel on-line for you to download and read. Very, very cool.
So what's this Continuity all about? One hundred and ten pages of pill-addled mystery and a girl whose dreams have the power to warp, rewrite, and destroy reality. Trapped in a gritty nightmare world of her own making, suburban misfit Alicia must find someway to escape the pharmaceutical police state that her dreams have transformed the world around her into. Where do you run, who do you turn to, and what do you do when catching a good night's sleep might mean the destruction of all reality?