Tilting at Windmills: Lessons From Comic Relief & Borders

Thu, March 24th, 2011 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

My best friend in comics retail was Rory Root, the owner of Comic Relief in Berkeley. I don't think I was Rory's best friend -- that honor would probably go to Jim Hanley -- but I'd sure call Rory my best bud.

Part of this came from bonding over foxholes (as it were) -- Rory and I both worked (before we opened our own stores) for a now defunct Bay Area comics chain, he in the Berkeley store, me in the San Francisco one, so we shared a lot of war stories. And after opening our own stores, at least once a week we'd have a post-midnight phone conversation, babbling about comics and retail and how to make things better. I think I can safely say that Comic Relief was the best comic book store that I've ever personally been in in my life. For me, Mecca (metaphorically, of course!) was facing over in the East Bay.

Rory's been dead three years now. He left us on May 19 of 2008.

Comic Relief opened April 15, 1987. Comix Experience open just short of two years later on April 1 of '89. We came up together.

If you knew Rory well, I think it's fairly certain that it was Rory's intention that, upon his death, the store's ownership was meant to pass to CR's manager, Todd Martinez. I'd easily testify that Rory directly told me this on dozens of occasions, and I'm sure we can find several dozen people who knew the same. But apparently no will was ever found.

Was this just Rory procrastinating one more time? I don't know. All I know is that without a will, his Estate (which included the store, of course), passed to the Root family, and the Root family didn't honor Rory's stated wishes, ultimately bringing in an outside manager over Todd. Todd left Comic Relief.

And Comic Relief died on February 14, 2011, closing their doors forever.

I don't know who to "blame," really. CR had a whole lot of structural problems that Rory was able to maneuver around by his sheer force of personality, and he also owed a whole lot of money to a whole lot of people. It may well be that, even if Rory hadn't died, we'd still be talking about the death of Comic Relief, though I really don't think so. Same thing with Todd -- there's no way to know if he would have been able to turn it around, had he been owner as Rory wished.

About the only thing that I do know with any real certainty is that Todd didn't get the opportunity to be the owner as I think he should have been.

There's a couple of lessons here for comic retailers, I think -- well, any small business person, I imagine, because most small businesses really run and exist on the backs and life of a single person (or perhaps a duo, at most), and the loss of that key person can easily cause the business to enter a death spiral.

I mean, no one wants to think about death, really, but the pioneers of the Direct Market, the core of comics retail base, are certainly aging. I was a really baby at 21 years old when I opened my store. Now I'm in my mid-40s, and these things need to be thought about. For the longest time my thinking was, "Well, I'm in a community property state, so no thing -- my wife just gets it all", but now I've also got a son to think about, and it suddenly becomes a whole lot more important that the store strongly outlives me.

Retailers need to think about Wills. And Life Insurance. And maybe even Key Man Insurance. It is hard for small businesses to continue past the loss of their owners, but having a plan in place, and not just "I'm going to get to this someday", is really important for each of us.

I've also begun to train my staff in some of the jobs that I do -- even something that we take for as much granted as ordering comic books is a pretty esoteric and nuanced job, so having more than one person who is capable of doing it is a terrific idea.

I urge you to take a look at your options, and to have your stated wishes clearly encoded in a legal document that several people know the location of. I know Rory would have regretted what went down after his death, but maybe he can serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

At least one store, operated by former Comic Relief staff, with some of CR's stock, is opening in the wake of CR's closing (and I hear tell of a second, different, store on the way), so that's a positive thing. But they're not going to be Comic Relief. They can't be.

Rest in Piece, Comic Relief.


The other major death issue to talk about is the shuttering of hundreds of Borders locations, so that, even if the bookstore chain manages to survive bankruptcy in the end, it will likely be as a hollow shell of its former self.

One thing that I believe is that the failure of large chain retail businesses is almost always a matter of business fundamentals, rather than any larger statement. That is to say that the failure of Borders has a whole lot less to do with some sort of theoretical "Death of Print" than it has to do with things like "how much was their rent?" I mean, if the figure I heard for the Union Street store here in San Francisco was even close to true, it was a truly preposterous amount of money -- a figure under which it would be extremely challenging simply to break even, let alone make a profit.

What really gets me, though, is that there were decades of people warning about the perils of chain store consolidation -- that it would leave communities with fewer or poorer book buying choices, that centralizing stocking invariably leads to less diverse stocking, and so on -- and it turns out that, yeah, that's pretty much what happened. How many thousands of independent book stores have gone under in the face of chain retail, and now how many scores of communities will now have no bookstore available to them when their local Borders closes?

Despite all of the talk about digital sales, or internet-sales, the overwhelming majority of commercial transactions take place face to face over a counter. I was recently at a meeting with Google, on their campus, where Google presented a whole lot of metrics that showed, even with the most glowing projections that was going to be situation for many, many years to come. I'd love to share this data with you, but I'm under NDA on the specifics and you'll sort of have to trust me that this is what their results show -- the majority of money is squarely on physicals objects in a physical world, and is expected to stay that way for a long time to come.

So, I think it's really important to support local businesses in your local community. Local businesses help keep money in your community, both directly (because they tend to source as many goods or services within their own community!) and indirectly as well. Like, I know that it's really terrific, as a consumer, to not have to, say, pay sales tax when you buy over the internet, but those taxes are exactly what funds your town's repairing potholes and pays for your children's teachers!

The site is aimed specifically at San Franciscans, but I'd still like to urge you to click through to Shop Local SF for a whole lot more reasons to support local businesses in your own area -- otherwise I'd just be cutting and pasting from there.

The meeting at Google didn't have anything (specifically) to do with comics, or even entertainment businesses, and, of course, it's entirely possible that we will have a very different story then what their data shows -- there's certainly a chance that we could end up like the music industry where digital sales are up 1000%+ over the last six years, yet global revenues are down an astonishing 31%(Here's a pretty fascinating PDF that lays out the current state of the music industry, and it doesn't look pretty to me), but that's not a result I'd wish on my worst enemy, let alone an art form that I adore, like comics. It seems to me that if we want comics to thrive, it's in everyone's best interest to have a strong network of physical retail outlets.

But, by the same token, it is equally important, in my opinion that these networks are decentralized, and closely connected to their local communities, to avoid massive collapses like Borders. That's exactly why I am so enamored with the Direct Market system, for in many ways we're much better positioned to weather a changing market that the super-consolidated systems that are generalist bookstores, music stores, video stores, or even movie theatres have become -- any given store in our system collapsing is unlikely to take the system as a whole down.

There are a lot of publishers, a lot of creators who have been negatively impacted by the collapse of Borders. There are a whole lot of Borders employees who are now out of a job, and, as a bulk, don't have a lot of options to move to other bookselling jobs.

They all have my sympathies.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links)

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