Tilting at Windmills: Two Stores, 75K Back Issues & Investing in the Past

Thu, March 20th, 2014 at 11:58pm PDT | Updated: March 20th, 2014 at 11:58pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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I'm now at the end of the first quarter of owning my second store. Wow, what a pile of work!

Now, it isn't, necessarily, hard work or anything -- just lots of work. I've been working 10+ hour days, seven days a week, trying to get the store on what I consider to be "the right path," and trying to figure out the best way to make systems work together and things like that. Fundamental tasks like ordering new comics become much more complicated between two stores -- or, at least, finding the time to coordinate the two store's orders, while much of that work has to be done outside of normal store hours (so I can log in while the stores are not busy helping customers) is more challenging than I would have thought.

The biggest shift for me is probably the internal one in my head around back issues.

As I think I may have mentioned, the second store came with approximately seventy-five thousand back issue comics in an (about) 650 square-foot basement. Stacked floor to ceiling, with narrow aisles between them -- so narrow that you couldn't really get to most of the long boxes without moving other boxes out of the way first. The whole thing is just a gigantic game of Jenga, with the attendant risks of everything toppling over.

Now, I essentially got rid of back issues fifteen years or more ago at the main store. Actually, let's go farther back than that, twenty-five years ago, when I first opened -- I started the store with my personal comic book collection (about thirty whole long boxes) and a $10,000 loan. Back then, back issues were what made you "a comic book store." When I opened there were about twenty-five comic book stores in San Francisco (now we're down to nine), and at least three of them pretty much sold nothing but back issues.

There, essentially, weren't trade paperbacks back then -- the month I opened in 1989 was the first month that Alan Moore's first "Swamp Thing" book was released in a collection, and I think that was the seventh or eighth book from DC Comics? Back then, most people were more interested in collecting the original comics, believe it or not.

But times changed, yes they did -- and the market changed from primarily desiring the originals to primarily desiring the reprints (it's not much of a surprise really -- it takes much less effort to get the books, and they have no ads, and are usually on better paper, etc., at least from pre-2000 comics, and so on), and, from the point-of-view of a store owner, I liked the book format better too. Just to name one factor: it meant you could reorder what you sold and replace it in mere days. That wasn't (necessarily) true with back issues. Once you sold that "X-Men #32," you might not be able to lay your hands on another copy anytime soon.

So, as the market started shifting towards the graphic novel, I did the cost-benefit analysis and quickly saw I would be more profitable selling books than back issues, and the 60% of our store's square footage that was devoted to back issues was liquidated, and converted to graphic novels, and I never looked back. Today I have maybe 10 square feet of back issues in the main store, and it's probably twice what I need, for what actually turns in any appreciable way.

Having said that, the main store has good pedestrian traffic, is on a busy and visible street, and does a lot of "civilian" walk-by, is centrally-located in the city, and sees a lot of tourist traffic. The second store? Not so much. That's a destination store, for sure, with no one walking in there that didn't plan a trip in advance -- so there's not a lot of "casual, civilian" graphic novel traffic.

(I've got a few plans to change that the best I can, but I think that will just be how it is, primarily because of geographical considerations.)

I think that I can absolutely double and treble their graphic novel sales, but, y'know, I inherited these 75K comics on site, and they've got some excellent bins custom designed for back issues in the first place, and, perhaps most importantly, no one in town is a back issue specialist any longer -- half the stores have none, and the other half don't have a whole lot more than my main store -- so rolling the dice on trying to make a go of the back issue business seems like a not waste-of-time move, at least to see what happens.

So, my first job was to "part the Red Sea," and separate the wheat from the chaff, which meant physically going through all (approximately) 300 long boxes and seeing what was in each one.

The joy was, of course, playing Jenga (or maybe Tetris, when I think about it), and trying to work around piles of things being in the way of other things, being in the way of even more. Man, king-sized drag. Not even a little bit helped by the basement being pretty damn filthy and musty, and the 300-ish long boxes not even being in the slightest bit of order.

Lots of junk (oh, lots and lots!), but not the typical junk you find in consumer collections, but the kind of junk you find of nineteen years of build up from a mainstream comic book store. That is to say: mostly Marvel and DC overstock, and relatively little of fourth-rate independent comics that no one would ever want.

There were also boxes of readers-grade Bronze Age comics. A serious shed-ton of boxes of Bronze -- probably close to 20 long boxes? And you might think "Oh, that sounds swell, Brian!", but there's a real physical limit of how many copies of "Marvel Team-Up" and 1970s Conans and Killravens that a single (or, I suppose, a pair of) store might be able to move. When you have 25+ copies of some of these books, you have to ask yourself if they're at all liquid, without going way outside of your comfort level.

I mean, I really really don't want to become eBay guy. That's not why I sell comics for a living. I like interacting with people face-to-face, not dealing with nitpicky folks through the mail.

So, for a lot of this stuff, it was really just a matter of trying to decide how many copies made rational sense to keep for in-store sales. And while I was thinking "7 to 10!" at the start of the process, I quickly started paring that down to 3s and 5s towards the end, because there just isn't enough good clean storage room to hold on to that much stuff.

Wait, did I mention the part where the (filthy, moldy, overstuffed) basement isn't even a "walk downstairs" deal? No, sheesh, you've got to walk about half a block down the street, and head down a public right-of-way alley staircase, open a gate, and walk back about that half-block (through a dirt backyard) to get to the door of the basement. Yow, what a drag.

At least three quarters of the stock I didn't want and/or have room for. More than 50k books.

Man, that's a lot of stuff packed into such a small store.

I spent a lot of time trying to work angles of how we might move some of that locally -- there was an open store front about a block away that I thought of trying to do a "pop-up" shop to liquidate out the comics; and I approached a local school about maybe doing a "white elephant" sale in their enormous yard -- but none of it worked out. The open store front turned out to actually have someone who has been leasing it for the last two years and is "imminently" about to open something there (me, I am guessing there's some sort of drug trafficking or something going on, because who on earth pays rent for two years and doesn't put a business in?), while the PTA at the school liked the idea, but the Principal just never returned my e-mails.

In the end, I found another retailer (on the East Coast) who was willing to buy it all as a lot for about a dime a piece, and I'm considering myself very lucky for the result. For the person with the warehouse space and manpower and desire to do it, well, I think he's going to at least quintuple this investment, while I'm walking away with a price that helps me defray the cost of buying the business by a decent measure.

And I'm still keeping like sixty long boxes of back issues to build our section.

This is the part where I'll say "But we'll see..." I mean, I got out of back issues the first time for a reason. They weren't turning very often, and I had a clear path for how to navigate the store, and there were several other specialists in town. And all of those guys have now since closed. I tried to keep only "stands the test of time" material, keeping primarily "original core" DC and Marvel titles. For example, I kept "Batman" and "Detective" back issues, but nothing from "Shadow of the Bat," or "Legends of the Dark Knight," virtually none of the Batman-related miniseries, etc., because those books simply don't turn fast enough.

I imagine there has to be a market for "Thor" and "Iron Man" and "Captain America" back issues (but not any of the innumerable spin-offs) -- but I'll now find out if that market is something sensible, or something very very small.

I figure I'm willing to invest 2-3 years into the experiment, and see what the results might be, which is how long it is going to take to build up a sensible graphic novel backlist over time any way.

See, because this is the core condundrum that I see with opening a new comic book store in the modern market (he said, burying the lede): a modern comic book store practically begs for fifty grand of book-format inventory, or more, to have anything like a competitive selection. I've put in about $15K so far (on top of what I paid the previous owner for the customer list and fixtures and inventory), and I've really limited myself so far to just the best-turning material, and it's still a good long while before it will turn enough copies to have paid back that initial investment.

The hard reality is that most backlist just doesn't turn that often. I mean, yes, those first few copies of the "Watchmen" trade paperback are a powerful investment, that really does nothing but grow over time (by your fourth turn on an in-print book, you're then pretty close to "pure profit") -- but there are a lot more books than anyone wants to admit that will take a couple of years to get up to that "fourth turn."

My hope is that the back issues will provide just enough cash-flow to smooth the building of the backlist book selection, and that we'll then find a nice equilibrium to continue to have a strong selection of both formats. Worst case, I just have a massive sale to get rid of the back issues in a couple of years where I will be able to recoup (probably) about 25-cents each on average for what won't sell. (that is: more than I bulked out the vast majority of the back issues to the other retailer)

It will be an experiment, for certain.

A couple of other small observations about back issues:

1) Man, Marvel comics in the pre-Jemas/Quesada '90s were really really ugly. The character redesigns (usually more "armor"-y, more "Image Comics shoulder pads") were hideous and impractical, the colors garish and unattractive, even the logos of the comics through that period just don't look like something that you'd want to buy. It isn't hard to see why so many people walked away from comics during that period, when you look at it archaeologically.

2) Comparatively today, I have to say, having now had to deal with 300 long boxes of not-in-order comics, Marvel comics look really really good. The new store does full-face cover display of new comics, and the Marvel books stand out.

However...

The new store had a pretty drastic over-ordering problem directly before I took over, so there are a lot of new Marvel comics that we had very many copies of, and it was really, really, really difficult dealing with them because Marvel puts all of the numbering information, and, in far far too many cases, the logos, on the bottom of their comics.

Comics are generally stored in long and short boxes. It is very difficult to organize these if you can't immediately see the logo/number information on the top of the book.

Whoever designed the overall look for "Marvel NOW!" comics will have a very special seat in hell waiting for him or her, I say as a person who will be filling and processing these for decades to come!

3) I think that both Marvel and DC have made some pretty severe tactical mistakes by severing the majority of their titles from their "traditional" numbering. The "sense of history" that we once had, that you can see in the tea leaves of 300 boxes of comics, is now all but vanished, and if any one thing dooms my back issue experiment here, it is going to be that. Those five and six and seven and eight hundred issue runs of the past have no feeling of connection to today's environment of "nothing is numbered higher than #50."

And that really sucks.

Not just from there being no connection between that series of "Detective Comics" and this series, but also in how they reduce the general connections between other books in the "universe."


Still, I'm actually pretty enthusiastic to see what the possibilities of back issues truly are in the modern era. It's not at all right for the "book store" that I already own, but I think it can be the smart play for the Outpost.

I'll keep you posted, as well as on the other things we're trying like building the GN selection to attract the college students from the two (!) colleges we're between, and building up the kids section for the two (!) primary schools we're between.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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