In all the puff pieces and half-baked profiles one comes across in searching the internet, this story on the financial troubles of Berkeley’s Comic Relief ranks high on the list for out-and-out weirdness and omissions.
What is not in dispute is that since the death of owner Rory Root in 2008, the store has gone into serious decline. The piece reports that since going in arrears to Diamond, the shop has not received new product from them in a month. Understandably, without new comics, customers are not clamoring to shop there. Closing is imminent unless a new buyer for the shop is found.
Another story of the sad economy? Not really. How did one of the pioneering stores of comics retailing, one whose owner was a trusted advisor to 20 years of creators and publishers, go from the top of the industry to praying for a miracle rescuer in two years?
The story claims it was Rory himself.
Naive business practices are partly to blame. When founder Rory Root opened the store in 1987, he wanted it to be all things to all people. “A ‘Comic Bookstore,’ rather than a ‘Comic Book Store,'” Juricich said. “As in, ‘This is a bookstore that sells comics.'” In keeping with that philosophy, Root stocked everything from the superhero perennials to the fringiest ‘zines. To a certain extent, Comic Relief retains that model. It’s known for having a wide selection of indie publications. Cardboard boxes on one of the front tables hold a full alphabetized collection of minis and ‘zines — everything from Optic Nerve to Laugh Riot to Cometbus. Other alternative titles include Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, along with a wide selection of stuff by Jim Woodring and R. Crumb.
Root worked at Comic Relief until his death in 2008, and kept the place alive through sheer zeal. He had a strong network of friends to help when money got tight, which also gave him the leverage to spread himself thin. When Juricich took the reigns as manager about a year ago, debts had accrued. In essence, he would stock too much of what wasn’t selling, Juricich said. He offered an analogy. “Say you have a video store, and you have the top-selling Hollywood stuff that’s doing just fine, and then you also have this large selection of French-English subtitles. Maybe the French ones are great art movies, but they just aren’t moving as fast. So you have to cut back.” Juricich tried to apply that logic to Comic Relief, but it was too little, too late. “Unfortunately, as the manager, there’s only so much I can do other than using straightforward common business sense to keep the place going.”
Right, so standing by the best comics for 20 years, championing emerging creators and looking to what would bring in new customers — all that stuff? Crap. Cutting orders on new product, that’s the way to do it — straight to near bankruptcy.
There is much more to the story than this piece reports, most of it common knowledge in the Bay Area comic community. When Root died in 2008 his plan was to leave the store to one of his employees, a trusted manager who knew how to run the shop. Unfortunately, according to several people close to Root, he failed to properly execute his will, and ownership of the store has passed instead to relatives without a retailing background. The Juricich mentioned in the article is Chris Juricich, a former customer whom Root’s heirs hired to run the store. According to observers, the new owners made many questionable decisions, such as giving up Comic Relief’s prime exhibiting space at the San Diego Comic-Con. Not only was that a good source of revenue, but once a floor space is given up, it’s almost impossible to get back, especially one of that size. Comic Relief doesn’t even set up at the local Wonder Con any more — retail stores sales were a key part of their revenue and visibility.
Of course there are two sides to every story, but to imply, as this news story does, that the near-closing of a store is due to the man who ran it successfully for 20 years and not, perhaps, to the more recent management, is odd, to say the least. Or as one commenter puts it:
The inaccuracies in this story are stunning. There are small errors, such as the statement that an internationally-known store which won multiple awards in the industry over a period of more than 20 years “thrived on a small core of devotees.” Really? And there are larger mistakes, such as the implication that the demise of the shop was based on the lack of consumer loyalty, rather than the family’s deliberate choices – to stop appearing at all conventions, to crowd out the manager who had been at the helm for over a decade in favor of a former customer, to treat the store’s longterm customers like dirt . . . to name just a few. But the most egregious of all is the implication that Rory Root is responsible for the sins of his greedy, short-sighted, selfish, uninformed relatives. It’s hard to know where to start on that one. Suffice to say that if this is what passes for journalism these days, Jerry Springer has a Pulitzer in his future.
UPDATE: As Torsten pointed out in the comments, Image publisher Eric Stephenson rebuts this story at his blog:
Having known Rory Root since I first started working in comics in the early ’90s, I can tell you that as much as I loved the guy, he was far from perfect. He kept Comic Relief alive and kicking, though, often against significant odds, because he understood the business and had a deep-rooted love and understanding not only of comics, but of the people who bought and read them. As a result, there were people willing to do favors for Rory simply because it was Rory. Rough around the edges though he was, Rory was a magnetic personality and he engendered a tremendous amount of goodwill. There were few greater ambassadors for comics, and since Image Comics moved to Berkeley in 2004, it was the pleasure of our entire staff to shop at his store.
Until recently. A seemingly never-ending series of colossal blunders by Rory’s family have put the store on life support, and now the store is a shell of what it once was. Comic Relief hasn’t received new product in weeks. For anyone even the least bit familiar with the business of selling comics, it should be vodka clear: No new books means no business. No business means no store. And far from being some sort of solution to the store’s troubles, the Roots are actually the cause. They took the store over against Rory’s wishes and have run it into the ground with such force, you’d think they were blasting for oil.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.