As we reported earlier today, the San Mateo location of Lee’s Comics is closing after 29 years in business. We reached out to owner Lee Hester for more of the story, and he responded below: We wish him well with his remaining store in Mountain View.
I started in business in 1982 with a tiny store in a bad location in Palo Alto.
My competition was Comics and Comix, which at it’s peak was the best chain of comic book stores the industry has ever seen, and I was up against their 2nd best store, (2nd only to their Berkley location.) They were doing about 10 times better than me in the early days. I always felt that a good competitor makes you stronger.
In 1987, I opened my 2nd store on El Camino Real in San Mateo. It was a much larger store, and it remains there to this day. (That’s the one that’s closing next month.)
In 1990 I moved my Palo Alto store to El Camino Real. It was a much larger location, and was on a corner with great street visibility.
Within a few years I was doing well. The 1990s were great for me. I got married, bought a house, and raised a family in Silicon Valley. All on comic book money.
Eventually Comics and Comix went under, and I became the largest comic book retailer in Northern California.
In 2000, things began to slow. The Palo Alto landlord would not renew my lease, so I moved to an even bigger store in Mountain View.
2001 hit, and the economy took a big downturn.
Sales have been going down in both stores for 15 years now. I cut down my salary, 3 times. I’m now working twice the hours for half the pay that I got in the 1990s.
I figure it’s better to make a planned landing now than to make a crash landing later. I’m hoping that many of the San Mateo customers will travel over to my Mountain View location and bolster the sale there. In addition, I have been growing my sales of vintage books, and hope to make that a larger part of the business. I’m hoping that the consolidated store will do well.
There’s no sure things in this world, but I’m hoping to stay around for a long time to come. I’ve been in retail for 33 years, and I find that you have to re-invent yourself from time to time if you wish to survive. Only the name “Lee’s Comics” stays the same. This is a very radical change for me, but it’s also exciting. It’s definitely gotten me out of my comfort zone. I’m a little scared, but also excited. I’m hoping to make one really great store, and I’m be lavishing all my attention and resources on that in the coming months.
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.