The Retailer's View

Welcome back to The Retailer’s View – a shambling look at the comic book industry through the lens of retail. My name is Brandon Schatz, and I am so very tired.

Since last we spoke, the store that I co-own had it’s first anniversary, DC took a big swing at (re)generating sales with their Rebirth initiative, and Marvel once again attempted to trust retailers with important information that they supposedly didn’t want leaked early and took a tumble down a well, filled with hero murder and cosmic cube induced heel turns. Clearly there’s a lot of ground to cover, but honestly, there’s barely enough time to sleep these days, let alone write a column. There’s reasons for that – which brings me to the surprise topic for this edition of the column.

SPLIT DECISIONS

About a week ago, my wife and I announced that we were splitting Variant Edition Comics + Culture off from our third partner – forming two completely separate business entities. This wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly.

When we decided to start the business, we had all agreed to a certain philosophy and structure. As time marched on, it quickly became evident that everyone shared a different take on those philosophies and structures, and that at some point in the future, something was going to give. We didn’t want that “something” to be the business, or our sanity, so we decided to do the responsible thing and end the current structure on our own terms, rather than continue with an untenable situation.

Banana Split

A delicious mistake

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, but when you’re running a small business, few things happen to be ideal. It’s a balancing act of identifying and striving for long term goals without sacrificing the business’ short term needs, and sometimes you have to compromise to make both ends work. The goal is to be in a position where the need to compromise your long term goals is less and less as some of your short term gains give you stability. In creating this split, both entities get more of a clear path to their long term goals – and while it will hurt a little in the short term, it’s a sacrifice that can be made… which I think speaks to the strength of the foundation that was built for this business in the first place.

I don’t want to get too deep into the details, (and I’m not going to talk about our soon-to-be-former-partner’s plans, as they are none of my business, nor do I know what they are) but at the end of the month, my wife and I will be moving the comics and graphic novels side of the business out towards the west end of Edmonton, Alberta – which has been without a comic shop since the beginning of the year. Coming alongside with us will be the ideas we always had at our core. We want to be a beacon for a different kind of comic shop – one that you can step into and not feel immediately overwhelmed with sensory overload. We want to be able to hold community events that don’t necessarily make money, but build a sense of shared culture and community, such as free clothing swaps and quiet reading nights for introverts. We want these events to have an extremely low barrier for entry, because it’s not about building walls or catering to a specific, pre-existing crowd – it’s about extending the boundaries of what a comic shop can be and mean to everyone out there. (At this point, I want to stress that our soon-to-be-former third partner wasn’t necessarily opposed to these ideas, just that time and space for two different styles of events in one place don’t jive all that well.)

What we want is to get back to the ideas that we started with a little over a year and a half ago. We want a welcoming space where anyone can walk in with curiosity, and out with something new to experience. We want to be mindful about the product we carry, as well as how we carry ourselves. We want to be vocal about the things and people who try to limit what this wonderful medium can do. We want to dismiss those who demand that comics remain a bastion for a precious few, rather than expand to include and reflect the experiences of the many. We want to be change and we want to be loud about it.

Looking forward to the upcoming move and the new space, I am filled with a positive energy that I’ve been lacking since the start of the year. Again, I would stress that this isn’t a reflection on what was, so much as the potential of what can be again. It’s not quite a clean slate, but it’s one that we have a lot more authorial control over, and already it feels more comfortable.

Split

Nobody likes you, bowling. (Except for the folks who do.)

We take possession of our new space on August 15th and we’ll be spending a couple of days both running our portion of the old space while making the necessary changes to the new place before it’s ready to open. Right now is the blur of licenses, banking and contract stuff that (re)starting requires and getting the word out about the move. I’d be lying if I told you that this article wasn’t a little part of that. Right now, I only have so many stones, and the birds are getting restless. But anyway, if you’re going to take any lessons from this article, let it be this: in business, specificity is key. It is very easy to find common ground on broad points of philosophy. It’s the fine tuning that will get you into trouble. Always be as specific as you can possibly be, even if you think you’re being needlessly particular. Communicate your wants and needs with specificity – and that doesn’t just go for agreements between business partners, but in all facets of the business.

We learned that lesson fairly early on (although not early enough, it would seem) when we first took possession of our original space. We had contracted our renovations through our landlord – the architecture firm upstairs – and they had obtained the services of some folks who did a pretty good job of turning things around in a timely manner. The problem? If you weren’t pinpoint specific, you got something close to what you wanted, but not exactly. We had requested the electrician to run ethernet cords through the ceiling in order to hook up the security camera system we intended to nab with general ease, as well as have a port to connect our merchant terminal into. What we didn’t specify was the fact that we wanted the those cords to have termination points so we could actually plug things in. I remember discovering this shortly after we went to plug in our debit machine for the first time, only to find frayed wires. In what world would somebody want these cords ran through their place of business without the termination ends? They knew what we needed, but we didn’t communicate the full extent of that need in the contract. They did what they promised they would do – and while the gap between what we wanted and what they did was infuriating, we weren’t wrong to have our expectation, and they weren’t wrong to execute the contract down to the letter, and nothing more. Specificity would have fixed that.

So that’s where the future lies: a focus on building a broad and welcoming community, but through a more singular lens. Having run the numbers quite extensively, our new version of Variant Edition will be able to continue and thrive, even if there’s a bit of a loss in the move. We’re not counting on the fact that we’re moving into an underserved area to deliver new customers right away, but it could. If that’s the case, hey, we’ll be laughing. If not? Well, we’ll continue to survive until more people find us. Until then, we’ll continue to be loud and build while we keep spinning the plates in the background.

MEANWHILE…

I was extremely pleased when I heard that Brian Hibbs was moving his long-running Tilting at Windmills column here to The Comics Beat. While on the one hand, I’m lamenting what this means for the direction of CBR, I’ve always appreciated Brian’s take on the industry, and used his column as a source of inspiration while putting together Variant Edition’s business plan. If you have a chance to go through some of his older columns (I know the archives are scattered around the internet and potentially incomplete), go ahead a give a few random editions a read. You’ll be surprised (or not) at how many columns from years and years ago could run today with very little changes required to the structure.

I’m excited to be working adjacent to one of my retailer heroes, and with our combined resources, we’ll be able to address a wider range of topics in a smaller span of time – with room for disagreements. It should be fun.

Anyway, you should read Brian’s latest – a take on the latest round of Marvel Now which I’m pretty on board with – and come back for whatever he has coming up next. It’s hard to say, because the industry is always churning out things that need to be discussed.

Until next time…

Comments

  1. Suzene says

    Congrats on the impending move and getting to set up a space that’s all yours! Hopefully you’re not completely cratered by the end of it all.

  2. Al@ says

    Your philosophy about attracting and retaining comic readers sounds very well thought out. I’ve always found that comic shops are like hangouts for the ‘comic cognoscenti’, which can be verrrry intimidating for casual readers. Sort of like the cliche of the snobby restaurant where the waiter looks down his nose at you for asking dumb questions. How do you get someone to walk in off the street to look around? Best of luck and please continue to post updates!

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