This is MATT CHATS, a weekly interview series with people involved in the making, publishing or selling comics. This week I spoke to someone in that last category. Jermaine Exum (a.k.a. “Lord Retail”) is the manager of Acme Comics in Greensboro, North Carolina. He’s built up a memorable web presence through message boards and Twitter, along with a great podcast named Acmecast, and seemed like the perfect person to discuss retailing with. Here’s my talk with Lord Retail.
Was it always a goal to network and make contacts through message boards and social media, or was that a happy accident?
It was absolutely not a goal. I was on the job at Acme for years before discovering comics discussion boards on the internet. I briefly used, what were they called, Newsgroups? The things where there were seemingly endless thread chains. But once I started at the store as an official employee I operated in isolation. I didn’t know it was isolation at the time though. We did the best we could in our part of Greensboro and that was the focus. The short story is that I went to Wizard World Chicago in 2004 which was very different from what I was used to as a Charlotte Heroes Con regular. My main take away was the Brian Michael Bendis panel where I saw several people join him on stage. This was at a time when I didn’t necessarily know what all creators looked like barring those on the Wizard Top Ten lists, so I assumed perhaps they were his family. Come to find out they were members of his Jinxworld message board. Upon learning that I was determined to be on stage with him next year. When I got home I chose a user name, Lord Retail as sci-fi writer M.A. Foster sometimes called me in the shop, and I joined. Over the course of a year I brought a retailer perspective to the discussions as well as recommendations of things to read similar to what I do for customers in the store. Then at the 2005 Wizard World Chicago, a fellow board member by the screen name of JustJeffery gave up his seat on the panel so I could be on the stage as well.
How has your networking had a direct impact on the success of Acme Comics?
A lot of publishers, websites, and creators had message boards. But Bendis’ was the one I chose because of what I saw at the Wizard convention, how close he seemed to be with his fans from Jinxworld. I feel like I was a part of Bendis’ message board at precisely the right time. Both for me personally and for the utilization of the internet as part of the industry and fandom. I met fellow retailers like James Sime from Isotope in San Francisco which did a lot to reduce that feeling of retail isolation. I felt less like I was rolling the retail rock up the hill each day once I was able to talk to so many others and share ideas and solutions as well as frustrations. At that time the “eyes of the industry” were watching. Many creators actively used the board and interacted with posters, but many more just observed passively. Through that message board I met South Carolina’s Jonathan Hickman who came to Acme twice for Free Comic Book Day events, the late Jeremy Dale from Atlanta who was a FCBD regular for several years. I met Jim McCann who was with Marvel’s marketing department at the time and was a tremendous contact for me as a retailer. At that time there was no Marvel sales rep, but due to some of the posts I made, Bendis introduced me to David Gabriel who is now Marvel’s Senior VP of Sales. Communicating with him about various things that I felt needed reprints or stories that should be collected was a gamechanger. I won’t claim responsibility for it, but I did suggest that if Avengers #500-502 was collected as a Marvel Must Haves bumper edition, we would be able to sell more copies of the final issue #503 and the Avenger Finale. And when Marvel did reprint those issues as a Must Haves we were able to order and sell more copies of #503 and the Finale. So to say that networking online had a direct impact on the success of Acme Comics is an understatement. It raised our profile on a national level, with publishers, with creators. And it is where “Lord Retail” was born. As silly as that name sounds to me most of the time, it is a name that isn’t entirely unknown. I could only keep up with one message board and once I began to use Twitter in earnest I realized I could only keep up with one social media platform so the energy that was devoted to the message board converted to that. But I kept the Lord Retail name for Twitter and Instagram or some derivation of it. Sometimes I’m recognized and other times I’ve forged brand new credibility for myself and Acme Comics.
How do you think it might have it had an indirect impact?
Indirectly is hard to say as its indirect. But its all about getting the name out there. Sometimes I have no taste for what I lovingly refer to as “shameless self promotion” but other times that is exactly what you have to do if you’re a retailer, creator, or publisher. You have to put yourself out there and also distinguish yourself. If you know the Word Balloon podcast, in its earlier days, the Bendis Tapes would consist of a call for questions on the message board that would be answered via the podcast. So through that, assuming my question wasn’t directly a retailer question, Bendis would be kind enough to say what store I was with. I remember there was a band traveling from the Pacific Northwest to the southeast who detoured a ways out of their way to come through Greensboro to visit Acme because they heard Bendis talk about the store on a Word Balloon podcast. That was and still is incredible. I’m pretty sure that many businesses would pay cash money to focus groups and marketing teams for that type of response. That kind of indirect impact continues. I’ve met creators at cons and introduced myself as Jermaine of Acme Comics. Then someone passes by, says hello to me as “Lord Retail,” then the creator recognizes that name and has a totally different reaction once they associate me with my online identity. Always a positive reaction. Once the creator knows who I am and that I am a serious retailer, they will sometimes share with me information I need to make smart orders as a retailer or develop marketing strategies beyond the generic solicitations. That was critical and invaluable on many occasions where we maximized sales on a new release or paperbacks that compliment new releases. Massive impact in an industry where their either is no sales rep, they don’t know anything, or they can’t tell you anything for fear you will abuse the information. But publishers and creators have treated me like a business professional since the advent of Lord Retail and not a fan retailer who will ruin or spoil their hard work. I have always and only used information to make the right choices for the store.
Do you have a specific audience in mind for those Tuesday night tweets about the next day’s releases?
When I make my Tuesday Night Cheatsheet tweets, no that hasn’t caught on as a hashtag, my primary audience are customers who are stuck in ruts, buying patters, or otherwise do not try new things. Customer who will not buy issue #7 or #33 of a series because they don’t have the #1. I’m from a generation of readers who rarely had access to first issues of anything. It was a rare and special moment to get a first issue compared to today’s frequency of first issues. Sometimes you have to sample a series to see if you like the format, the color, the storytelling. If a series added three to five preorders at all the stores out there, which would then cause them to increase orders to put a few copies out there on series they know how to sell, I think that would move the needle. The other audience I want to reach are other retailers. We’re all busy people and few are able to read everything or even several of the things they put on the shelves each week. But if I can share a pitch for something that I developed or a new marketing angle, this week I realized that the new Spider-woman series is something that fans of Fraction’s Hawkeye could absolutely connect with, then I will share that so other retailers can see what they can do. I’m big on figuring out what you know how to sell as a store. When we put Batman or Amazing Spider-man on the shelf, to a large degree they sell themselves. But books like God Hates Astronauts and Nailbiter, you have determine how to hand sell those series and who to sell them to. So anything I can do to help that process or at least get stores to think about that, I will do. Including reading 30+ comics over three t four hours. That’s not the way to enjoy comics, but its part of the job as I’ve defined it for myself. I will admit that reading each Convergence tie in this week took a toll on me. Not the quality of the work, but simply eye strain which is becoming an issue as I get older and may have to be a bit more selective than I currently am as far as Tuesday nights.
Acme Comics is a regional business, so how effective is your national/international presence at attracting customers?
Acme started in 1983 and was very much a regional business, but James Sime introduced me to the Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailing award that is a part of San Diego Comic Con. I’m pretty sure he nominated the store the very first time we were nominated. And we were nominated for that award in the company of stores all over the world for six years in a row until this year. You can’t beat that type of exposure. We have customers who visit us from Brazil, Germany, England, France and other countries. We’re a destination for them whenever they are in North Carolina. I can’t directly say that they discovered us because of our online presence or if they found us via comic shop locator and enjoyed what we offer and the way we offer it. That’s a chicken or the egg scenario. I do know that our Acmecast podcast does reach out further than I could image. Apparently at the recent East Coast Comic Con, someone heard Stephen speaking at our table and told him that he was a regular listener when he was in China. We assumed the downloads in that region were errors or spam bots, but apparently not. Again that level of recognizability is something other industries would kill for.
What kinds of efforts do you make for Acme Comics to be an indy-friendly shop?
There’s nothing wrong with primarily carrying Marvel and DC if they is the customer base and the store is satisfied only servicing that customer base. But as of right now it is impossible to ignore the fact that Image Comics is a force to be reckoned with in an all new way than in the 1990s. We’ve watched readers make evolutionary jumps in their tastes in an incredibly short people of time. In the past it took readers, myself included, years to break free of blind brand loyalty to try things from other publishers. DC’s New 52 did bring in new readers, but specifically with the debut of Fatale many of those readers instantly made the jump to Image Comics as a company to trust and watch. And from there Boom Studios or Valiant. They learned creator names like Hickman and Brubaker from mainstream material and trusted them to follow them to other publishers. I feel like those are more mainstream though and a true independent would be Black Mask right now. Because of the expanded palate that Image Comics created We Can Never Go Home got on the radar and is performing extremely well, more so than anything else from Black Mask so far. We sold out of issue #2 so fast on Wednesday morning that a newer customer actually believed we didn’t carry any copies which wasn’t true. They unfortunately arrived too late to grab one off the shelf. But if you follow the Acme Comics Instragram you’ve seen that we have a strong 10AM response from customers who hit the shelf hard to make their selections as soon as we open. Again its all about really looking through Previews magazine and studying the solicitations to see if there is something you know how to sell. If we have more than three preorders in on something new and untested, we try to really look at it to determine if it is something that perhaps seven or more people would buy if we could explain what it was and copies were available.
You’ve mentioned in that past that Acme Comics primarily focuses on comics. What other kinds of products do you sell?
Comics and graphic novels are the focus and core. That includes silver and bronze age comics, golden age if possible. As well as hardcovers and omnibus editions. We only carry brand new copies from the publishers, nothing used unless it is something critical that is otherwise out of print. We carry statues of iconic characters from Bowen and more recently Kotobukiya and Gentle Giant. We brand out a bit in our sister store Acme Comics Presents which is next door to the main stop. The focus there is all ages comics and graphic novels, but its also where we present additional items a comics fan might be into like S.H. Figuarts and S.H. Monsterarts action figures, props like the Batman utility belt, and vintage Transformers because that’s the thing I know best second to comics.
Are you exploring those categories less fully because of less interest, or for some other reason?
Being great at one thing as opposed to being just ok at three or four things is more important to us. I don’t know gaming. I literally don’t know how to do it and definitely don’t know how to sell it as a concept. So we don’t do it and never will. We dabbled in Magic cards in my early days but never offered in store gaming. You really have to do that well so it doesn’t encroach or disenfranchise the core comics fans and you have to be watchful that it quietly doesn’t become a less than profitable enterprise. Often stores that are successful at that kind of diversification will have a staffer who specializes in gaming, or comics, or some other area. It was more important to us to apply that knowledge diversification to comics and graphic novels. There will be general recommendations, but when customers have specific genres that they’d like recommendations for its helpful to have staff that enjoys, and through enjoying specialize in, science fiction, horror, super-hero, true independent, crime noir, etc. And if they enjoy those genres there will be cross pollenation between staff thereby strengthening the skill set they are able to draw upon for customers.
I often read about how ComiXology and other digital distributors aren’t affecting the direct market, and know it’s not entirely true because I personally shifted away from print. What are your thoughts on the rise of digital comics and the effect that has on local comic book shops?
We do lose customers to digital. It happens to all stores whether the customer lets them know or not. It could be due to cost, portability issues, hardcopy issues, etc. But more frequently than that loss, digital comics have brought us customers. The digital comics marketplace is what the newsstand once was. That is where some new readers are born and where they sample a variety of available material. But frequently there is so much available that it is overwhelming. Imagine if you are interested in reading Spider-man and you’d like to do it using your tablet or other device. Here you go, here’s Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, and Ultimate Spider-Man. Here’s everything. Enjoy! There comes a point where that can be overwhelming and a bit of guidance would be helpful. That’s where the comic book store comes into play. Many customers come in already aware of Saga or Walking Dead because they read it digitally. When you come to the comic book store, that is where a reader may discover Ex Machina or Outcast. And in many case, not all, that customer will trust the local business who turned them onto a new series and will continue to shop with them to some degree if not entirely. Right now interest is high and it is the brick and mortar stores’ game to win or lose. You have to put your best foot forward with customer service, follow through for customers, and being a welcoming environment. The experience of being a part of a community and knowing who it is you are choosing to money locally with can trump digital convenience or online discounts.
With all of the attention you’ve gotten on your own personal brand, have you ever considered opening a store of your own?
I haven’t considered opening my own store because Acme is my store. Not literally, as I am just the manager. I shouldn’t say just, but I always have and continue to do so. Next year will be my twentieth year with the business which I’m pretty sure means that I have been with Acme longer than anyone else. Someone once said, you don’t change horses mid-stream and that’s still my thinking. I’m not across the stream yet. I have begun to think of Lord Retail as more of a brand as well as what my skills are other than reorganizing Spawn back issues and swiping cards though. Even in the best possibly circumstances, day to day retail drains the life energy out of you when it comes to personal projects. Your creator owned projects so to speak. But I hope to have something, anything, exciting to report sooner than later.
What is Acme Comics doing to attract customers and sell comics that you aren’t seeing at other stores?
I think we attract customers by having a variety of comics and graphic novels we display in an attractive and eye catching way. We do have general shelves of course, but we are fortunate in that we have space to get creative. Wall of comics or rows of paperbacks can be overwhelming with everything blending together and very little distinguishing itself. Especially to new readers. New readers are not a myth, they exist. We have the space to give Image paperbacks their own display where some volume ones can be face out. We can create a display for the duration of Secret Wars were the issues will live as they release along with pertinent paperbacks such as Old Man Logan. The goal is to be friendly and attentive and not oppressive or aggressive. Our job is to connect people to the stories they want or the stories they may enjoy based on what we have heard them tell us. Or job is not to move units of product. And I think that experience makes us a destination store. We have many customers who bypass more convenient locations in the area or other parts of North Carolina and Virginia to reach us which is something that is not lost on us. I can’t say what is or is not on the shelves at other stores, I’m in Acme most of the time and nowhere else. Sometimes a person from somewhere out in the world will tweet to me that they can’t find something. But the solution to that is building a preorder relationship with the store. That is simply to say: I am interested in this item and I will buy it from you if you make it available to me. The comics industry is crazy, but that’s a fairly straight forward agreement. There are series we have cultivated readership for that perhaps is not common to all stores. Chris Giarrusso’s G Man graphic novels are a very known quantity among kids in Greensboro. They know the character and in many cases they grew up with the character. Even I forget that sometimes. We’ve built up a relationship with Chris over the years and at least once a year we bring him in to meet the customers. There is no marketing or advertising that works better than potential fans meeting the creator of material and having a great experience. That creates instant loyalty. Its easy to forget that comics are made by people, in some cases many people, and not by a machine.
Where do you see comic book shops going in the next several years, and even further than that?
Just today we were talking about how with the advances in technology, the video store is gone. The record store as an idea still exists, but struggles. The comic book store as an idea has endured. And I think a major contributing factor is the sense of community that a great comic book store can have. Familiar faces that recognize you and connect with you to varying degrees. If you’ve heard of the community building concept of the third place, the comic book store can be the third place. The first place is your home, the second place is where you work, but the third place is where you go for interaction, to be social, to experience a commonality of interest, or some combination of those. That is how the comic book store can remain relevant and through hard work, creativity, and attention to details it can remain financially viable.