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Well, here is a shoe that no one wanted to hear drop, but it can’t be termed unexpected. San Francisco will raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next three years, and this threatens a lot of businesses, like bookstores, that have very small margins. The science fiction bookstore Borderlands planned to close, but a sponsorship program has kept it going, but as soon as the law was announced, people speculated on how it would affect local comics shops.

And now, sadly, Comix Experience, the legendary comics store which just celebrated its 26th anniversary, also faces a huge budget shortfall. Owner Brian Hibbs explains that the wage rise will lead to $80,000 in added expenses for the store annually, and it will be impossible to raise profits organically since they can’t just raise prices on books.

However, there is a similar idea to the sponsorship model on deck for Comix Experience, and it’s called:

Comix Experience’s Curated Graphic Novel of the Month Club

Beginning in July 2015, every month the staff and I will use our passion and experience to choose the single best brand new graphic novel to give you. This book will always be either a stand-alone experience, or the first volume of a new series. As a member of the club, you’ll also be entitled to unique benefits that won’t be offered to anyone else:
• A curated selection of the best new graphic novel each month
• An invitation to a monthly live book club meeting and social event to discuss that book. We will record and stream the in-store meeting so club members all over the world can also participate.
• We will regularly have the writers and artists of each of our picks participate in our monthly club meetings, (e.g. in person, speaking and doing a live event, or a video chat to answer questions).
• For select in-person appearances at the store, you’ll receive an exclusive club-only invitation to attend a private after-hours event with the guest.
• We will create a social media group for members to discuss the book internationally
• Finally, we will provide you with nice swag (like posters or bookmarks) for the selected book wherever possible

A one year subscription with in store pick-up is $240 a year, $25 a month. You can also subscribe via the mail for an extra $6 a month for shipping and handling.

The store will need 334 yearly memberships to meet the added costs. Will this idea fly? Book clubs can be a lot of fun, more great books than ever are coming out, and the extras sound cool. So our rating is: good deal!

Comix Experience is a local legend and a pioneering comics shop and losing it would be a huge blow. Hibbs invites discussion and input on the plan. What do you all think?

CORRECTION: I had originally misstated the time frame of the minimum wage hike. It takes place over three years not immediately.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Finally… comics shops promoting book clubs/reading groups!

    My suggestion… encourage casual readers to participate as well, specifically in the SF region. They may not wish to subscribe for a year, but might be willing to attend one VIP event. Charge a different fee… “newsstand” vs “subscription”.

    Why not schedule monthly reading groups every week? Each has a different readership, it’s a way to get people into the store, and adds to the store’s reputation. (Kids, Marvel, DC, Image, Media, non-fiction, literary, biography/memoir…)

    The big hurdle: stocking copies for sale to the reading groups. Does Diamond offer a returnable program for store signings or reading groups? (Yes, that’s another cost… return shipping.) Perhaps the group selects titles which turn frequently, so that the risk is mitigated.

  2. Wow, really surprised to hear Hibbs was paying so low in the first place in one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in. Maybe the market isn’t there for his shop. Heck when I started at Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find in 1996 during the height of stores closing all over the US, as just a lowly clerk, it was at more than minimum wage, and that was in Charlotte. I wish his business and employees well but I’m not a fan of underpaying employees and then wondering why you’re not making more money.

  3. Clarification: The SF minimum wage is not going up to $15 this year. The increase is being phased in over the next three years, and next month it’s only increasing from $11.05/hour to $12.25/hour.

    The intent of this is that higher wages will enable more people to spend more money on non-essential items, which should help comics shops … in the long run. Granted this is speculative economics (and no one knows the dangers of that better than comics collectors), and the intended effect definitely won’t be immediate, so it is going to result in some hardship, but not quite as great as “San Francisco has raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour” makes it sound.

  4. Just for clarity’s sake (I don’t want to get into a lot of back-and-forth on this) we in fact pay all of our employees over current minimum wage, but if we don’t keep parity with the MW increase (ie: $3.95/hour in extra costs over the next 3 years, then CPI raises after that), then we’re effectively giving staff a wage cut which I find entirely unacceptable.

    Also, Dustin, I really have to observe that MW in North Carolina today is only $7.25 (I don’t know what it was in ’96 — if it was the same as Federal, then it was only $4.25), which is very very very different than $15/per for what is my single biggest budget expense every week.

    -B

  5. Yeah, I think when I started in February 96 minimum wage was around $4.50-ish, and I started just under $7/hour maybe? But I think I was up around $10/hour within a couple of years, and by 2003 I was doing very well pay-wise for a comics retail manager and budding convention organizer.

    But also, even today when it’s a big banking hub, Charlotte is a pretty inexpensive place to live. I can’t imagine making $10 or even $15 per hour in the Bay area without working multiple jobs and/or taking the very first better-paying gig that opened up. I’m curious as to what your employee turnover is like. In my experience, both as an employee and later a manager, paying employees well has nearly always yielded employees who took their jobs seriously and acted in the business’s best interests, both in terms of sales and otherwise, because they felt like the business was looking after their interests, if only financially. I can’t pretend to have your level of acumen when it comes to numbers and charts, but I do know people, and people do better work when they’re paid adequately for the market they live in.

  6. It is my belief that my staff feels adequately compensated for their labor, but I’d invite you to ask them directly. They are all firmly onboard with this plan, however, and they have an enormous amount of agency in and pride for their work. My turnover is essentially nil, and when people do leave, it is almost always for “I’m moving out of town”

    -B

  7. Maybe they’re moving out of town because SF is too expensive to live in at near minimum-wage pay. OR you may just be an amazing boss who they’d work for at any price. OR you’re a hypnotist cult leader. Hard to say. OR San Francisco is just too expensive for an independent comics shop. It’s a changing world, they say! It’s hard to imagine a paid-subscription-book-club will save a brick and mortar business as small as yours in an era of free next-day shipping, but I wish you and your staff the best. I’m glad there are shops like yours out there.

  8. I think this is a great, creative solution and hope Brian succeeds with it. My suggestion: contact the big tech companies (Google, Apple, Pixar, etc.) and get them to sign up for a few dozen (or hundred) subscriptions each. The comics are perfect for their corporate offices, which are full of various toys and stimulating knick-knacks. Why not GNs too?

  9. “The store will need 334 yearly memberships to meet the added costs.”

    Actually, they will need significantly more than that. The cost of the graphic novel they give members each month will come out of the $25 membership, as will payroll hours spent on holding the events and the social media component.

    I’ll also defend a store having paid less than $15 dollars an hour prior to the minimum wage going up. Not every business is a WalMart that deliberately stiffs its workers while making billions in profit, some places operate on such low margins that they just can’t pay as much as they’d like to. I doubt Brian Hibbs was paying his workers as little as possible and then going home to a million dollar mansion, sinking into a marble hot tub, and lighting a cigar with a hundred dollar bill. Hibbs is probably barely making ends meet himself.

  10. As a SF resident for the last 20 years , and a former customer of Comix Experience, I would like to say that this situation isn’t of Hibbs’ making.
    I think Harbin’s scenario 3 (“San Francisco is just too expensive for an independent comics shop”) is the culprit. The employees at ComEx do love their jobs and their stores. The stores are, in many ways, the best in SF choices for comic readers who want more than the latest X-Men fodder. Hibbs started his store as a youth in SF, his native city at a time when the city was slack enough to allow young people to make a living by pursuing their esoteric passions. The stores are his passion and he’s not the type to put scroogery before respecting the people who he’s sharing that with.
    SF and BigTech’s hot-n-heavy romance in the intervening years has “revitalized” the city. It’s now a lean money machine with an endless supply of immigrants. Back in the 90s, Hibbs’ employees could rent a 1BR apt for $700/month. Now a room in a multiBR apt runs more than that. The stepped raising of our MW to $15/hr is an attempt to help people like Hibbs’ employees.
    Unfortunately, this plan is poison to low-overhead small businesses. NO comic shop makes big overhead. Meanwhile, other fees related to property ownership are always rising here (not just rent but ancillary costs like water, garbage, liscences, etc). Over the last 10 years, the number of comic shops in SF that have closed is greater than the number now open. Independent bookstores and CD/DVD stores are in the same situation.
    Hibbs, and people like him, are being economically displaced from SF. Until recently, Hibbs could have relocated to Oakland for great savings, but Oakland is filling up now (Oakland is playing the Brooklyn to SF’s Manhatten). I think that ComEx will either close before 2025 or relocate to a suburban strip mall. ComEx should be an inviolate SF institution! I hope Hibbs beats the odds!
    In some ways sadly, the MW increase will help the low-wage employees of the big corporations that are making SF the place it now is. What could ruin Hibbs can be absorbed in BigCorp situations. The low income employees minioning at BofA HQ or Levi’s HQ will be better off. (Hibbs’ employees will have to live with knowing they could be living at a higher income level or with knowing they dropped their love for mo’ money!). Really, people who want to make a living following their bliss are advised to not put residency in SF in their plans. It’s go Google or go home here now!
    None of this is Hibbs’ fault. 80s/90s SF was a great place for people like him. Now that place is decidedly unfriendly and he has a hard road to walk.
    My two cents (or, in SF talk, “my twenty dollars”).

  11. I don’t think it’s really fair to compare the wages of stores on two different coasts with drastically different costs of living when they are selling the same product at the same fixed price.

  12. Oh no I think that’s pretty fair. Not because it points to some perfidy on Brian Hibbs’ part–and to be clear, I don’t for an instant think that he’s getting rich by underpaying his employees, or in any way acting in a dishonest or shady fashion–but because Brian’s shop is in direct competition with every other shop in the country, due to the increasingly easy access to cheaper markets, free shipping, etc. Not to mention juggernauts like Amazon, et al, who don’t give a whiff about the kind of attention and training and passion you’d need to run a shop like Brian’s.

    The problem isn’t that Brian Hibbs is somehow being sneaky, it’s that San Francisco is too pricy a market for a shop that’s great at selling low-margin, often next to no-margin products. Not to mention two storefronts as opposed to one.

    And all this is on top of the main question of employee pay. This subject really bothers me, not just in a retail setting, but across all of comics. Let’s face it: comics don’t pay shit. Companies pay next to nothing for all the little cogs that go into making one of these things, partly because the market groans dramatically whenever there’s a cover price increase, but also simply because they CAN. Boom pays peanuts for variant covers to titles like Adventure Time and Regular Show and My Little Pony that at their heights sold well above 90% of the superhero market. Why? It’s a variant, it’s a stunt, it’s designed to goose sales and drive interest. It’s a “premium” issue, so why not pay more? Because there’s no need to: there’s a whole generations of indie artists delighted to “break in” to comics by doing good work for a company that doesn’t feel it’s necessary to pay them adequately. When I first started lettering on Casanova, Matt Fraction asked me how much I wanted per page, and I had to ask around to find out what the going rate for lettering was. It was shockingly, shockingly low, especially for hand-lettering, something that’s incredibly time-consuming. Fortunately Matt is the kind of guy who asks what you want to make because he wants to pay you what you’re worth, so I ended up making nearly double the normal rate as a never-published letterer on a buddy’s book. Most people don’t have the luxury of having a friend who’s blowing up and can afford to pay you better than the going rate.

    I’m rambling. But comics is a real widowmaker because work and value simply aren’t prioritized. If Marvel has a hit on their hands, they don’t double down on what they’re doing or even improve it: they figure out a way to throw more and more labor at it so they can sell more books. It’s a Walmart philosophy: get the cheapest thing into as many hands as possible while keeping costs as low as possible. Brian Hibbs store is just the unlucky last link in that chain: by the time Hibbs is receiving his weekly shipment, he’s making a few dimes actual net profit on most books. If you buy $20 worth of Marvel books in Comix Experience, I bet Brian is only getting about $6-7 actual dollars out of that after paying his costs, probably less in San Francisco. I definitely think paying near minimum wage is a bad business move, full stop. Hibbs is a famously smart retailer, and he should be able to figure out a business model that lets him operate in one of the most expensive cities in the world, or maybe move his shop. But it’s not all his fault: we take part in an industry that devalues and commodifies everything in order to simply exist, and then hope that some Image book is accidentally a hit and gets you through some lean months so you can afford to pay your employees next to nothing to sell it for you.

    It makes me crazy. And, obviously, inarticulate.

  13. Crunching the numbers in the PR might provoke some questions from the curious–but at the end of the day none of it really matters. All revenue is fungible. This is a creative way to increase sales that connected itself to a controversial topic. Nothing wrong with that; and it doesn’t make the benefit for Comix Experience employees any less genuine. Plus, it helps publishers and creators too–since in simple terms half of the money raised from those (hopefully) 334+ subscribers goes directly back into the industry. All good, I think.

  14. If all else fails, It might be necessary to go back to just 1 store, and for Brian to to the bulk of the work. That’s the only sure path to survival that I can see.

  15. “Owner Brian Hibbs explains that the wage rise will lead to $80,000 in added expenses for the store annually”

    Did he really say that?

    There is a difference between “expenses” and “revenues”. This man, who appears to care about doing the right thing, is being misquoted into a viral feeding frenzy of fear mongering!

    Mr. Hibbs is also saying that his sales have been increasing 6% to 10% annually. He also discusses the issue of the really big companies not giving back to the little places that create a cool place to live and work.

    It can not be disputed that too many people can not earn a living wage even when they are working fulltime.

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