As we mark off a year of Pandemic Life, it’s time to mark the one-year anniversary of The Day The Comics Shut Down and what it meant to comics retailers.*
One year ago, I was only a week in to adapting to a eerie, deserted Manhattan, when Diamond dropped a bombshell on comics retailers. On March 23rd 2020 Diamond president Steve Geppi announced they would cease shipping new comics starting April 1st, effectively putting the comics industry on hold.
Coming in the middle of an unprecedented worldwide health crisis, the new normal was a shock as comics shops nearly everywhere shut down for nearly two months. Within a few days, DC dropped its own bombshell, announcing that it would be moving to new new distributors.
Taken together, these were the biggest — and surely most sudden — changes to the comics industry that anyone could remember.
There was no dearth of coverage and fretting about this, as, with people stuck at home, there was little else to do. You can find the Beat’s own coverage on the crisis in various places and see how good we did at predicting things:
- Diamond’s Steve Geppi dishes: “I don’t think you can destroy the industry in two months.”
- A Bookshop.org for floppies really is the way to save comics
- Geppi, Groth, Richardson, Richie and Wood talk the state of comics: “The industry is going to see a lot of change.”
- Episode 1034 – Comic Beat Insider 4: Comics Distribution & Digital vs Print!
One year later, comics and comics retailers have survived the “Pandemic Shift” in good shape, but we thought it was time to reach out to retailers to look back at that scary period and talk about the ways they’ve adapted and the lessons they’ve learned. We’re very grateful to those who reached out with such heartfelt essays. In my cover letter asking for thoughts, I noted that Diamond’s Geppi had predicted “the comeback will be bigger than the setback” and he’s proven to be correct, as comics sales were robust in the second half of 2020 – even bigger than 2021 in some cases.
However, reading the responses below, you’ll see we’re not out of the woods yet — retailers worry that as other forms of entertainment like live events and theatergoing return, comics will face more competition and the sales boom could evaporate. It’s a relevant concern, but it also marks the surprising strength of the comics industry: the pandemic has seen comics go from a shutdown of new weekly comics delivery to one of the most reliable forms of COVID-era entertainment.
- I should note that not every retailer agreed with my assessment of the anniversary in my letter. Calum Johnston, owner of Strange Adventures in Halifax, NS, wrote:
They didn’t shut down. They stopped the receipt of new product but continued to ship restock product.
For stores that rely solely on the new releases, this was “the most traumatic” but for stores who have in-stock books and comics, the lack of new releases led to sales of their backstock.
If comics didn’t entirely “shut down,” March 23rd was still a day that marked a seismic shift – and the realization that everything we thought was true could change. But as the below responses show, the comics industry is strong, nimble and dedicated. We’re very lucky to have retailers like the ones below, and with this kind of perseverance and (yes) passion for the medium, we can overcome just about anything.
You are going to hear a lot of the same things from everyone: the shutdown forced us to re-envision our businesses and reinvent ourselves in order to weather the situation. A lot of stores, mine included, pivoted to doing more online sales, utilizing social media, especially Facebook Live, to not only maintain connections with our customers, but also to try to sell product. It was time to dig into our backstock and highlight some of the specialty products we’d been sitting on for a while. For us, we were given an opportunity to turn our gaming space into a backissue room. We pulled out over 200 long boxes of mostly unsorted backstock, sorted it, organized it, priced it, and started selling it online in a Facebook Live sale, 3 times a week, called “What’s in this Longbox?” (Because, honestly, we really had no idea what we even had). More than anything, these sales gave an opportunity to stay connected with our customers. When we reopened, the additional sales from these backissues really helped us out, and overall, our sales bounced back to normal in the months that we’ve been able to be open.
But that’s the bright side. The darker side is that we’ve only been able to be open 7 months this year. In those shutdown months, sales were 25% of normal. At first, no one knew what was going on, what funding there would be, if any, to keep us going. I feel very fortunate to live in Canada, where there has been a healthy amount of thoughtful support for my business that has helped immensely. But those first couple of months, while they figured everything out, those were exhausting. I felt a kind of desperation to keep things going, to grab onto every possible sale, and was working in the store almost every single day, with two small kids in tow, trying to process the handful of orders via email, phone, Facebook, or our webstore. Every order seemed to take 3 times longer than it needed to. And then we were delivering all over town. It was draining.
In June, a group of four retailers got together to run Be Our Heroes Canada, a 2 day event on Facebook, featuring a 12 hour a day stream of store sales, creator interviews and live-drawing, and a charity auction. We raised $12,000 which was redistributed to Canadian comic shops by the CLLDF (at the time, funds raised by BINC were not available to Canadian shops). It was our way to try to bring the community together, to remind them that shops needed their support and to highlight the amazing creative talent we have in Canada.
By mid-June, I felt totally broken down by the previous months and found it hard to see a path forward, financially and emotionally. After a personal post on Facebook, friends set up a GoFundMe for the store, and I was honestly overwhelmed by the support it generated. During the shutdown, it was hard to remember why I was doing any of it; it was hard to know whether people still cared, sometimes it was hard for me to still care. And I certainly wasn’t doing a good job taking care of myself. I was working to my limit every single day, juggling the needs of my customers and my family, while ignoring my own. But the GoFundMe brought so much encouragement, beyond the financial support. It gave me a chance to see what we mean to the community and it really gave me the second wind I needed to move forward into reopening.
We went through a second shutdown from December 26th to February 17th, but I was really prepared for that one, financially and mentally. My lesson learned from the first shutdown was to know my limits. I set healthier boundaries for myself around how much time I spent in the store and focused more on my family. I knew we had a good financial buffer to weather things and I knew what the shutdown would look like. So, I let my staff handle the bulk of the work and turned my energies more to supporting my family.
So, what did I take away from all of this? We continue to do Facebook Live streams, mostly to keep our customers engaged and to highlight new product. Our customers aren’t really Wednesday Warriors, and tend to come in more irregularly, so this allows them to keep on top of all the product coming out. When we reopened, we did so on limited hours, cutting to 40% of the hours we were open before. We still haven’t gone back to regular hours, but (in the months we’ve been open) sales have been solid. Whenever things do get better and we are able to run events again, I will be giving some serious thought to our hours and services and what is truly necessary to maintain a healthy business. There is a fine balance between what we want to offer to the community and what is actually financially sustainable. I imagine many game stores are looking at this very thing, recognizing gaming events as the loss leader they are, and wondering whether they really do lead into the kind of sales that justify them. We still do home delivery and will probably continue that indefinitely. It was something we actually tried to do many years ago, but it never took. I think it’s a great service and one that I’m happy to provide. If we can provide online shopping with hand delivery within 24 hours, well that’s a service that can truly compete with online retail.
Overall, yes I do feel like the industry is in a healthier place now than it was. Part of this is that it pushed more publishers to try out large-scale returnability as a way to increase sales. We are immensely grateful for this, as reducing our risk during this most risky of times was definitely the right call. This has allowed publishers to see what is feasible and beneficial in the long-run when it comes to returnability. I think (and hope) returnability will continue to become more normalized, as I truly believe it is the way forward. I think stores became healthier overall through the choices they had to make, whether it was diversifying our sales channels, trimming our overhead or orders in light of sales, or innovating new processes to make our lives easier. We all learned some really tough lessons over the last year, but they’ve made us stronger in the long-run.
Jen King, Owner, Space Cadets Collection Collection, Oak Ridge North, TX
My story might be different than others, as I never stopped selling new books during shutdown. Plan C connected creators, publishers and retailers that wanted to still move new product to where it was needed. I feel strongly that many of those connections led to do much more after the shutdown. I simply went live to social media as much as my customers wanted and engaged with them as many ways as I could (Trivia, reading time for the kids, crafting classes)
I agree with you that things are looking very good. We have lots of customers making the extra effort to come visit us in person and support the shop with purchases. Back issue are doing exactly what Mr Geppi said they would. They are the lifeblood of the store. My sales of comics is probably double what it was pre-COVID. I have to buy more and more collections to meet the need.
Joe Field, owner, Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, Concord, CA
It has been the hardest year of work in my 35 years in this business. But it has also been the year with more blessings than any other.
We’ve worked for decades to build not just a viable business, but also build a comics community. In this last year, our FlyCo Faithful have been supportive with their business, their words and their actions.
Joni Mitchell wrote:
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.”
And 2020 was the year in which everything conspired against comic shops: disruptions and dwindling output from suppliers, the pandemic’s forced closures, customers’ losing their jobs… heck, I had COVID! Everything was flipped upside down. So many expected comic shops to die on the vine, paved over by the behemoth villain that is Amazon. While there has been some migration to online buying, taking some sales away from comic shops, there have been more people finding, loving and supporting their local comic shops.
The resilience of comic shops all over and the truly moving support we received here at Flying Colors from our customers have been nothing short of awesome. Given all that, shop closures have been far fewer than anyone was expecting. Maybe some of these people actually know what they’ve got while they have it rather than mourn what’s lost when it’s gone away without their support.
That said, this isn’t over.
There are a lot of concerns about whether this spike in sales over the last few months can be sustained once the rest of the economy reopens— once movie theaters, amusement parks, sports stadiums and yes, comic book conventions are back.
We can deal with that, though. What we have now is a good thing— a comics market that is producing well in a time of crisis, comics retailers building relationships with new comics fans and building on the relationships with our long and steadfast regular customers, many of whom are bonafide angels to those of us in the retail trenches.
I’m exhausted and exhilarated. I’ve worked more than 50 hours a week for 50 of the last 52 weeks (the other two I was off in quarantine battling COVID). I’m in awe of those who have shown their care for what we do here.
Maybe the best is still to come after all!
Patrick Brower, Co-Owner, CHALLENGERS Comics + Conversation, Chicago, IL
I’m sure it’s not worth going into detail about the trials of 2020 and beyond, as every single person has had their own issues and most comics retailers have had the same issues, so I’ll choose to focus on what we did about it. “We” are Challengers Comics + Conversation in Chicago, owned by myself, Patrick Brower and my business partner W. Dal Bush. We both work full-time and run the shop. At the start of 2020 we had 5 others that worked with us. Even before Chicago shut down as a city (March 22, 2020) 2 of our people told us they did not feel comfortable working in the current environment (jumping ahead, while we still consider them employees they have yet to return). And then Chicago shut down from Mar 22 to June 3, 2020.
During that shutdown we experimented with different ways to cultivate web sales. Step 1 was posting PDF’s on our website of all graphic novels we had in stock, and updating it every day. I should also mention that at this point we had 2 stores. We opened a second Chicago location in late 2019. So we were merging both inventories by hand and listing them. We were offering curbside pick-up and delivery. I mean, we weren’t allowed to be open to the public, so we had the time to drive around the city, which was actually fun and there was almost no traffic. Silver linings, you know?
Step 2 was attempting to convert to ComicHub. ComicHub is an amazing point-of-sale platform designed for comic retail specifically by a fellow retailer (Stu Colson of Heroes for Sale in New Zealand). It’s very forward thinking and puts your entire inventory online—perfect for shops that aren’t open for in-store shopping. After a ton of work on their end and ours, we realized (for the 2nd time) that ComicHub just isn’t the right fit for us (but we highly recommend it to anyone without a POS system or in need of something new). We were running Diamond’s ComicSuite and Microsoft RMS (RMS is no longer supported by Microsoft and has become RMH and we have switched over).
Step 3 was Shopify. Shopify is an online platform for retail sales. We had investigated it previously but getting our inventory into it was insurmountable. But then Diamond stepped up and created a plug-in that lets Shopify pull all the item/product data from their website and all we would have to do is upload our quantities. Amazing. I mean, it had, and continues to have, its fair share of headaches and issues (such as having to use a third-party program called Octopus to tie the online and in-store inventories together in real time), but it let us build a very comprehensive online version of Challengers (shop.challengerscomics.com). And that made all the difference in the world.
So that was our biggest change. A comprehensive webstore that we’re still using now, even though we’ve been reopen since June. And as I’ve been typing this 3 more order have just come in (2 local pick up and one mail order). Obviously this is something that we will continue with for as long as there are orders.
Sales-wise we were down $80K by mid-year but rebounded to only being down $62K for the year. Yeah, “only.” But that just shows you how well the market bounced back. When we re-opened, and at this point we are still running reduced hours (open every day but 8 hours less per week than before the shutdown), our new comic book days were insanely busy. 2-to- 2 ½ times the previous normal Wednesday totals. Wednesdays are still doing great now, but not as good as back in the summer.
Quick sidebar here to mention that we lost our 2nd store during this. Even before the shutdown we noticed business drop off dramatically as we were in a very business-heavy party of town. Many tech offices and a big public transit hub in that area. Well, once everyone started working from home and taking the train became a health risk, that neighborhood became a ghost town. And then I got hurt (filming a series of dumb Instagram videos to entertain our customers while we were closed) and I was on crutches for a long time, unable to drive (still limp today) and then that store was looted during all the civil unrest. And by “looted” I mean “destroyed” as once the front window was smashed in, 6 different groups of people came in and out over the course of the night and as there was less-and-less to steal, destruction became the goal. We couldn’t get out there after the first alarm went off as the bridges were raised and the city was under curfew. We could barely get there in the morning after curfew was lifted. But the store was trashed. Yes, we were insured and yes we were paid for the damages, but that store would have to be rebuilt from scratch and I was physically unable to help. So that location had to close. We’re still paying for it, as our landlord would not let us out of our lease, but that’s a different story. What I will say is that without the albatross of that store hanging over our finances, this would be a good time in comics retail. Anyway. Back to sales.
At first it felt like people wanting to both stock up for the quarantine and also help out local small businesses. Which, let’s face it, we are here for both of those things. We were a little too cautious with our reopening ordering and that caused a lot of sellouts. But we’ve adjusted. October 2020 thru Jan 2021 were each the best of those months we’ve had. Feb 2021 only missed it because we were selling C2E2 tickets in Feb 2020 and those get counted as sales. If you take those #’s out of the equation, Feb 2021 crushed Feb 2020. So people are definitely buying comics.
Another change we’ve made is being part of Diamond’s PULLBOX system. Currently still in beta testing, Pullbox is an online subscription management tool that gives subscribers 24-hour access to their pull lists and everything in the Diamond Previews catalog. While only a percentage of our subscribers have chosen to use it, those that do are finding all sorts of other things to order that we would not normally stock. Like everything in life, it has its issues and challenges, but it is worth it and getting better all the time.
DC leaving Diamond and only being available thru Lunar continues to be a nightmare on the subscription management and inventory input fronts, but we have had almost no issues with Lunar themselves, so we count ourselves lucky on that part.
While we didn’t receive any PPP money, we did get financial help from the Binc Foundation, a small Illinois Department of Commerce grant, and money from consumer sales thru TKO Presents and Mad Cave Studios, so a big thank you to those publishers.
I also want to thank all the friends, family and customers that helped out clearing all the damage from the looted store AND helping make deliveries around the city. Included among all those people that had to do this safely and masked and socially distant, were comic pros Jenny Frison, Isabella Rotman and Kat Leyh. Not only amazing comic talents, but even better people!!
Brandon Schatz & Danica LeBlanc, Owners of Variant Edition Graphic Novels + Comics Edmonton, AB
We were somewhat lucky when the industry shutdown. Diamond sent word of closure on a Monday. At 3 pm on the following Friday, Alberta announced a shutdown of their own, effective at day’s end. Something very similar happened with Diamond’s return, as Alberta opened things up right before fresh product started flowing in May.
Over the nearly two full months of closure (which I think was sped up by DC’s move to help create alternative distributors), we saw a sharp increase in our net profit. We had an online store running for a few months. We had been doing in-city deliveries for three years at that point. Our social media was all in place, and most of our regulars were subscribed to our newsletter, so getting news out was fairly easy.
In terms of how the industry has survived, there are more than a few things to note. Retailers did incredibly well with pivoting in any number of ways. We started doing a lot more live video content which people have been eating up. many retailers started selling off old stock through these videos and really pushing through the after-market. We went on a different path and doubled down on graphic novels – keeping in line with the foundation of our business, selling stories, and not commodities. While both are good paths forward, we believe ours takes a longer view, growing an audience base with the format that most new readers are familiar with: the graphic novel.
That said, stores have been seeing huge gains in sales across the board. Pokemon has popped up huge. DnD is kicking ass. New single issue sales are up significantly per capita (partially due to slimmed down lines, partially due to a lack of other entertainment sources like concerts or movies). Back issue sales are bubbling and key books have exploded in price.
It can not be argued that the industry has weathered this storm well. However, there is another one on the horizon. While it has been proven for years by the likes of BOOM! that a slimmer line is a stronger line, Marvel has been ballooning and pushing out with more and more titles and variant covers. Retailers are riding high on dead stock that has suddenly become valuable, but they are doing so in the face of what the industry has previously gone through in the 90s with this kind of speculator boom. Outfits like WebToon and Tapas have audiences that are far eclipsing the best the North American print audience has EVER seen, and Scholastic is blowing everyone’s print runs out of the water. Viz is sitting at the tip-top of the North American adult graphic novel sales charts while running an all-you-can-eat option for $2 a month. Traditional companies are lagging behind, and traditional comic shops are following them along.
Things are good now – but we’re not through the storm. We’re in the eye, and on the other side is one of two things: a resurgence of COVID-19 brought along by the variants that are developing, or an opening that will suck a significant amount of money from this industry that we’re all taking for advantage.
At the end of the day, the only thing that will save us is getting MORE readers. Not taking more money from the ones that we have. Here’s hoping we can collectively make that happen.
[Ron wanted to talk on the phone, so I have transcribed and consolidated his comments in the following, delivered with the no-nonsense bluntness only a true lifelong New Yorker flexes.]
At the beginning of April, we were basically thrown out of work for a month. We were knocked out of the loop, laying off the staff, everyone was on unemployment, the whole nine yards. That was a nightmare. We were eventually able to get the PPP funding by the beginning of May and I was able to start getting people working again, but we were still in the shutdown. A lot of the time we were working from home and trying to promote our little website and we’d have one person at a time going to the store to fill mail orders.
We were never a company that did much in the way of mail orders or eBay. We were always 99% focused on our brick and mortar business. We have two stores, one in Staten Island in the New Dorp area, which is one of the biggest neighborhoods where people don’t believe that COVID is even real despite the casualties. The store in Manhattan lost all its commuter and tourism based customers.
Since the shutdown and we’ve learned to do a lot of things, including mail order. We have people who’ve never been back in, but still buy their stuff from us. We do eBay now, we have a Shopify store, Nick [Purpura, co-owner] does a live stream every Friday on Facebook. He started it at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to just stay in touch with people during those early weeks when it was just non-stop sirens 24 hours a day. It was a video to reach out and sell old comics, but he’ll show a comic – it could be a $3 comic or a $20 comic – and talks about it, and someone claims it.
All these little things brought back revenue little by little. Once we set up our web store, it’s staying up. It took considerable figuring out in the beginning, Chris Powell at Diamond was actually very helpful and set up some tools on Diamond’s website to help populate the site. There’s a tool where you can upload a list of Diamond codes, and it spits back a file you upload to Shopify, with all the relevant data – the description of the product, the title, the link to the image. Back in April, Shopify was a very attractive, easy platform to go to. A lot of comic stores have done the same thing. I love the idea that there’s hundreds of comic stores that didn’t have web stores who now have this. It didn’t replace what we lost, but collectively all of it together does produce a nice little stream of income, which we’re never going to leave behind. The pandemic has showed us how fragile society is – how do we live in a world where we closed down for a month and the whole world falls apart. We can’t ever go back to that.
The first week we were shut down, my wife caught COVID from her job and got very sick, the same week when DC broke the news that they were changing their distribution model. I was on the phone with Stuart Schreck, subsequently laid off, who was trying to sell me on how this was going to be better. He was just doing his job, I know.
Has it been better? There’s never been a better case made for Diamond’s existence. Diamond had our back in so many ways and, and worked the us in so many ways. On one hand you had Jim Lee donating artwork for the BINC Foundation and raising money for retailers. And on the other hand, his parent company AT&T was not giving a shit about our industry, our history or anything. They reawakened the spirit of the DC that robbed Bill Finger and Siegel and Schuster and Alan Moore. I don’t mean to put down anyone who works at DC currently, or the people at the new distributors, but I just really hope for AT&T’s failure and that eventually DC is sold to a company who understands what DC is and they come back to what they were. They used to be the industry leaders, and now [thanks to AT&T] they’re the industry losers.
I don’t begrudge the creators of the product and I don’t begrudge the staff. And it’s not just our industry. Chris Nolan woke up six months later and realized that he was also screwed over by this corporate idiocy. He went to sleep working for the best movie studio in the world, and then woke up being in the worst streaming service.
But I can’t be a comics store without carrying DC. I’m still a fan of the intellectual property. But they used to be my favorite promotion to deal with, but now they’re just a bunch of strangers. It’s in my best interest to work with publishers who actually make an attempt, like Boom and Image, to watch out for their bread and butter.
I get the sense that the money made from publishing is irrelevant to these mega corporations. It’s also true of Marvel to some extent, but Disney puts on a good show about taking care of the creative. That’s sort of the heart of the Disney story. You look at Marvel and there was Stan Lee, and now there’s Kevin Feige.
[As for comparing years,] I think our 2020 was down. Our Manhattan store was way down. Our Staten Island store was close, though. Manhattan was based on commuters and tourists coming in to shop with us. Once we reopened, we lost both of those things. The Staten Island store, compared to last year before the shutdown, is doing better. The Manhattan store is little by little improving, but only doing about 60% of the previous business.
Part of what helped was that we made a deal with our landlord for a reduced rate for a few more months. We’re getting government funding and loans when we’re able to apply for it and receive some assistance. Diamond was understanding about our outstanding balance, and we just paid it off. That was great.
My wife actually works in the COVID wing of a local hospital, so I get to hear all about what’s going on over there all the time. She feels a disconnect because there are still a lot of COVID patients yet everything started suddenly reopening. We’re in New York. But really we’re in the middle of America.
All my regular customers are wonderful [about obeying mask wearing laws and COVID precautions.] I have a lot of civil servants who shop there, and a few of them chafe at wearing the mask, but they do it and they’ve been understanding. Our store’s in a conservative place but no one comes in and fights us. We’re near where there were big protests, and there have been fist fights over wearing masks, but nothing like that has happened with us, thank God.
I don’t know if the world will come roaring back – there’s still no plan for 30% of the population who won’t get vaccinated. But the world needs to organize better and fundamentally reorganize society. I grew up watching Star Trek, so come on! In the comics field, there’s all this stuff about optimistic futures and positive directions we can go in. But there’s also Judge Dread and apocalyptic fiction. I would like to subscribe to the sunnier view, which is we get to build a better world.
The comics industry at the moment is still very subject to the whims of two giant mega corporations. If either of those choses to stop making print product it could still inflict massive damage on what’s left. So the comics industry needs to continue to move towards diversifying their stores and making it so if DC or Marvel drops out, it doesn’t wipe us out.
The thing about comics is that this is valuable. This comics are really cheap to make. Probably the most expensive aspect of creating a comic book is the time the creators spend working on it. The paper, ink and electricity to power Photoshop is peanuts compared to a human’s life. Comics are a creative medium and there are still thousands of stories that are going to spring from this world.
I think the medium of comics is in great shape. I think there are a lot of people who’ve been very inspired and there’s going to be tremendous work. I think there’s a lot of customers who are still bored [by the pandemic], who used to collect comics and want to return to something that is familiar and something they used to love to do in the world before the pandemic. So I think there’s all kinds of potential. Having a 10 year old daughter, I have a Raina fan in my home, and can see the power of graphic novels first hand. The book world is on fire. There’s a legion of children coming up who might continue to read comics as a lifetime habit. So we have the potential for a new audience coming from comics – not from a movie or a slurpee cup, but from the medium of comics.
The comic book business needs to do more to grab some of that book business back away from the Targets and the Amazons. Big box retailers will never be experts. Comics store people will always be experts.