SDCC ’20: The Perseverance of the Direct Market

Direct market retailers take a moment to share what's going on behind the counter, and how they are staying afloat during a worldwide pandemic.

christina at her aw yeah comic shop
Dr. Christina, owner of Aw Yeah Comic Shop

As if the pandemic was not enough of a speed bump for comic book stores, Diamond’s shutdown announcement in March was followed by DC Comics seeking alternate distribution methods — and ultimately abandoning Diamond for new distributors UCS and Lunar. The direct market, considered to be the frontline of the comics industry, inevitably joined countless others in various industries to find different ways of sustaining their business. Direct market retailers from across the United States came together for a panel discussion of how they’ve weathered and persevered in spite of the multiple crises.

Inspired by What We Do in the Shadows, Aw Yeah Comics Muncie owner Dr. Christina Blanch printed t-shirts that read ‘What We Do in the Comic Shop,’ and wore one for her online show. She had been hosting about ten Facebook LIVE events per week, prepping and selling all kinds of comics, and then spending the remainder of the day packing and shipping them. “I’m doing everything I can in my control,” Blanch said. “We could have opened [earlier], but we waited a week.” Aw Yeah Comics now lets people book an appointment to visit.

christina at her aw yeah comic shop
Dr. Christina Blanch, Aw Yeah Comics Muncie owner holding her show t-shirt

Like Blanch, other retailers have been tapping into social media for survival. Aw Yeah Comics Harrison in New York is following suit with LIVE shows and online interviews on Patreon as an extension of their community. “We didn’t put [content] behind a paywall, but we have a lot of people that like to support at various tiers,” Aw Yeah Comics co-founder Marc Hammond explained, saying there are various ways a comic book store can generate revenue besides sales at the physical store.

Jeff Beck, owner of East Side Mags in Montclair, NJ has gone beyond social media by making sales over the phone. “There were days where I feel like all I did was sit on the phone with potential new customers,” Beck shared. “We take pictures of the front and back of graphic novels and send it to people.” He also recalled the first few months of the pandemic when all businesses had to shut down their locations, and a bunch of his customers bought gift cards just to “float us some cash.”

Pandemic or not, most direct market comic book stores have a stash of back issues. Hammond figured the timing could not have been perfect for clearing his inventory. “The reason we have made it through is our customers, our community do not want to see us go anywhere,” he said. “I think I’m going to keep doing a LIVE sale every day, now that we are going to be reopening.” Retailers like Hammond and Blanch were unable to apply for loans from the government since their payroll worked differently. “I don’t pay [myself] so the store doesn’t have the burden of payroll,” said Hammond. In hindsight, it worked for him as he will be debt-free with refinancing. But Beck was successful in availing loans from his local government after hours of compiling bank statements and payrolls regarding his store.

joe on his comic shop
Joe Field, founder of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff

While Beck has been in business for only six years, Joe Field’s Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff has been thriving for 32 years. Although the pandemic is a first, Field says surviving the Heroes World falling out of the mid-’90s is quite similar to Diamond’s stint earlier this year. “[Heroes World’s] cost went up,” Field said. “Towards the end of that, they were really desperate for billing.” There was a time when he received Marvel branded golf balls in his shipment that he never ordered, and got billed for it. On the Diamond situation, he prefers getting “everything from one source.” He’s unclear on exactly what’s happening with DC, Diamond, and AT&T and said, “But I do know that it comes at a really difficult time for us, it makes us coming out of this shutdown more expensive.”

Old and new direct market retailers are trying creative ways to stay afloat but no matter the age, digital sales don’t seem to sit well with them in terms of satisfaction. Even though Beck has been selling comics on eBay and other websites, he prefers meeting customers and sharing the excitement of new releases with them. 

“Business is not going to get back to normal for us until people around our shop are comfortable coming out,” Beck said. 

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