In 2005 when Dave Pifer and David Ritchie were casting about for a retail venture in Los Angeles, they initially settled on a skateboard shop. But at the last minute they switched the store’s focus to incorporate a different childhood passion: comics. Four years later Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles’s hip Silver Lake section is one cool shop, so unusual that it was named one of the ten best bookstores around the world by the British newspaper The Guardian.
Part of what gives it its distinctive edgy flavor is a clever back story as tantalizing as that of any book or comics series the store stocks: SHQ is located in the exact spot where American spy Dr. Frederic Rinehart opened his own SHQ for espionage in the 1930s. Well, not exactly. Okay, not at all, admits Pifer. The story was fabricated as part of the owners’ efforts to create the right ambience. However, some vestiges of the spy shop story can be found at thesecretheardquarters.com, which is about to undergo a complete renovation.
“I’ve always been a bit of a shopper,” says Pifer, who says that he wanted a serious-looking comics shop that would discourage middle school children from hanging out and attract grownup comics fans, as well as newbies. “When we were thinking about how we wanted the store to look—both the flow and how we wanted people to behave—we went to Rodeo Drive and looked at Prada and Louis Vuitton. They invoke an action or a mood.”
It’s definitely not your father’s comics shop. The critic for Los Angeles’s Daily Candy compares the 500 sq. ft. store with dark wood floors and leather chairs to a library designed by Brooks Brothers with shelves filled by Frank Miller. Works published by small presses and written and illustrated by independent artists dominate both the Milleresque shelves and display tables.
Pifer, who runs the store, estimates that about 80% of sales come from art books, graphic novels and science fiction; the other 20% from weekly comics from large publishers like DC. Individual issues are displayed in magazine-style racks along one wall. The other walls are filled with art by illustrators like Robert Goodin, Phil Noto and Kevin Scalzo, whose works are featured in monthly single-artist shows. “We pretty much consider the art shows 70% of our advertising,” says Pifer, who relies on word-of-mouth to bring in customers along with email blasts to the store’s 4,000-name list of media and customers.
Despite cultivating a mysterious image, many of SHQ’s top sellers are staples of more traditional bookstores and comics shops. Bestsellers include Watchmen and Bone, which Pifer calls “the Pixar of comics; everybody likes it.” He makes a point of carrying everything by Neil Gaiman, and in recent months has done well with a mix of books ranging from Goodnight Bush to Amulet and The Umbrella Academy.
Although sales have slowed somewhat, Pifer says that they’re continuing to climb. He attributes part of the store’s success to reasonable rent as well as careful ordering and reordering. Late last month Pifer and Ritchie reinvested part of those profits in a second shop in the Los Feliz section of Hollywood Boulevard. The equally hip Vacation, which Ritchie manages, sells vinyl records and some books.