Late last month Chapel Hill Comics marked its fifth anniversary—and its 30th year in business—with its second move, more than doubling its space from 800 to 1800 sq. ft. space. Ever since Andrew Neal purchased the store and renamed it in 2003, he has been carefully transforming it from a specialty science fiction and fantasy bookstore into a family friendly comics shop.
“I’ve changed the store pretty drastically,” says Neal. “But it couldn’t exist without the previous incarnations.” Chapel Hill’s first iteration was in 1978 as the Foundation Bookstore. When Larry Shapiro sold the store in 1985, new owner Dan Breen changed the name to Second Foundation Bookstore, a play on words that continued to evoke Isaac Asimov’s science fiction series. The emphasis continued to be science fiction and fantasy, although the bookstore also sold some comics
Fast forward 18 years. By the time Neal purchased the store, where he was a long-time employee, its book revenue had fallen off. “Science fiction and fantasy took up 50% of the store and were 5% of our sales,” says Neal. “Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon had basically set up shop and torn down that aspect of the business.” He gradually sold off all the books and increased the store’s comics inventory. Chapel Hill Comics was still a destination, but not a strong enough one to stay financially viable. To build foot traffic, in 2005 Neal moved Chapel Hill Comics to the community’s main street, much closer to the university.
As a result, Chapel Hill Comics began getting walk-in traffic for the first time. Female shoppers, which had been negligible at the previous location, now comprise 35% of the store’s shoppers. “We made the place attractive and didn’t dress it up like a typical comics store,” says Neal. “We wanted to present it like a bookstore or gift shop.”
Although he added books back into the inventory mix, he chose ones with a different aesthetic that would draw customers who don’t typically shop in comics stores. “People will be more comfortable with comics if they know the books,” says Neal, who created a children’s section with Richard Scary, Captain Underpants and Golden Book titles. He also included bestselling graphic novels aimed at kids like Bone.
With the latest move, the store now has a separate events area that he plans to use to bring in children and their parents. Neal’s already begun hosting children’s birthday parties and recently had a Pokemon themed one. In addition, he’s planning to use it for reading groups to meet and to introduce classes like one on cartooning. “By the end of 2009,” says Neal, “we’re hoping to increase the events to the point where we’re doing something every week.”
Like a bookstore, Chapel Hill Comics does special orders, but they’re not a significant part of the business. Far more important are sidelines, which Neal’s wife, store manager Vanessa Neal, buys: primarily Uglydolls, magnets and Japanese snacks. The new store has a wall of comics, but it no longer has a back issues section. “For the last few years,” says Andrew Neal, “it’s been a place where things go to die, not an important part of our growth. Far and away book-format comics are the fastest growing section. When I took over the store they were 30% of sales, now they’re 70% of our business. Week-by-week comics are a smaller percentage of the business, but they’re the same dollar-wise.”
The new Buffy brought a lot of new readers into the store, he says, and is still the store’s bestselling comic. As far as graphic novels and manga, he adds, customers are looking forward to the next Umbrella Academy from Dark Horse as well as 20th Century Boys and Pluto from Viz.
With a better inventory mix and increased publicity surrounding the store’s move, sales at Chapel Hill Comics rose 27% in October. Going forward, Neal plans to move away from purchasing based on gut feelings and will be up and running with Bitter End’s MOBY point-of-sale and inventory control system before Thanksgiving.
“The wider our inventory becomes, he says, “the less intuitive my intuition is.” And Chapel Hill Comics could be in for another name change. Neal is already looking into opening more stores.