PW’s annual comics retailer survey is an informal and anecdotal report on sales during the previous holiday season, as well as an inquiry into business trends for the coming year. But the pandemic wreaked havoc on the comics shop market and the broader book retailing landscape in 2020, and the retailers who responded to our survey said they spent the past year just struggling to stay afloat.
In 2021, on the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic, we wanted to touch base with the retailers who participated in our 2020 survey. We wanted to hear what they had to do to survive, what kinds of support they received, what their customers wanted to buy, and their projections for the year to come.
This year’s respondents said they’re seeing accelerating demand for manga, continuing popularity of kids’ and YA graphic novels, and lively interest in a wide range of backlist titles. Comics shops, in particular, faced a changed distribution landscape for DC titles; online selling was critical to most stores; and, looking ahead, comics retailers are cautiously optimistic as more people are being vaccinated and local lockdown restrictions have begun to ease.
This year, we talked with four retailers from comic book shops that rely on direct market distribution for at least 30%–60% of their stock: Brian Hibbs, the owner of Comix Experience in San Francisco; Carr D’Angelo, the owner of Earth 2 in Sherman Oaks, Calif.; Jeff Ayers, the general manager of Forbidden Planet in New York City; and Patrick Godfrey, a co-owner of Velocity Comics in Richmond, Va. The direct market is a network of about 2,000 independent comics shops in the U.S. that buy mostly nonreturnable product at wholesale prices from Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest North American comics distributor. These stores sell a mix of traditional periodical comic books (generally superhero comics) and prose books and graphic novels.
The survey also includes representatives from general trade bookstores that maintain large graphic novel sections. This year’s participants were Benn Ray, a co-owner of Atomic Books in Baltimore; Doug Chase, a buyer at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore.; Liz Mason, the general manager of Quimby’s Books in Chicago; and Carson Moss, a buyer at the Strand Bookstore in New York City.
What books, categories, and merchandise sold well in 2020, and what’s selling well in the first quarter of 2021?
Godfrey: We’ve seen a huge upswing in two specific areas: manga and back issues of periodical comics. Those are the two biggest moneymakers for us.
D’Angelo: Back issues of comic book periodicals continue to be strong. People have more time to read, and they want that break from their screens. People were binge reading, so someone who bought Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga volumes one through three from us two years ago came back for the other six books. And collecting continues to fuel a lot of business in the direct market.
Ray: Comics-wise, the biggest category to blow up has unquestionably been manga—or, as most of the people looking for manga erroneously refer to it, “the anime”—or anything that’s a cartoon and has 50-plus volumes that are impossible to stock or, now, even reorder.
Chase: We continued to see manga and kids’ graphic novels sell well. Our stores were closed for several months, but our online sales were healthy.
Moss: The type of items the Strand sells has not drastically changed since March 2020, but unfortunately we sell far less of all of it. The popularity of comics for younger readers has not abated.
Ayers: A reduction in sales of single-issue periodical titles has led to a narrowing of the focus and scope of titles we order. Also, speculation [buying from retailers to resell online at higher prices] has risen dramatically. All of this leads to greater sell-through on titles across the board. But the number one sales accelerator over the last year—around here—has been manga- and anime-related merchandise sales. I really cannot emphasize how big a fervor for the category has resulted from fans staying at home and digesting anime series after series being aired on Netflix, Crunchyroll, and other services.
What did it take for your store to survive the pandemic, the temporary shutdown of Diamond Distribution, and DC’s decision to leave Diamond and set up new distribution vendors?
Hibbs: Diamond’s shutdown was roughly contemporaneous to our local government lockdown requirements, so it was “fine” to not have new comics coming in and generating new expenses without concurrent sales. The bigger problems stemmed from DC upending their longtime distribution partnership with Diamond and moving to Lunar, a new and unprepared vendor. This radically increased our costs to carry DC’s line of periodicals, both in labor as well as shipping, with absolutely no upside for our operation: working harder in a pandemic for less money is not a formula for success.
Ray: We are fortunate in that we have a dedicated and concerned customer base. So when we had to shut the store down to the public, we could still sell via our website. At the point in the crisis when Diamond shut down, we were so busy trying to figure out how to sell things to our customers, we didn’t realize there might be an issue in getting the things our customers wanted to buy. Unfortunately, when Diamond stopped shipping, we did lose some subscribers.
Ayers: Diamond shutting down was a bit welcome for us, as we were unable to operate at any semblance of functionality at the time. With inconsistent regulations from state to state and with California and New York—the comic industry’s two biggest markets—effectively shut down, I would have preferred, and mostly got, a unified stoppage of deliveries to the industry. Why release books to niche corners of the industry and put financial pressure on it as a whole when the majority of that industry is not able to operate? DC’s distribution shift to UCS and then Lunar was so much more disruptive and unwelcome than Diamond’s temporary shutdown.
Mason: I stopped ordering from Diamond, so their goings-on don’t affect me really, but we never really ordered much from them anyway. We survived the pandemic by putting as much inventory as we could online, and having an e-commerce function on our website has been really helpful. We started doing customized zine packs [bundles of zines, mini-comics, and chapbooks] that people have been excited about, and that helped.
D’Angelo: I had no problem with Diamond shutting down early on. Continuing to ship inventory would have had harsh consequences for those stores shut down by local lockdown restrictions, forcing them to miss out on the sales of months of new books. Diamond did the right thing. The biggest ripple effect for us was the loss of in-store events and signings and the sales they generate. These in-store events are the ways we build our community and customer base.
Moss: The Strand closed its doors in March 2020 and did not reopen until June. With sales down significantly, we have concentrated purchasing on backlist reorders and a much narrower title range out of the frontlist catalogs. From a buying perspective, our margin for error feels much slimmer than it was previously.
How has your state’s pandemic restrictions impacted your store?
Ayers: We were happy to welcome customers back in June at 50% capacity, as New York state law required. Luckily we’ve only hit that percentage a few times in the months since. I can’t envision more people in the store at a given time until vaccinations increase exponentially. We try to maintain as much social distancing as possible, and will create a line of customers outside who must wait to get in whenever the crowd size starts to get uncomfortable.
D’Angelo: In Los Angeles, we literally had to lock the door for three months, from March to June, and through the end of the year our capacity for in-store customers was cut to 20%, which meant we could schedule a couple staffers to serve a handful of customers. We are back to 50% in-store capacity now, with social distancing and mask requirements still in place. The restrictions are fine, and the staff and customers have been cooperative and willing to wait outside.
Mason: Illinois recommended six feet between consumers and keeping staff separated by a plexiglass thing. That’s something we’ve adopted.
Chase: When we reopened our stores in Portland, we adopted stricter capacity rules than the state required. We still only allow about 15% of normal customer traffic.
Ray: Maryland is lifting indoor capacity restrictions even though Covid cases are climbing in the state again. The city of Baltimore is about to move to 50% in-store customer capacity, but we’re going to remain at no more than six people—who are masked!—at a time.
Hibbs: San Francisco, perhaps as an over-correction to the city’s history of failure during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic a century ago, when San Francisco led the “anti-mask brigade,” has been overabundant in caution. We had to shut down early and have remained shut down for a very long time.
Moss: New York City has had a 50% capacity restriction since stores were allowed to reopen in June 2020. The Strand has a comprehensive safety plan based on CDC recommendations, which include visible signage reminding customers to stay masked and socially distant. Plexiglass barriers protect all working stations, and there’s a new emphasis on sanitizing those spaces. We have been more than happy to enact any and all protocols to keep our staff and our customers safe.
Godfrey: We have been allowed a maximum of 10 customers at a time, and masks are required. Thankfully, we only have to ask folks to wait to come in periodically. Arguing with people coming in about either not wearing a mask or refusing to cover their noses has been a gigantic stressor.
Has your store benefited from pandemic-related support from direct market comics publishers, crowdfunding sources, small business loans, or grants?
D’Angelo: As soon as the lockdown started, comics artist and writer Rob Liefeld started doing a drawing a day, selling them and getting the money to comics shops directly and quickly. Earth-2 was the beneficiary of an illustration Rob did of the Batman character Bane. We have also tapped into whatever PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] funds were available, and received a grant from the Binc [the Book Industry Charitable Foundation], who have done great work supporting comics shops.
Hibbs: We were very happy to receive a grant from Binc this year, and we were able to get an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and PPP money that smoothed out what would have otherwise been a very rough financial picture. Virtually every vendor was utterly exceptional in their understanding of shutdowns and how that impacted small-business storefronts’ cash-flow.
Ayers: We did receive a PPP loan and a Binc grant, and I’ll never forget the help and support we received from some publishers’ initiatives, which included rebates, extended discounts, and returnability.
Ray: Not really. The American Booksellers Association has been very helpful on the traditional bookstore side, but on the comics side, for what we are and what we carry, I’m not sure smaller publishers were in any kind of position to help. The larger ones seemed more concerned about taking the time to set up their own distribution network and encourage digital sales than helping shops stay afloat.
Moss: We are incredibly grateful to have received PPP assistance from the SBA, which has been instrumental to us maintaining operations over this very difficult year. From a sales perspective, to support the store, we launched an effort in October called #SaveTheStrand and appealed directly to our community to boost sales ahead of the holiday season. We received an overwhelming amount of support.
Chase: We have been able to access the PPP loans. This is one factor that has helped us bring back employees. We are a long way from being whole, though, in sales, in customer traffic, and in bringing back all our laid-off employees.
Mason: The owner got a round of PPP loans that helped, but now we’re back down to a skeleton crew as further financial realities hit.
Godfrey: We haven’t received support. We did well enough through the past year that I didn’t feel right taking SBA money that should be going to restaurants and other businesses who were really knocked out by the pandemic.
What stands out for you as the biggest lesson learned, industry shift, or insight you’ve had during the tumultuous and disruptive year of 2020?
Mason: People want a customized shopping experience, whether it’s in person or online.
Hibbs: Because you can no longer possibly please everyone due to the fractioning of the comics market into smaller and smaller segments, leaning in hard to the vision of what you want comics to be—rather than what some corporate actor has decided comics should be—seems like the winning move.
Moss: The biggest lesson learned is just how unpredictable the future is. You have to be willing and able to shift priorities as a business at the drop of a dime.
Chase: We basically had to make plans and change them day-to-day and week-to-week as circumstances changed. We’re still in that mode and will be for the foreseeable future.
D’Angelo: I hear a lot about pivoting and I agree it’s important, but some of us like having shops and don’t want to transform into an online warehouse business. So how do we keep that local comic shop environment relevant? For me, the big insight is to support publishers that make my job easier—publishers like Boom!, Image, and Aftershock—and avoid those that rely on FOMO marketing tactics.
Ray: No matter what you expect and plan for, there’s always something else you didn’t see coming, so a little flexibility, creativity, and reinvention can go a long way.
Ayers: Every day I come to work, I’m reminded that thousands of people keep our business going. That people love this store and the products we sell so much they donated to a GoFundMe to help keep us going. I feel a great responsibility toward this community to not take that for granted.
Godfrey: The insight I gained is that we can survive a global pandemic, and connecting directly with customers and listening to them remains the key to succeeding.
Shannon O’Leary writes regularly for PW on comics retailing.