I distinctly remember, on September 11th 2001, driving to the empty store in Oakville, Ontario that would be my comics and used book shop, and hearing a report on a Buffalo radio station about the World Trade Center towers falling. I was convinced, for the majority of my very short commute, that it was a joke. But when I reached the shop and went in, there had been no punch line. I turned on the radio in the store and listened, as I laid tile and patched holes, to the horrific tale unfolding many hundreds of kilometers south of me. I stopped work early that day, gathered with friends and family, and we watched, on television, the disaster unfold.
I really should have known, right then, what to expect.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not calling it an omen. I’m not ascribing some overwhelming power to fate. The sad fact of the matter is that, for a long while after the events we have dubbed “9-11,” being a small business owner was remarkably difficult. The world in which we lived, we in the overly-privileged West, had changed. And so I really should have known, right then, that the path I had chosen would not be an easy one. It certainly wasn’t, I should note, the only reason for the difficult path, but it was certainly a contributing factor. If I’m to be honest, it’s likely that I’m one of the worst business people you’re ever likely to encounter. That may have had something to do with it too.
About a year earlier, the campground my wife and I were running had been put up for sale, and we knew that we were going to have to find a new way of living. I had, over the winter season, worked in a used book shop, and the idea had come to me that a used book and comics store would be a lovely way to spend my time. My employer at the book shop warned me never to get into the business of selling something I loved. I ignored this advice flat out, drafted a business plan, and somehow convinced a bank to finance my endeavour.
I almost typed “folly” there. But I will try to maintain some optimism.
The shop opened the following October. I had spent weeks buying up used book stock and old comics collections. I had placed my orders with Diamond Distributors, and received some new stock with which to line my shelves. The expensive comics were, as expensive comics are wont to be, displayed proudly up on the wall. The back issues were priced and organized. The book shelves were not quite full, but full enough that the anticipated customers could spend a good few minutes, at least, on each section. I prided myself on quality of selection, as opposed to quantity.
I think I had one customer the first day. He came in, introduced himself as a fellow used book dealer, and then proceeded to haggle with me over the price of a book. He, of course, knew full well that I had just opened, as I had told him this myself moments earlier, so I felt that the haggling was, in the vernacular, “a dick move.”
The store lasted about 10 months, shutting down in August or September of 2002. I don’t know exactly when it was. It capped what had undoubtedly been the most traumatic and stressful year of my, and my family’s, life. I say this as a second year Ph.D. student, having experienced the stress and trauma of both undergraduate and graduate school. They are nothing compared to trying to sustain a small business in what is becoming a smaller and smaller niche market. And I was doing so at a time when comics were beginning to boom on the big screen. I was privileged to be a part of the first “Free Comic Book Day,” celebrated the weekend that the first Spider-Man film opened. The first X-Men film was only 2 years old. The Ultimate Marvel universe was reinvigorating a company that had teetered at the edge of bankruptcy for so many years. Marvel had taken the bold step of doing away with the Comics Code Authority, and were rating their comics themselves. At that end of the industry, on the production side, there seemed to be optimism. I wish that I could say the same for the distribution side.
I don’t think I would be out of line to say that running a comic book store has always been a dodgy enterprise. Even before the advent of the digital comic book, and whatever that may mean for the print version, comics were a small market. Couple this with the fact that comic book readers have a diverse range of tastes, a range that, in a small start-up business, is virtually impossible to meet, and the eventual demise of my shop would not have been that difficult to predict. Sales were never high, I was constantly behind on rent, and my personal life suffered as a result. I would say, with all sincerity, that it was one of the worst experiences of my life.
But (and there’s always a “but”), it was also one of the greatest. Forget that advice that you should never go into a business selling something you love. That’s ridiculous. I love comics. And I was privileged enough to be able to spend my every waking hour engaged in an enterprise that was part of the distribution of my beloved medium to the public. Of course, not so much of that public as I had hoped came through my doors, but some did. Some were rookies, some were old hands, but all were interested enough to spend the time, to talk, and, occasionally, to buy. On the days when he was not in daycare, my young son would spend the day in the shop with me. He remembers only a little now, a decade later, but he does remember some. He remembers a little of the time he spent with his Dad while his Dad owned a comic store.
After the store folded, I moved everything into storage. It is only in the last few years that I finally parted with the books that had filled the front of my store. The comics, of course, are now my personal collection, though they are also still a reminder of that brief, tumultuous time.
What, then, is my point?
How about this: It’s not easy being a comic shop owner. Financially, you get it from both sides. You’re stuck with Diamond Distributors and their monopoly on the industry. But you’re also stuck with a customer base that is constantly aware of the price increases and is happy to complain to you about them. The secondary market in back issues is a place where customers feel they have a right to dispute your prices, and, though it’s an utter lie, the old adage is that “The customer is always right.” You are expected to be aware of all significant announcements within the industry, and if you miss one, you are judged to be unworthy of the position of authority you have, perhaps unwillingly, been cast in. You can’t simply sell comics, of course. You must indulge in all the ancillary merchandise, in the hopes that some of the big ticket statues or reprint volumes will bolster the periodical sales each month. I can’t even imagine how comics shop owners are dealing with the distribution of digital editions of comics and graphic novels now.
Here’s what we need to remember about the owners of comics shops: They are the front line. Everyone in the industry owes them an unimaginable debt. There are, at least in my neck of the woods, no massive national chains of comic book shops. There are independently owned and run shops, often, but not always, begun through a desire to share a beloved medium, and the stories therein, with the public. This was always, always, my intention. I have loved comics for as long as I can remember reading. Before we moved to Canada, it was Doctor Who Weekly, or Star Wars Weekly. Once here, it was the various Archie titles, and Richie Rich’s oeuvre. I dove headlong in to the superhero realm with Crisis on Infinite Earths and have never looked back. In my current endeavour, pursuing a doctorate in English, my desire is still the same. I want to bring comics to the public. I want others to understand the love I have for them. That’s all I ever wanted while I ran my store, too.
I know that there are arguments for the move to digital comics. I know that piracy of comics is rampant. I also know that these things will not go away. But if the comics shop does, then the industry as a whole will have lost an important, and unique, champion of the medium. And that would be sad.
Tom Miller is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary in Alberta. As well as superhero comics, his research interests include psychedelic literature, H.P. Lovecraft, popular physics books, and modernist American poetry. His comic book store, “The Magic Mirror,” was a brief fixture in north Oakville from 2001 – 2002.
This article is part of a series on comics and cultural work, guest edited by Casey Brienza. To read the other articles in this series click here.