Surviving 20 Years in the Comics Retail Market: A Q&A With My Favorite Retailer 0

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Twenty years ago last weekend, DC Comics killed Superman in what would, for many readers, be the event to end all events.

The burgeoning speculator market of the 1990s grabbed hold of the Super-mania that came during and after that story, and among other things, a number of new comic book retailers opened up, suddenly confident that they could make a living off the millions of fans streaming into their local stores looking for black-bagged gold.

One such retailer was Arlene Spizman, the owner of The Comic Shop in Oswego, New York. Spizman turned her antique shop into a comic book store in October 1992 after seeing interest in comics spike around the time the Death of Superman and other big gimmick stories were announced.

Oswego is a smallish city in north-central New York, defined principally by cold weather and a state university. It is, however, isolated enough to from the rest of the area (the closest shopping outside of the city limits is  about 15-30 minutes away) to support its own miniature economy, with two supermarkets, a comic book store, an independent cinema, a Wal-Mart and dozens of bars and restaurants catering to the college crowd.

I was part of that crowd once, and Spizman's store remains my all-time favorite comics retailer; once a year or so, when visiting Oswego County for the Sterling Renaissance Festival, I manage to swing by...and sometimes I get a double-dose of Arlene and her friendly staff when I run into one or more of them at the New York Comic Con. So this is hardly an unbiased examination of Arlene's business...but it's worth noting that a store started during the height of the speculator craze, and run by someone who didn't know anything about comics at the time (the content OR the business), has managed to stay afloat in spite of changing times and tastes.

Spizman's store is physically a fairly small one (though packed wall to wall with product), nestled in a building that you wouldn't recognize from hte street if it weren't for the elaborate window displays that she and her employees put together, usually themed to tie into either the season or whatever big movie or TV show is out. Their focus is heavily tilted toward graphic novels, with a staff of local residents that hasn't changed since I went to college there five years ago. They know their customers well, though, and avoid many of the traps of being a small store (like being forever sold out of things or having part-timers who don't know the product because you're trying to keep the store afloat cheaply).

The Comic Shop is also engaged with the local community, holding regular sales and game tournaments, donating comics, graphic novels, toys and money to schools, charities and other organizations around town as well as mailing comics to local troops deployed overseas.

While Spizman's twentieth anniversary (and our interview) happened in October, her connection to the Death of Superman event seemed like a suitable enough companion piece to our interview with Superman #75 writer/artist Dan Jurgens earlier this week.

There are a lot of good stores in Upstate New York and the Central New York area--so many that it almost doesn't seem like the market should support them. How do you flourish in a marketplace like that?

Oswego is kind of its own community, so I'm lucky in that respect because people do have to drive for thirty-five miles to get to the mall. I feel pretty good about being able to provide this type of store to the community, and the surrounding area, too. There are a lot of small towns in this area that were thrilled when we first opened because the only way they could get comics at that time was on newsstands. Now they have a store that they can actually come to and get a better selection.

Yeah, as much as there are six stores in Syracuse at any given time, there's nobody north of you.

No, there isn't--and rightly so because we probably couldn't support two stores like this in this area. I'm very fortunate that I've got something to sell where Wal-Mart isn't going to come in and put me out of business. I remember when they first came into town, going to a seminar where they told businesses how they could survive in a Wal-Mart climate...and again, I was very fortunate because I don't have to worry about them carrying what I carry in general. I mean, they're very competitive with action figures and they do carry card games and everything but they also don't have people there to help you find certain figures or explain the card games or hold tournaments, that sort of thing. We provide all of those amenities, and I try to keep it fairly friendly, as you know. I try to get to know all of my customers and we try to make it an environment where anybody is comfortable coming in here, whether it's a grandmother or a ten-year-old kid.

How hard is it to operate a direct market store in a college town? It seems dangerous to have a chunk of your subscribe base being somewhat transient.

It's taken some getting used to over the years; for the first few years I did have some trouble with it but over time you get to have a feeling about what's going to sell and what is not. I have two great employees who are very into comics who offer advice all the time on quantities and books they think people will be interested in. When college isn't in session during the summer we tend to pick up some customers in a similar demographic from the Ren Faire that's up in Sterling and from people who pass through the area and kids who come back from school--kids who live in the area and are coming home to Oswego for the summer who have been off to college. So it maintains itself. Again, it took me a couple of years to figure it all out, but it does work.

You were an early adopter of the graphic novel model--the idea that collections were a profit center as opposed to a liability to the monthlies. Does that help with the out-of-towners, too, since they won't be able to come back again in a week for the next one?

There's a lot of great comics stories that have happened already and people who are interested in starting on comics are very amenable to starting with graphic novels so that they can read some of these great stories. Then once they do that, whether or not they decide to go monthly and pick up floppies or stick with the trades, it doesn't matter. It's just getting them to read the format more than anything.

People like to read and they're interested in these stories. There are a lot of character-driven stories. It's not all just hype and superheroes. We're always willing ot make recommendations because we're all very well-read here so we tend to know what the content is so we can kind of steer people in the right direction.

I think I started with the trades when it was just hard to get the single issues and people just wanted to read the comics. A lot of our customers aren't collection-driven or speculation-driven; they just read the stories. If you want to read To Kill a Mockingbird, you aren't going to track down a first edition. You just go to Amazon and order it from there and it doesn't matter what edition it is. That's the same way with graphic novels because there are so many good stories there.

It's interesting that you say that because the urge to collect is so embedded in the DNA of many of the Wednesday Faithful--but you have a bit of a different perspective since you weren't a comics reader when you first started the store, really.

Yeah, we opened when Superman bit the dust--and it was a big growth time for comics retailers but a lot of them didn't last, unfortunately.

Or fortunately, I'm not sure how to look at it.

Well, you get a lot of retailers who are fans, which is a double-edged sword because you know what will sell but sometimes you get too emotionally invested in your books.

And I think those are the stores that don't make it.

Is it interesting to look back at things like Sandman and Strangers in Paradise and the Death of Superman and the idea that they're turning 20, and what a wacky, unpredictable time it was in comics back then?

It is, but it's starting to get wacky again now, with things like ComiXology, where you can read comics online now. I'm not sure what the industry holds for the next couple of years. I can see a lot of people going to digital.

Unfortunately in the twenty years that have happened since I opened the store, I haven't kept pace with technology. I don't personally do Facebook or Twitter--and our website is due for an update. We have all of these things but they're very basic. I don't sell online, which I know a lot of stores do.

On the flipside of that, what have been some of the best surprises over the last twenty years?

Well, The Walking Dead, without question. When that first started I only ordered it for people who requested it. I figured, "A black and white zombie book from Image? Who's going to want that?" And it didn't take long before I realized how good it was. I think by the third collection of graphic novels I finally decided to sit down and read it myself and since then I've been recommending it to anybody who walks in the door and needless to say it does terrific, not just here but all over.

Anything by Alan Moore obviously is going to sell well. If you're looking for good stories, that's where you're going to turn. When I first opened the store, I remember I had never read Watchmen. And one of my customers was telling me a little bit about it, and I just said, "Gee, maybe I should read that," and I couldn't believe how good it was. And of course after that V for Vendetta and the whole bit.

Brian K. Vaughan is just great in my book. Anyone we get started on Y: The Last Man loves it. Ex Machina a little bit less becuase it's more political but it's a great story and anybody who does follow through with it loves it. The new one, Saga, is selling very well, no question.

I guess it is kind of surprising how timeless some of these comics are and how different generations still love them. You open up Watchmen and the art is so eighties that nowadays, somebody reading it would be turned off by it, I think. People have mentioned that, but once you start reading the story, it takes over.

When I first opened, I'm sure you remember Death: The High Cost of Living. That had just come out and that was outstanding.

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