Comic Shops and COVID-19: One Year Later

Last year, we took a look at how the coronavirus pandemic impacted comic shops. Like all areas of business and entertainment, comic shops and the larger direct market was hit hard by disruptions to the supply chain, closures of "non-essential businesses", and a myriad of other challenges all stemming from the spread of COVID-19 across both the country and the world. At the time, we connected with a variety of shops across the country to ask them about how the pandemic was impacting their business as well as where they saw things going in the future, not only for themselves but for their direct market as a whole. Since then, the story has taken several twists and turns, from new surges of COVID-19 infections resulting in shifting restrictions to business and daily life to dramatic changes to the direct market itself. Now, over a year after the pandemic began, we're checking in with some of the shops from our original series to see where things are now, how the past year has changed things, and what's next as well as lessons learned from the whole situation.

Before we dive into the updates, we first need to recap some of the major changes in the industry. On March 23, 2020, Diamond Comic Distributors announced that they would stop receiving shipments at their warehouse for the then-indefinite future, a move that effectively shut down distribution in the direct market and made March 25, 2020, the last "normal" New Comic Book Day. Then just a few weeks later on April 17, 2020, DC Comics announced that they would resume selling new comics on April 28, 2020, with the help of two distributors: Lunar Distribution and UCS Comic Distributors. Diamond resumed shipping in May 2020. In June 2020, DC broke with Diamond, announcing that it was no longer going to be using Diamond and would instead continue to work with Lunar Distribution and UCS Comic Distributors, groups that they had turned to during the COVID-19 shutdown going forward as well as work with Penguin Random House for bookstore distribution of graphic novels and collected editions.

In March of this year, Marvel also made a major change to their relationship with Diamond, announcing that effective October 1st, they will begin using Penguin Random House as their new distributor. Direct Market retailers will be able to choose between order directly from Penguin Random House or alternatively through Diamond Comics Distributor, the previous exclusive distributor of Marvel comics to the Direct Market, as a wholesaler under terms established by Diamond in the US and the UK. Hatchette Book Group will continue to manage the distribution of Marvel graphic novels and trade to the book market.

Outside of the industry shakeups, there have been some major shifts in daily life as well. Over the past year, we've seen mask mandates require that people wear masks in public, including in stores, capacity requirements that limit the number of people in businesses at any one time as well as the rollback of many of these requirements. Vaccines against COVID-19 have also been rolled out to the public as well, prompting the CDC to even announce that the fully vaccinated no longer have to wear masks or socially distance (except where required by regulation or law). Across the country, stay-at-home orders have lifted, businesses are opening back up, and life is starting to resume.

But even with things starting to look normal, things are still different for some comic shops. Last year, Mary Jo Bammel, owner of Villains Grounds in Perryville, MO told us that their business had taken a major hit even with their shop being a coffee shop as well as a comic book store. Now, things have improved, but it's not quite back to normal yet -- and neither are the lives of their customers.

"Our business has returned to about 85 percent of what we were doing before," Bammel said. "Several of our customers have reduced hours so funds for the extras such as comics have gone away. I have hopes that things will increase as the months go on."

The opposite was true for Miryam Ramos, owner of The Comic Shop in San Leandro, CA. She told us that business has been booming, though she does anticipate it to slow down as more things open up.

"There is no normal now," Ramos said. "We have been booming -- I have had my best four months in 27 years over the last six months. [I] anticipate that this will drop back down as other businesses/events open up and disperse the discretionary spending."

While the two shops -- one located in a small town in Southeastern Missouri and the other in the San Francisco Bay Area -- had different experiences from a business perspective, both had generally positive things to say about the shifts in the direct market. While Ramos thinks the shifts are good overall -- especially with Marvel allowing retailers to continue to work with Diamond if they choose -- Bammel, who had previously spoken with us about major issues with their shipments from Diamond, said that things have already dramatically improved just with DC's split.

Honestly, we have approved of the shifts," Bammel said of both DC and Marvel's changes. "We struggled with deliveries and the quality of shipments prior to the split with DC. Now things have improved. I believe the split with Marvel will bring about even larger changes and for the better. Our customers are excited about the splits -- keeping them happy makes everything go smoother for us. The only downside are minimum orders -- if we don't meet the minimum, our books are held back a week."

Of course, even at a year in, the road ahead is still a long one and it will be some time before we fully see how the pandemic truly impacts comic shops and the direct market on the whole, but for Bammel, the key to getting to the other side is remembering things aren't over and to be flexible with whatever is next.

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"This isn't the end," she said. "Life has a way of throwing curveballs at us and as long as we're all flexible enough, we can handle just about anything. We're here to take care of our customers no matter what life throws at us."

Photo: Cliff Grassmick/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images