Friday, January 8, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 27


In 1982, my main competitor was a man who appeared to dislike dealing with the public. He was grumpy to many of his customers and he could frequently be heard saying, “This isn’t a library!” (This wasn’t my philosophy. I assumed that if you encourage the customers to look through the comic books then they’ll probably be interested in buying them.) Oddly enough, this competitor was courteous to me when I would go into his store.

One day that I went into his store he told me that my employee, Steve Wentzell, was no longer allowed to come into his shop. Steve used to play Dungeons and Dragons at this guy’s store on a regular basis but he was now banned because he worked at my store. This certainly didn’t make sense to me. I could understand it if he banned me from his store, but not a paying customer like Steve. When I informed Steve, he convinced me to start to sell role-playing games and war games so that consumers would have another place to buy the games. I called a gaming distributor and within a week I was carrying a large assortment of games and accessories. We decided to offer the local customers a discount as an incentive to begin to shop at my store for all of their gaming needs. We also began to offer a 10% discount on all new comic books purchased by our regular “subscribers”. My competitor responded by offering a 15% discount. I countered with a 25% discount. He went to 30% off. Within three months I was selling our comic books at 60% off of the retail price! I was actually losing money on every comic book I sold. I was determined to get as much of the comic book and game business as possible away from my competitor. By the summer of 1982 my store was selling more new comic books than my competition. I had over 350 regular weekly customers who were actually paying less for their new comic books than I paid. My competition only offered the huge discount to his small group of about fifty customers so it didn’t affect him as much financially as it did me. I was losing money on my new comics every week. Luckily, my store inventory was not just new comic books. I was still selling a lot of sports cards, record albums, and toys, so I could afford to pay for our expenses, but I knew that this big discount on new comics couldn’t continue. I wrote a letter to my customers and I explained that although the “price war” on new comics was over, I would continue to offer the lowest priced back issue inventory in Massachusetts. I also explained that this would enable me to have sufficient funds available to buy large collections of comic books and collectables from my loyal customer base. Most of my customers understood. Many of them thanked me for offering the discount for as long as I had. Within a week my competitor stopped discounting his new comic books as well.

In 1982, an old friend, Steve Geppi, began distributing new comic books under the name of Diamond Comic Distributors. He bought the distributor that I was using in Boston and suddenly he became my comic book source. Steve Geppi’s belief in superior customer service was evident immediately. Our weekly shipments of new comic books were more accurate and they were more carefully packed. The monthly order forms became very professional. The employees in the Boston warehouse were both professional and friendly and they seemed to really care about making it as easy as possible for us. Carol Kalish, the manager of my old distributor, went to work for Marvel Comics as the manager of the direct sales market. Her knowledge of the business and her love of comic books quickly propelled her to a position as a vice president of the company.

Business had been growing at a rate of over 25% per year for the last two years but like many small business owners, I tried to “save” money by cutting back on things like employee salaries and business insurance. Late at night on December 28, 1982 I got a call from my old employee, Tim Shea, who still lived across the street from my store. He said that the store was on fire and the fire department was on their way. I asked him to go over to the store to try to limit the amount of damage that the firemen would do with their water hoses. I jumped into my car and drove the thirty miles to my store. All of the way there I was thinking that I would be ruined financially. I had drastically under-insured my inventory just to save a few hundred dollars each year. If everything were destroyed I’d only be paid a small fraction of the actual value of my inventory. I wouldn’t be able to pay my employees. This was a horrible ride into Worcester.

When I got to the store, the fire was extinguished. The fire had mostly been contained in the store next to mine. Although I sustained no real fire or water damage, my store did fill up with smoke. The smell of the smoke made it difficult to breathe inside my store. By the time the fire department left it was 8:00 in the morning. I was determined to be open for business by 10:00AM so I called a company that specialized in fire clean up. The company sent a man with a tank of cherry smelling fog that they would spray into the store while my customers waited outside. He would spray this stuff into the store every hour and we’d have to ask all of the customers to go outside until it was safe to come back inside to continue their shopping. Surprisingly, I still had a great day of sales. I used this opportunity to call the local newspaper so they’d run another story about us. Any good free publicity was a boost to our business.

Next chapter: I open another store.


  1. I wish I'd known about this when I ran my own comic shop. I could have set my inventory on fire, gotten tons of free publicity, and it'd probably still be running today. Guess it's one of those situations where you may have taught me everything I know about comic retailing, but not everything you knew. Rats.

  2. David,
    Yeah...I guesss my point is, that ALMOST any situation can be turned around into something "positive."