Monday, April 12, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 78

Cast of Characters:
Paul: age 36
Mal: my wife


Every customer is important to the profitability and survival of most small businesses and I really appreciate the people who support my two stores. We’ve always believed that it would be better to have one thousand customers who would each spend one dollar than to have just one customer spend one thousand dollars. Many comic book retailers just can’t understand this kind of thinking. We believe this because if a few of your smaller spenders decide to stop spending money at your store you can still (hopefully) count on the rest of your customers, but if you rely on just the “big spender” and he decides to leave the hobby you’re out of business.

Leonard was one of my big spenders. In the late 1980’s he collected every comic book that Marvel Comics and DC Comics published each week. I’m serious. He read and collected every single comic book! He also bought ninety percent of all of the various independent publishers’ comics. Comic books usually sold for about thirty-five cents each when I first opened my store in 1980 and at that time Leonard spent about one hundred dollars each week. At that time we had quite a few comic book fans that were considered “Marvel Zombies” who tried to keep up with everything that Marvel Comics published, but it was rare that someone bought absolutely everything. Most collectors couldn’t afford them all. Comic book prices rapidly increased throughout the 1980’s and it forced most collectors to stop reading many of Marvel’s comics just because the reader couldn’t continue to spend that much money on their hobby. The steady price increases didn’t stop Leonard though. By the very late 1980’s Leonard was spending about three hundred dollars each week. In their relentless attempt to increase their bottom line profits, Marvel Comics raised the cover price of their comic books until it was too expensive and it became close to impossible for any collector to continue to buy the entire output of Marvel Comics. Many customers began to trim the list of comics that they felt compelled to collect. Once Marvel made it too difficult for them to afford, it became a convenient “jumping off” point for collectors. Marvel Comics didn’t seem to care because hundreds of new comic book stores were opening up all around the country and they were ordering enough new comics to compensate for the collectors who were cutting down on the number of comics they used to buy. Although Leonard was a highly paid management guy for a local seafood distributor (and he almost always smelled like fish) even he couldn’t afford to keep collecting as many comic books as he wanted to. At one point, in order to help Leonard be able to afford all of his new comics, I hired him to drive into Boston each week to pick up our huge shipments of new comic books. It worked out great for both of us because after doing this pick-up each week for almost ten years I needed a break and Leonard needed the extra money.

Jim was a local healthcare worker and he was a friendly, outgoing customer. He had tried to invest some money in new comic books and he had been shopping at a competitor of mine. My competitor had given him some really bad investment advice and Jim came to me for my advice. I tried to encourage him to invest his money in “proven” collectibles like comic books from the 1940’s through the 1960’s because I knew that these comics were scarce and historically they had proven to be solid investments. I was pretty convinced that these comics would offer a reasonable return on his investment over the long-term but Jim was more excited by potential short-term gains in the new comic book market. I wasn’t convinced that investing in newly published comic books was the best investment choice because most new comics were printed in very large quantities and the vast majority of them were purchased by careful collectors who would take good care of them. These comics would be plentiful in “high-grade” condition for many years so they wouldn’t be considered scarce. Supply would exceed the demand for these comic books and the prices should remain low. It seemed as if I’d just about have Jim convinced and he’d get lucky because he’d buy fifty copies of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. These quickly rose in price from $2.50 to $10.00 within a few months because most of the country’s comic shops had underestimated the demand for this groundbreaking Batman comic book series. A few lucky purchases propelled Jim’s enthusiasm to buy more new comics.

New comic books had to be ordered from the publishers two months before they would be released and I always ordered new comic books carefully so I would sell out of each issue within a few weeks of its release. Jim wanted to buy such large quantities and I didn’t order enough to satisfy him so I worked out a good solution for him. I’d call him a day or two before we headed into Boston to pick up our weekly shipments to get a list of the comic books he wanted me to get for him. I would then call the order in to Diamond Comic Distributors and they’d have as many of the comic books Jim wanted waiting for me. Jim would come to my store and he always paid for everything he had ordered.

The first year Jim had transferred his comic book buying to my store he spent about three thousand dollars. By the second year he had spent close to twenty thousand dollars. A few times during these two years I had suggested that he should sell some of these comic books while they were in high demand but he wanted to hang on to them until they were “worth more.” As it turned out, that day didn’t come. Jim decided he suddenly “needed” to sell these comic books and when I told him that I didn’t need very many of the comics in his huge collection he said he understood and left the store. He returned in a few hours and began to question me about my thoughts on “investing” in new comic books. I went over my philosophy again in great detail, explaining that although some new comic books do increase in value, investors are better off buying vintage collectibles with many years of proven collectibility. New comics should be read and enjoyed and maybe someday in the future they’ll become sought-after collectibles. When I was finished, Jim pulled a tape recorder out of his pocket. He was trying to “catch” me saying something that might be used to force me to buy back all of his comic books! When he realized that I had been honest with him from the very first time we met, his demeanor changed and his cheerful attitude returned. Eventually, I reluctantly did buy his entire collection of comic books but Jim didn’t get the amount he was hoping to get. He understood at that point that I was paying him as much as I could.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s many comic book retailers complained about “speculators” ruining the comic book business. The dealers were buying huge quantities of new comic books to satisfy the short-lived demand of these “investors” and when these speculators realized that these comic books were overprinted and they weren’t scarce, they stopped buying these huge quantities and most retailers got stuck with tons of unsaleable comics. My store didn’t get stuck with any unsaleable comics. We ordered only what we knew our loyal and serious customers requested.

Leonard lost his job and decided to move to Florida. I haven’t heard from him in over fourteen years. Jim began to collect and invest in baseball cards after that and he’s been quite successful with those. He remains a special customer to this day.

Next chapter: Foxwoods Casino opens in nearby Connecticut and the life of a friend is ruined.

1 comment:

  1. I've had to take a little leave from my bookstore job due to health reasons...and your posts somehow REALLY make me miss the wacky customers. Office co-workers really just don't compare, dammit!