Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 103

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 41
Ken Carson: A store employee


After over fifteen years of operating my comic book and collectible stores in Worcester and Fitchburg, Massachusetts, I missed the national recognition that I had enjoyed in my time with Jay Maybruck as “Sparkle City Comics.” We were known all over the country as the dealers with the best inventory in the comic book business. Our customers loved us and frequently our competing comic dealers hated us because we “monopolized” most of the retail business at the comic book conventions. We were really good at what we did and we were industry leaders. I wanted national recognition again for two reasons. I wanted it for my own ego and I also knew that I could create publicity that would increase awareness of the stores and ultimately, increase our sales. The most prestigious award that was available in the comic book business was “The Will Eisner Spirit Of Comic Retailing Award,” named for comic book artist, writer, and genius, Will Eisner, and I wanted to win this award.

Although all of my employees have strong points, Ken Carson was the right man to tackle this huge task. He got to work right away and within a short time he got us nominated for “The Eisner.” That was the easy part. Now we had to convince the panel of judges that we deserved to win this. We were required to submit documentation about our physical location and the quality of our store image, our inventory, our support of small and innovative publishers, our community activity, our customer service policies, and more. Ken wrote:

Good Retailing Practices:

“That’s Entertainment has developed a strong presence in a number of collectibles areas, including sports cards and autographed memorabilia, Japanese toys and animation, model kits, and role-playing games. These product lines draw a reliable and enthusiastic group of primarily male customers in the 12-50 year old range.

“In the area of sports cards and autographed memorabilia, That’s Entertainment has carefully cultivated a reputation for integrity. We’ve had all of our displays custom-built to properly showcase the high-end items. Sports card packs are a natural compliment to the rarer cards and autographed items, and often serve as an affordable entry-level collectible for younger fans.

“Japanese popular culture has grabbed the attention of high school and college-age customers, with many gathering large collections of imported animation and figures. We maintain several direct accounts to keep hard-to-find items available.

“Role-playing games have likewise appealed to young people seeking new and challenging forms of entertainment. A recent innovation that has come to the fore is the collectible role-playing card game, with “Magic: The Gathering” the genre leader. “Magic” has enjoyed extensive media attention in the past months and That’s Entertainment has been involved from the beginning.

“Comic books remain our number one product line. Our new comic racks are impossible to show in one photo; they stretch over 100 feet along the walls, displaying somewhere around 1700 different comic books at any given moment. We “genre” rack (by subject) to put the small and large publishers on the same footing, and we order just about every new comic book released. Our custom-created subscriber database is not just a time-saver; it’s a tool that allows us to “link” new titles to established comics. Both “genre racking” and subscription linking quickly put even small press titles into the hands of readers who already support similar material, so they can check it out for themselves.

“Browsing is encouraged! We understand that a person has to open a comic book before he or she can be drawn into it! We promote a bookstore atmosphere, with employees eager to guide customers through the infinite diversity that fills the racks and bins. Give us a glimmer of a memory, and we’ll all get involved to track down that particular issue. If something sells out, accounts with several distributors allow us to get it back in stock.

“We’re proud to have many couples as customers, as well as some second-generation subscribers. Diversity within a positive environment makes this possible. We’re also set apart from other comic book stores by our constant and respectful attention to the innovators of the past. Colorful and informative end-cap displays have highlighted the groundbreaking works of famous comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Dave Stevens, Will Eisner, John Byrne, Scott McCloud for the uninitiated. We envy new readers the excitement of discovering such gems for the first time!

“The innovators of tomorrow also get shelf space at That’s Entertainment, with amateur comics displayed right alongside the work of the pros. The names of Matt Oreto, Memo Salazar, and Derek Ring are well known to That’s Entertainment customers. The rest of the world will have to catch up. We’ve had striking success lately with a creator-published comic titled “Monster” that outsold many major releases off of the horror rack!

Knowledge of retailing and collectibles:
“Store owner, Paul Howley, has been actively involved in reading and collecting comics since 1959. In 1973, he began retailing comics at the early Boston conventions. In 1976 he assisted in opening “The Great Escape” in Nashville, Tennessee, and he later helped establish “Sparkle City Comics”, then the nation’s largest convention dealer.

“Paul established That’s Entertainment in 1980, at a 2000 square foot location in Worcester, Massachusetts, New England’s second-largest city. In 1989, he added a second location with the purchase of a financially troubled comic shop in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Carefully balancing inventory, expanding product lines, and putting the focus on friendly customer service brought a doubling of sales within eight months.

“In 1992, That’s Entertainment, bursting at the seams, purchased a 20,000 square foot building in Worcester, and created a 10,000 square foot retail space, the largest full-service collectibles store on the East Coast.

“Along this route, Paul has acquired as much knowledge about collectibles as anyone, and each of us here has his own special areas of interest. These preferences come out in our displays and recommendations, many of the latter coming with a money-back guarantee to our customers. We all share the knowledge that each customer has his own tastes, and that listening is the first step in using our knowledge and experience. We also keep current in the medium with trade magazines, subscriptions to “On the Floor,” “Magazine and Bookseller,” and through study of the Internet.

“As a retail business, That’s Entertainment has grown into profit sharing, employee reviews, “Skillpath” seminars and training, and an annually updated handbook. We belong to the “Chamber of Commerce” and the “Central Massachusetts Employer’s Association.” In the competitive marketplace of entertainment, we are convinced that continuous professional development is necessary for exceptional customer service.

“Company manager, Chris Ball, was named “Salesman of the Year” in the small-business category by the “Worcester Business Journal” in 1994. This is a prestigious award that validates our professional approach within the context of the entire business community. Among comic shops, our sales figures place us in the top 2%, with an increase every year, sixteen years running. In fact, sales are up 21% for the first quarter of 1996. We’re using computers to handle information about customers’ wants. We always knew that “keeping an eye out” for something special for a customer was good business, but the database lets us “remember” more than ever, and to target mailings and calls effectively.

Community Activity:

“We take a variety of approaches to get comic books and our store name out into the community in positive ways. Paul has brought comics as literature into local schools through classroom demonstrations, and a store manager has spoken about comic books at several local libraries. We’ve coordinated successful fund-raising auctions to benefit a local youth battling Leukodystrophy. Several times, we’ve played volleyball for “Easter Seals,” luckily for us, just participating makes you a winner.

“This year alone, we’ve aggressively pursued opportunities to donate comic books to libraries, a hospital pediatric ward, and a school excellence program. The local PBS TV station auction has regularly featured our contributions over the past few years.

“We’ve used traditional advertising in all media to promote the medium of comic books. The highest profile was a series of custom cable TV spots, but we’ve extended our reach (and budget) creatively with cross-promotions. We’ve had comic books delivered with pizzas, and made comics available to the stationary-bikers at local health clubs. Theaters and video stores have proved to be natural partners in tying comics to the higher profile productions they inspired. We make displays and contests for all of them from “Crumb” to “Casper” to “The Crow.”

“That’s Entertainment rented a theater and gave away tickets to the first “Batman” movie as a promotional event and “Thank You” to our customers, and staged an elaborate funeral for “Superman.” Having stars Billy Mumy, Davy Jones, and Boston Celtics Dennis Johnson in our store for free autographs exposed literally thousands of people to our product lines. Comic fans also enjoyed appearances by comic creators Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Steve Bissettte, Mike Mignola and many more. Throughout these events we’ve worked hard to develop and maintain a quality relationship with our local media and we believe that this has resulted in a positive effect on public perception.

Quality of our store image:

“That’s Entertainment is known throughout the Northeast for depth and breadth of stock. Other stores send in their customers for obscure and small publisher material, and dealers fill their “want lists” here. Besides offering superior customer service, we take pride in being a “one-stop” collectibles store. Our sheer size and sales volume let us stock and restock all the best in comics. But if even we don’t have an item, we have refined our special order/want list procedures to a science. Our image? The place that either has it, or will happily get it for you!

“Full-visibility comic racks, custom built floor display units, product-line departments, newly remodeled register and office areas create a dynamic, open, bright and inviting atmosphere that is a browser’s paradise.

“That’s Entertainment is always taking steps toward expanding the appeal of popular culture collectibles. It is the genre we love, and even in a highly challenging retail environment, that fact is making the difference in our continued success.”

Along with the above information, Ken needed to have some “visual aids” to include with the package for the award judges to consider so he began to collect some of old photographs and articles from local newspapers. He also came up with the idea to enlist the help of two of our loyal customers to produce a short videotape movie about the store.

Next chapter: Memo Salazar, a gifted filmmaker, helps out.

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