Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 107

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 41
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 17
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 12
Chris Ball: The overall company manager
Richard Ortwein: The Fitchburg store manager


Although I was retired from daily involvement in my comic book stores, my life seemed busier than ever. Driving my son, Adam, to his high school was a commitment of at least a few hours each day (although it was usually a nice opportunity to spend uninterrupted time together), but it was a relief when Adam got his drivers license in 1996 and he began to drive himself to school. We still had to drive our daughter, Cassy, to her school but we had wonderful car-pool partners to share the driving. Both of my kids were heavily involved in the performing arts including voice lessons and acting in school plays and community theater. We loved watching them perform and we usually went to every one of their performances. Sometimes this meant seeing the same play as many as seven or eight times! We learned a lot about the whole theater “business” that would be useful to us later on.

Chris, the manager of my two comic book stores, called to discuss his idea for expanding our business through the Internet. He believed that it was imperative that we get on board and embrace this relatively new technology so that we could begin to reach the potential worldwide audience. He did his best to convince me but I wasn’t very interested in the new technology. I didn’t understand all of the details but I gave my “permission” for him to move forward to gather some information about the costs and potential benefits. Chris shopped around and came up with the “best” deal available at that time. He found a local company who would act as our “server” for $120 per month. This would give us unlimited Internet access, email communications, and they would build us a database program that we could use to list the hundreds of thousands of comic books, trading cards and toys that we had in our inventory. We all had visions of brisk sales to eager buyers all over the world. We were excited by the possibilities. Internet providers spent lots of money trying to convince consumers and businesses that we MUST be on the Internet in order to survive. We thought that this could “protect” us if sales at our store locations were to decrease so we signed a contract and began the process of becoming part of the “net.”

Meanwhile, our second store (in Fitchburg, Massachusetts) was becoming a frustrating experience for us all. Sales were sluggish (not horrible, but we were getting concerned) and the downtown area location was deteriorating at a pretty rapid pace. Fitchburg was a factory town with mostly “blue-collar” workers and unemployment was high. The Main Street area that was once filled with interesting stores that had been around for many years was now becoming a ghost town. There were dozens of empty stores. Social service offices, dentists and lawyer’s offices now replaced once profitable retail stores. The area became a hangout for drug-dealers and bums. It was becoming a dangerous place to try to run a business and the local politicians didn’t seem to understand the problem and they certainly didn’t have a solution. They attempted to “fix” things by spending millions of dollars on consultants to analyze the situation but the only solution they came up with was to beautify the downtown by putting park benches and small grassy areas with plants along the street. All this accomplished was making the low-life loiterers more comfortable! This situation really affected Richard, our Fitchburg store manager. He knew that it was increasingly more difficult to get new customers to come to our store because of the rough, downtown location. He did the best that he could with the situation but he finally called me when he couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to clean vomit from our doorway twice in one week and there was nothing being done by the city officials to straighten out this deteriorating downtown. Richard asked me to find a better location for our store.

I spent an afternoon driving around in some of the better retail areas of Fitchburg and found an empty store in a fairly big plaza on the busy “John Fitch Highway.” This store was previously occupied by a video game arcade and pool-hall. The owner of the plaza was happy to get rid of them as tenants because they made a mess of the store and they weren’t very reliable when it came to paying their rent. I just happened to discover this location a few weeks after they had moved out and the landlord was eager to have a trustworthy, new, rent-paying tenant. The owner realized that we would make a great addition to his plaza. I negotiated an initially low rent and although the owner wanted me to agree to sign a long-term lease, I was reluctant to commit to it so I agreed to a one-year term. It’s nice to do business with a realistic landlord.

The store was in bad condition so we tore out almost everything including the walls, ceiling, carpet, and lighting fixtures, and replaced everything. We bought many new fixtures and display cases and within a few weeks were ready to get out of the downtown area. After we notified all of the customers on our mailing list about our exciting new location, we relocated our entire inventory in one long night of work and were ready to do business the following morning. This move was made with no interruption in our business.

Next chapter: Ebay.

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