Comic shops diversifying, creating community atmosphere
By DANI FITZGERALD, Beaver County Times
Aug. 18, 2018
ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. (AP) — Unless you read the sign out front, you might not know where you're at when you first walk inside.
Men sit at long tables with stacks of trading cards resting beside them. Pop culture-inspired figurines — 4 inches in height — are displayed in thin plastic boxes; some holding wands, others wearing crowns and even more sporting capes and masks. Thousands of graphic novels are tucked in bookcases, lining an entire wall with serialized comics contained in one cohesive book.
Comic book and graphic novel enthusiasts — mostly men — were once the main folks who called New Dimension Comics along Lawrence Avenue home, as well as at the hundreds of similar shops throughout the country. But now, according to comic expert John Jackson Miller, that's not necessarily the case.
Trading card players, pop culture fanatics and vintage collectors are now the face of many comic shops, as comic sales have decreased 6.5 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the largest comic sales database in the world, Comichron.com.
But many local comic shop owners say they haven't felt a slip in revenue, because comic books aren't necessarily their top seller.
Todd McDevitt, owner of New Dimension Comics, says his sales are split evenly into three categories: comics, games and other miscellaneous, niche-y products.
Miller, a New York Times best-selling author and founder of Comichron.com, says comic shops have been evolving over time, some adding in quirky products and card games, while others are building coffee shops and restaurant add-ons.
Film adaptations increase comic sales
John Jackson Miller, founder of Comichron.com, believes the comic and graphic novel sales slip between 2016 and 2017 is largely due to unpopular storylines and unimpressive movie adaptations of comics.
His evidence is what has been happening in the last few months.
According to Miller's research on Comichron.com, the second quarter of 2018 showed a 20-percent increase in sales over the first quarter.
Miller said the 2018 sales spike is largely due to major anniversary issues that came out in the second quarter — April, May and June.
For instance, the 1,000th issue of "Action Comics," the series that introduced Superman, came out in April, selling over a half a million copies. The 800th issue of "The Amazing Spiderman" also came out during the second quarter, selling over 400,000 copies.
Not to mention, 2018 film hits like "Black Panther," and "Aquaman," which is coming out in December, has created more interest in old school comics.
"Prior to the movie, the Black Panther wasn't a big seller," Eide said. "But when the movie came out and was a hit, it helped increase (sales) more."
New Dimension Comics' manager, Josh Thomas of Marion Township, said when "Black Panther" came out in February 2018, lots of customers came in asking for "Jungle Action" issues, the first comics that featured the character.
"We usually see elevated interest a month or two before a movie hits the theater," Thomas said.
Big and small screen hits like "Black Panther," or "The Walking Dead," which originally started as a comic, helps the comic market bounce back, according to Miller.
"I think that's what this market requires. It helps to have some hits," Miller said. "That brings people into the shop and they find other stuff to get."
Although comic stores that are purely comic book-based do exist, it hasn't been the dominate model since the 1990s, Miller said.
Times are changing — and so are comic shops
The 1990s were known as "the comic crash" to most comic fans, where quantity trumped quality, not only with the number of comic stores around the nation but also with many shops becoming overstocked with comics no one wanted to buy.
But according to Miller, a few other events happened in the 1990s that saved the comic industry.
"In 1994, Magic: The Gathering was created and that definitely saved hundreds of stores. In 1999 that also happened with Pokemon," Miller said. "We had a seven-year decline in business in the 1990s, and by the time the comics business gets its act back together in 2000 and 2001, we saved a number of stores due to diversification."
This change of focus for comic stores in the 1990s and early 2000s has continued to keep local stores afloat today.
For instance, Greg Eide, owner of Eide's Entertainment in the Strip District of Pittsburgh, says his shop thrives from selling unique products.
"We survive by our diversity," Eide said. "We're not dependent on brand new content."
Eide's Entertainment has four floors of products. The third floor is music-based, offering CDs and records. The second floor is the VHS department. The basement is mainly comics and action figures, while the first floor is a mixed bag, offering everything from novel products to vinyl records to action figures and comic books.
"We are also a pop culture department store," Eide said. "We have music, video and all kinds of collectibles ... we have people who will come here and buy things on every floor. It's kind of like a one-stop-shop for all their entertainment needs."
An eclectic product focus now brings in people with varying backgrounds and interests, adding not only diversity in product to comic stores, but in clientele, too.
A gathering place
Four rectangular tables catch your eye first. Six seats are tucked underneath each table. Four men — two in high school, one in college and another in the work force — sit at a table, across from each other, two by two.
Trading cards with pictures of magical creatures lay face up — some vertical, some horizontal. Dice sit at the table's center. Pop cans crack open and candy bags crinkle from anxious fingers anticipating the next player's move.
The game is Magic: The Gathering. And for four North Sewickley and Franklin townships locals, it's a typical Wednesday afternoon at New Dimension Comics.
Most of these guys have not picked up a comic in years. But comic shops are where they feel most welcomed, most at home.
Often people who visit local comic shops aren't simply buying a piece of merchandise and then leaving. For many, comic shops have become a gathering place, or clubhouse.
"You almost have to be a bartender," Sewickley comic shop Big Bang Comics and Collectibles owner Dave Bishop said. "People come in and they want to talk."
Comic shops provide a daily island of discussion that may only happen once or twice a year at comic conventions, Miller said.
But this clubhouse feel isn't new.
"The comic shop has been around since the 1970s as this sort of meeting place," Miller said. "The comic shop gives you this island to discuss things. It's a lot lower temperature than the internet is. The internet is a hot medium in terms of immediacy of discussion and reaction, and it puts all the most pugnacious people in the same room together. But comic shops are a real life meeting place, usually with people who are similarly inclined, with an interest in print comics and a few people there with some expertise."
Comic store retailers know their customers
The comic shop community is even extended to comic shop owners, which is partially why Miller believes comic stores aren't going anywhere.
"There is almost no waste in the comic system," Miller said. "Almost everything printed ends up sold to somebody. It might only be sold to a retailer, but the retailers have a pretty good handle on their inventory. They know their customers."
Not to mention, some comics have serious investment value. According to Miller, the first issue of "The Walking Dead" is worth $1,200 in mint condition.
"We don't want to give the idea to people that you'll get rich with brand new comics, but there are occasionally new comics that become phenomena that are worth quite a lot," Miller said. "Comics are magazines that people don't throw away."
In the comic shop industry, Miller says success builds on success.
Although the 2016-2017 market slip might have caused fear for the future, the second quarter of 2018 shows a 20-percent increase from that of the year's first.
Miller believes the future of comic shops looks good for now, "I really think the market was just taking a breath."
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/