Owning and operating a small business is challenging. In a market where digital media has all but taken over, brick and mortar comic book shops are on the endangered list. Apparently, no one told this to the place where I get my weekly pulps from, Comic Heaven. Located on Robin Hood Drive off of Euclid Avenue in Willoughby, Comic Heaven has been a thriving bastion to the community’s card and/or dice gamers and comic aficionados for over twenty years. Pressure Life talked with Comic Heaven’s owner, Jim Williams, to find out how he has managed to remain so successful.
Pressure Life: How long have you been at your spot on Robin Hood Drive?
Jim Williams: “We’ve just celebrated twenty one years here on October 12th.”
PL: Going back those twenty one years, what was the hardest obstacle getting the shop off the ground in the beginning?
JW: “Getting the word out that we were even here. We did a soft open earlier but it took me a while to even get a sign because I just didn’t have the money for it. But when I did, it was the best sixteen hundred dollars I ever spent. I got lucky when I opened. Mike Gustovitch was doing Batman at the time so I was able to bring a Batman artist into the store. That day was very successful and I was pretty sure we had a hit here and that we were going to be okay.”
PL: Now there are digital comics, there is Amazon and Ebay, file sharing and pirating, some brick and mortar stores have had a rough go at it, what have you had to do to adapt and remain viable now that the market has changed in recent years.
JW: “I try to embrace some of it, if I can. It’s not always easy. The biggest problem is the pirating. Marvel and DC can’t even stop it. They shut down one site and three more pop up in its place. The problem is I really believe that someone involved in the industry is putting these books out for free. This new stuff always comes out Tuesday night (the night prior to the comic industry’s weekly Wednesday newsstand release). That seems kind of strange to me. Don’t forget, Marvel gives out a code when you buy their book so you can download it to your phone or computer for free right away.”
PL: Yeah, I can’t get into it. I have a few digital files but as a lifelong reader, if I’m not holding it in my hand it’s not the same thing.
JW: “I think it’s still a more hands on thing. It’s great that you can store and see things on your iphone or whatever. Like with me, I’ve a Nook HD and I got a couple graphic novels for it and they’re good to read on there but it’s still not the same.”
PL: One of the things that other market venues can’t offer is familiarity. I’ve seen some multisided dice rolling on that table by the window before, I’ve got a pull list there myself. Tell us a little about how shopping at Comic Heaven is more customer-focused than your regular online sources?
JW: “I always tell the guys regardless of who it is always say, ‘Hello, how are you? Can I help you find anything? If not, that’s fine, just let us know.’ We really focus on customer service. Plus, between the three of us, we all read a lot of stuff here so we can recommend different things. I’ll be honest with you, a lot of times people will come in and we’ll talk to them for ten to twenty-five minutes, show them games, explain things to them, they say ‘thanks a lot, I appreciate it’ then go home and look it up online and buy it there. Sometimes they forget that if they keep doing that it can be a double-edged sword. I totally understand getting the discount, especially with Amazon basically giving things away at fifty percent off; that’s just craziness. But if you want me around, you have to support me in some way. But we do have a lot of loyal customers, a lot of people that will buy from here and not the internet and I do appreciate that. It means a lot to me. After twenty years of doing this some people must still like us. I have had a lot of customers over the years, when they first came in they were bringing in a baby carriage, now their kids have kids.”
PL: Next generation of shoppers, huh?
JW: “That’s good! It’s important. If you raise a family of readers it will always help them throughout their lives. I learned to read with comics a long time ago and became a reader from there and I think it’s helped in a lot of ways.”
PL: You had writer Brian Michael Bendis appear for a signing a while back. I remember the line was out the door. Do you have any events or appearances or things of note on the calendar?
JW: “I got really lucky with Brian. We’ve been friends for years. He used to work for me when I was downtown. We’ve known each other for years and he called me out of the blue and said, ‘hey I’m in town, you want me to do a signing?’ It wasn’t a hard decision for me to make. He’s always welcome here but I didn’t want to be the one to ask him because I didn’t want to impose on our friendship. Sometimes he shows up on his own. He used to live around here. He used to ride his bike here, it was crazy.
“I’m working on something, maybe, for the first quarter of next year. Right now, there are some other guys I’m trying to get a hold of to see what we can do, but I don’t want to jinx it here.”
PL: Is free comic book day (the first Saturday in May) treating you right? It’s free comics for the readers but you have to pay for all those free comics you give away.
JW: “For us, Free Comic Book Day has really helped, but that’s not the case with every store. It is costly. Last year I spent fifteen to eighteen hundred dollars (on the free comics).”
PL: Did you make up for it in sales or was it close to a wash?
JW: “It’s hard to judge because each year gets bigger and bigger and I’ve cut back on it recently. After about five years of doing it I realized that I’m only seeing these people once a year. So I had to limit it to five to seven free copies each, which is still a lot. It works for me. They always tie it in with a movie and we usually have 100 to 125 people lined up at the door when we open up. It’s amazing when you give away free stuff how many people will show up. We try to make it an event every year. I have a lady that comes in for face painting and that’s gone great over the years. She’s really good.”
PL: Yeah, I’ve seen a few Stormtroopers there a few times on Free Comic day.
JW: “One of our customers, they’re member of the 501 and they always give us people to show up. They’re great. They got to get really hot in there after hours of it, but they make it a really fun day for the kids and that’s what I like because the kids are our future customers. We gotta keep them nerdy.”
PL: Do you see a return in sales for a particular comic when a movie featuring its characters comes out?
JW: “In the bigger picture it got people back into comics that haven’t been to a store in years. Don’t get me wrong, we are getting newbies. But I think it is more important that we’re getting the old people, the people that used to read comics and got away from it for a long time. Now they remember how much fun they had when they used to buy comics. Now with all the trades coming out, you can read the entire story together. A great example is Walking Dead. There are twenty three volumes out now. I just can’t tell you how much we go through. Once a month I probably order at least five to seven copies of the trade to restock. The first issue alone is really expensive (easily over $100 on Ebay) but in trade the first six issues are only fourteen bucks, that’s a bargain.”
PL: Over the twenty one years that Comic Heaven has been in business how have the comics changed over time?
JW: They’re beginning to get the respect they deserve. Between the movies and the TV shows, which are fantastic- I just finished watching Jessica Jones and I thought that was amazing how well done it was. People aren’t going ‘aw, it’s just fluff. It’s just comic book stuff’. I thought Captain America: Winter Soldier was just a phenomenal movie. It was well-written, well-directed. It had great action. It was just well done. You brought in Robert Redford, an a-list guy, as a villain. In Guardians of the Galaxy, you had Glenn Close doing it. It’s no longer an embarrassment to read comics. That’s one of the biggest things that has changed over the years. I’ve been yelling from the mountain how good some of these books are- Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Long Halloween, Marvels; they’re so many good books out there.
Now is a great time to be reading comics.
Stop by Comic Heaven and chat up these connoisseurs of comics next time you’re in Willoughby or visit their Facebook page or website at www.comicheaven.com