“It’s Night and Day, Honestly”: Retailer Brandon Schatz on Reframing Variant Edition in the Wake of Disaster

Running a comic shop is a hard job in normal circumstances. Doing so when the strip ball you’re in is loaded with about half the water you’d find in an Olympic-sized swimming pool is even harder.

Incredibly, unbelievably, that’s something retailers 7 Brandon Schatz and Danica LeBlanc now know, as they faced the unimaginable this year at their shop, with their Edmonton-based comic shop Variant Edition Graphic Novels + Comics facing that exact scenario. That turned the pair into retailers without a store, and what is a comic shop without the latter half of the word?

It turns out, you’re still a comic shop, and you still have to do what you can to make things work, as the pair did. In the process, they learned a whole lot about turning challenges into opportunities, finding new ways to position your shop in the market, the importance of community, and more in the process. A little over a month ago, Schatz reached out to me to talk about what they’ve seen and learned, so we hopped on Zoom to dig into all that and more. 8 It ended up being a free-flowing conversation about picking up the pieces to build something new and hopefully better in the wake of disaster, one that offers insight into what it takes to navigate the challenges comic shop owners face — even when they’re not facing the Mother of all water damage situations.

You can read that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, in full below.

Let’s start with the basics. What is the status of your comic shop, Variant Edition Graphic Novels + Comics?

Brandon: On January 24th, I woke up and had an email from our property management company that just said, “Hey, please contact your insurance in regards to the flooding.” I was like, “I’m sorry, the what?” We drove to the store right away, we get there, I’m seeing the property manager standing off by herself, and I just watch a cigarette disappear in seconds. She’s clearly stressed, and there’s water being pumped out of this property, which is a long strip mall.

Basically, what had happened was the basement level of this complex got flooded. It’s a long strip, so it was 1.2 million liters of water that was up to five feet in certain spaces.

So, this wasn’t just your shop, this was the whole strip mall?

Brandon: The whole strip mall.


Brandon: The good part is since we were on the main floor, we were very lucky that none of our stuff was damaged. However, when something like that happens to your building, you can’t have power there. You can’t have water running there. And if it’s an older building, it takes a lot to fix. At the start we were told, “Oh, it’ll be a couple days. We’ll let you know what’s going on.” Then it was a couple weeks. In mid-February, we got a note that said on official letterhead, “It will take several months to complete.” Then talking with the people who are working on it, their best estimate is September at the soonest.

We are just a couple signatures away from getting the new space and being able to use that. But since nearly the start of 2024, we have been a comic store without a comic store.

How have you been operating ever since? What has that meant for Variant Edition, besides lots of stress?

Brandon: The first thing we did was grab our file boxes and our point-of-sale system, and for a while, all of it was just set up in the living room.

Inside Variant Edition’s temporary location at Pe Metawe Games, from Variant Edition’s Instagram

Were you basically just operating as an online store?

Brandon: Yeah, pretty much. We have our online website and our subscription service. People could still do stuff. We’ve actually been doing in-city delivery for something like eight years at this point. Much like when COVID happened and there were the lockdowns, we had a system to get books to people. But it was basically using the community center here once a week to host pop-ups for the first little bit.

Then in mid-February, a gaming store called Pe Metawe Games here in the city reached out to us and asked if we wanted to utilize one of their rooms indefinitely, basically. Earlier that day we got the message that there was no real timeline to get back into the store. If you had asked me, “How do you feel about the future of your shop?” across those two hours, I would’ve had two extremely different answers for you, because having a set place is everything in this format of a store. People are coming to you, people need a place to go to to grab their stuff. Browsing is a huge part of the experience.

We finally landed in a place just in time for our full-timer to get jury duty, so we had to close once we got into our new space on the second day because we had a book fair to run and no one to man the store while it happened. But the book fairs also really kept us going.

How close are you to having a new permanent space?

Brandon: Mid-May. 9

Mid-May. It’s funny, May is your time. You originally opened on Free Comic Book Day, didn’t you?

Brandon: We absolutely did, yeah.

If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in May. Bad things, January. Good things, May.

Brandon: That is a lot of how it’s gone.

Do you have a sense as to what hit you’ve taken because of the closure? Because you’ve been operating but limping, I’m sure. What has this meant for you as a business?

Brandon: We’ve been running ourselves pretty ragged, and in doing so, some months we’re only 15% down year to year, and other months we’re down 25%, which is huge considering most of our stock is not in our current, temporary space. I’ve found a lot of resiliencies in that. So many other stores, not just comic stores but shops in general, you wouldn’t be able to lose your space and still be almost in shooting distance of the year before.

Inside the just closed (and flooded) location, from Variant Edition’s Instagram

I know shops that had bigger drops from 2022 to 2023 that were open full-time, which is really saying something that you managed to maintain that well.

We’re recording this before Free Comic Book Day. This will go up after Free Comic Book Day. I am curious as to what that means for Free Comic Book Day, because you mentioned how important these kinds of days are for you. What does Free Comic Book Day look like in this environment? I believe historically it’s one of the biggest days of your year, as it is for most shops. How are you preparing for that? What is that going to look like?

Brandon: It was very hard to figure out. One of the hardest parts was…I believe, final orders for the Free Comic Book Day issues were due the week that we were shut down.

Oh boy. So, the end of January, basically?

Brandon: Yeah. Sitting here looking at those numbers, being like, “I don’t even know what this looks like.” Trying to figure out…will we even have a space? What will we do when the books come? There were so many different options. Obviously, one of them was going to be talking with our community league and just setting up like, “Hey, we’re doing it here. Here’s free comics.”

But a lot of Free Comic Book Day is about people going to your store, becoming aware that you exist in a lot of ways, then really figuring out different avenues for them to engage more than just with the free comics. But if you don’t have a space to do that with, that creates a whole lot of questions. Now, funnily enough, this past weekend we almost had a dry run for what this year’s Free Comic Book Day is going to look like.

Because you had Canadian Independent Bookstore Day, wasn’t it?

Brandon: Yeah. There’s a collective, the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association here, and over the past few years they’ve developed a Canadian Independent Bookstore Day. This year, a bunch of the Edmonton stores came together to do a book passport. We were on there, and we had so many people come through, and even with our limited selection, they were finding great books to read.

Were you set up in the game store?

Brandon: Yeah. We’ve been there for quite some time. We have maybe like 500 square feet that we house all our files, our desk, and then there’s a little space for product basically. What we keyed in on for that day was more of our literary books and a lot of stuff from Peow and ShortBox. When both of those publishers announced their closures, we discovered that we were the only place in Western Canada that was really getting those books –  so we focused on an experience that folks could only find from us in the area. Being able to hand them a sheet of paper saying, “We are going to be back in a real space soon and it’ll be at this location”…a lot of people were discovering us for the first time and got excited for a new opening later this year.

That big day and Free Comic Book Day leading into your new arrival is the perfect advertisement for your new space because it’s building up excitement with a new audience. The people who are using the book passport, that type of thing gets this new audience excited. Then for Free Comic Book Day, you’re going to be able to do the same thing, hand out those same flyers, and it’s actually amazing marketing for your new space. Not ideal, because you aren’t there yet, but it seems like you’re making lemonade out of lemons.

You have such a limited space, have you found yourself rotating out inventory depending on situation and need more than you would’ve in the past?

Brandon: Absolutely. One of the big things that this has taught us is we always take any situation we’re in and try and work with the negatives to build something positive that we can build upon. With this one, it was seeing what Variant Edition looks like as a showroom for an online space, basically. It’s not where we intend to go right away, but it was basically if we’re in this situation where we only have the space of a showroom — instead of space to have all our stuff — why don’t we experiment with that while we have the opportunity? Basically, we were looking at a problem like an opportunity.

So, if we only have this much room, we can push these books, we can engage in this way. Cycle things through so everything’s fresh, obviously bring in a lot of things like Critical Role and Die because we’re in a game store and really push out from there. It taught us that it can be done. It’s stressful, but we’re not going to be moving to that format soon. It’s something that will need to be built better.

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  1. And Eisner Award nominees!

  2. He also wrote about the subject last week in his column over at The Beat, The Indirect Market.

  3. They have since opened the new location.

  4. And Eisner Award nominees!

  5. He also wrote about the subject last week in his column over at The Beat, The Indirect Market.

  6. They have since opened the new location.

  7. And Eisner Award nominees!

  8. He also wrote about the subject last week in his column over at The Beat, The Indirect Market.

  9. They have since opened the new location.