So, comics are back.
This past week marked the first Wednesday back to semi-normal operations, as every publisher but Marvel released new comics through Diamond on May 20th. While there are all kinds of oddities and caveats to go with that return date – DC has been publishing via DCBS and Midtown for nearly a month already, many states are currently on shelter-in-place requiring comic shops to be largely closed, even more are only allowed to do minimal work including curbside pickup, mail-order, delivery, and limited in-shop customers, some publishers are slow rolling the return, 3 and, oh yeah, comics never really went anywhere at all, it was just that Diamond was closed – it’s still a big moment in the direct market during the COVID-19 pandemic. From everything I’ve seen or heard, readers want new comics and now, shops have some ability to give them a more full experience when it comes to single issues.
The question of course becomes “how did everything go?” Naturally, it depends on who you ask, but ask I did, as I talked to a small group of shops from around the country to see how they’re doing, what their read on what customers want is, how they ordered, and perhaps most crucially, how comic sold on this week that was a first step towards normalcy. As I expected, the answers were all over the place, but intriguing nonetheless.
Before we get into the shop talk, let’s start with a status check with your shop. How are you currently able to serve customers, and has that allowed you to keep up with business to a certain degree during the off time for new comics?
Steve Anderson, Third Eye Comics: Currently, we’re in what I feel is the most difficult stage of this whole thing: our state re-opened, our county did not, our city did. We’ve got three different conflicting guidelines on how to operate, and it’s causing the situation to change every day. We’ve managed to survive thus far, but the stress levels are definitely at their highest now.
I’m still keeping a positive attitude, and moving ahead, but the next couple weeks are going to be the tough ones. How’ve we gotten (through) this far? We’ve done it all. Home delivery, mail order, virtual Zoom shopping, Facebook Live, mystery boxes, etc. It’s a combined effort. We’re very lucky in that our customer base is the best in the world, and have supported us every step of the way.
Now, our greatest challenge is our local government’s decision-making and lack of clarity. It’s not about not being able to re-open, or re-open fully, it’s about not knowing what we’re doing in three days.
Patrick Brower, Challengers Comics + Conversation: Challengers has been existing via our Shopify online store. At the start of quarantine we tried Shopify but it was too labor-intensive, but once Diamond released their Shopify app, letting Shopify pull item descriptions and photos from Diamond’s website, it became so much easier. And now we have everything on our shelves listed for sale online.
Along with that we are doing local deliveries every Wednesday and USPS shipping, and as of May 1st we are open for curbside pick-up as well. Chicago was set to re-open next week on May 29th, but now it looks like it will still be a few more weeks before we can have people in the shop.
Ralph DiBernardo, Jetpack Comics: As of May 11th we were allowed to have customers in store again. We are allowed to have 40 people in each “parcel” that encompasses our store (our store is actually comprised of three adjoined store fronts). We decided that six was the most we wanted in the store at one time. This week we increased to eight. We are taking it slow and over-self-regulating. We want our staff and friends safe. We are still offering curbside pick up and mail-order has always been a Jetpack staple. Prior to May 11th we were surviving on curbside and mail-order. The lack of new comics has not made a difference to us. In fact, we’re seriously reevaluating our new comic procedures.
In week one of lockdown we discovered that our book distributor had all of the trades that were supposed to release. In week two of lockdown we discovered puzzles and game distributors that were still shipping. We also found out that Diamond was still shipping in-stock product. In week three we added new distributors and vendors. As parts of the country shut down we continued to work hard to figure out what people wanted and where we could get it. We also worked closely with fellow shops to help each other navigate the things we needed to get by. Double Midnight Comics and Third Eye Comics have always been friends but without them I would never have kept my sanity through this. It’s great to have peers to bounce ideas off, share tips and to procure needs through.
Katie Proctor, Books with Pictures: We are continuing to do personal shopping and individual book orders, via forms on the website, email, phone, and carrier pigeon. We are not allowing browsing in the shop at all still, although Oregon retail was officially allowed to reopen May 15. I just don’t think we’re ready yet, and I’d rather put my time into making deliveries work faster and better. That said, the pace of orders have been slowing down a bit, so I’m about to ramp up social media and paper advertising to try to get more traffic.
Brandon Schatz, Variant Edition: We’re in a lucky position in terms of where the world is during this pandemic. Different population densities, protocols and government response means everyone is playing a slightly different hand. Here in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, non-essential businesses were told to close their doors to the public (only able to offer curbside and delivery) on the Friday after we received our “last” Diamond shipment. Then, the provincial government provided a timeline that allowed us to reopen to in store traffic last week. While there WERE places in the province that had to keep businesses closed (Calgary & Brooks contains the vast majority of active and increasing COVID-19 cases in the province), we were allowed to open with no problems.
During that down time, we ended up being quite okay. We’ve had an in-city delivery program running for a couple of years already, which we put in place for low mobility customers, and expanded because it gets friggen cold up here (we had 10 days of -40 degree weather in January… which is the same in Celsius as it is in Fahrenheit) and so that wasn’t a hard pivot. We had also started up a proper online store last fall, and were always quite active on social media, so lines of communication with our customers were very open. We also had accounts with a lot of other distribution channels, so we were getting a steady stream of new graphic novels in. As a result of bits of luck and somewhat unintentional prep work – plus the fact that we weren’t paying thousands each week for single issues – our business’ bank account has never looked better.