I Had Another Comic Book Garage Sale. I Learned a Lot from my Customers.
I’ve told this story before, but while the cliché idea that everyone who writes about comics wants to make their own might often be true, it isn’t for me. I have zero interest in writing or drawing comics. The same goes for lettering, coloring, or editing them. I just like writing and podcasting about them! This all started back in 2009 because I loved comics and I wanted a way to express my thoughts about them. That was, and is, the full story. However, if there is one job I could have in comics, it wouldn’t be on the creative side. It’d be owning my own comic shop.
I know what you’re thinking.
You’re an insane person.
That might be true, but it would be unrelated. I just have always loved comic shops! They’re a core part of my fandom, as tethered to my passion for the medium as the people who make the comics in some ways. So, when I was thinking of how I might be able to streamline my comic book collection a few years ago — I have about 39 complete long boxes in single issues alone – so I can focus more on the comics I love and the comics I currently read, 1 — I came up with the idea of opening my own comic book shop in my garage. Yes, that is effectively just a comic book garage sale. But in its own way, it was like me owning my own shop, albeit only for a weekend.
Quick aside. If you’re curious as to how I decided what to keep, the answer was typically built on two variables: recency and personal love. Value was not a deciding factor. One box that I kept entirely intact only contained four titles (or, I should say, families of titles in some cases). Those were Hellboy/B.P.R.D., Hitman, Head Lopper, and Hourman, the Tom Peyer/Rags Morales DC series from the turn of the century about the Android version of that character. Most fans would probably toss the latter in the quarter bin and be done with it. Not I! It was never in danger. I love that book.
Back to the garage sale itself, though. Both times I did it proved to be massively successful. I cleared a ton of space, made a little money, and brought joy to some people’s lives over a couple day period, especially last time. I had always meant to do it again, but pandemics have a weird way of making a person not want to invite a bunch of strangers into their garage. With things semi-normalizing, though, I decided to run it back and open my shop once again. This time there would be some changes, though, with those built from learnings over the past couple sales.
First, it would be one day only. My previous efforts were two days, Saturday and Sunday, with Sunday always being dead. I thought that was due to interest being front loaded. This one would be Sunday only. Second, after discovering that several of my 50 cent comics were more like $50 to $200 comics in this new, insane collectors’ market, I endeavored to carefully go through every comic I own to make sure I didn’t get got again. That was a ton of work. 39 long boxes is a considerable amount of comics to go through.
My wife and I spent a decent chunk of Saturday setting up the sale, putting up the tables, decorating the space, bringing the boxes out, organizing them into 25, 50 cent and $1 boxes, a selection of free books, 2 a box full of bundles, 3 two boxes of keys, and a check out table with a spinner rack loaded with my most valuable comics next to it. Oh, and a small selection of SKTCHD BOOK 2021 for sale with Off Panel stickers and business cards to give away. There was even a station at the entrance with Purell, masks if anyone so desired, and a selection of free kids graphic novels for any that stopped by. It was lovely.
While previous editions saw 45+ visitors each time — over two days, though — this one only had 32. 4 But it was an energetic 32, with nearly everyone buying something, many of whom bought over $50 worth of comics. It was a whirlwind day, exhausting me even as I had a blast. As I tend to do with people, I quizzed customers about their interests and connection to the medium while they visited. I learned a lot in the process. Here are the biggest takeaways from my rather interesting day as a comic book retailer.
A LOT of People Got into Comics in the Past Couple Years
When I last did one of these sales, nearly every single non-child customer was a long-time fan of the comic book arts. Grizzled veterans, each and all, these folks were enthusiastic browsers, cruising through every box in hopes of finding secret treasures, as we all are. There was a certain amount of homogeny to the experience, outside of the occasional outlier. 5
Not this time.
A decent number who showed up told me they had just started or gotten back into collecting comics during the pandemic, falling back in love with the medium or discovering the magic of it in the process. The range was broad but passion was real — I’d say these customers were largely the most enthusiastic who visited, as they weren’t jaded like hardened long-timers like yours truly 6 Which I should note is a perfectly valid way to approach comics! Everyone engages in different ways. That’s not my way. But if it’s yours, that’s cool!
Some newer creators did earn some love. Both James Tynion IV and Jen Bartel were mentioned as draws. Perhaps it’s not surprising that arguably the most collector friendly writer and a renowned cover artist fit in well with this lot, given how they seemed to be collectors. It was still interesting to learn, though!
Keys Were the Name of the Game
In previous editions of this sale, the customers almost universally would take the same route through the sale, largely because we set the pathing up in such a way. They’d walk in as I explain what’s what at the sale, the 50 cent comics would be on the right, and then they would be sandwiched between 25 cent comics and more 50 cent comics before reaching the free — which are comics I’m fine losing after decades of collecting, but you only get five free comics with every purchase — and key comics. I would say 90% of visitors took that route, with the 10% who didn’t doing so because it was too busy to go that direction at the time.
That was not the case this year. Some took the usual path. But at least half, if not more, went straight to the keys. I would even get up and sort of naturally push them towards the start point as I explained everything. Nope! To the keys! They’d even stack up a bit at times just to get in that area as they arrived. It was a massive change.
Amongst the keys, comics related to adaptations were the primary focus. Anything Marvel Cinematic Universe was a big draw. Invincible led to my biggest sale. One of the few bundles I sold was Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk complete run, minus issue #2. Basically, anything related to a show or movie was a hook, especially those with upcoming releases, like Jane Foster, Kamala Khan, or Miles Morales. People wanted all the keys, of course, especially reasonably priced ones. But adaptations? Those were cooking.
One random note, though: some overlap was coincidental. This one guy who visited is a massive Shang-Chi fan. He has been collecting the character’s comics since he was a kid, noting that he has three complete runs of the first volume featuring that character and that he buys all the Shang-Chi comics he comes across. That proved to be true. He picked up four issues from me, which amounted to all the Master of Kung Fu issues I owned. Trust me when I say that they were not in great shape. He didn’t care! He was happy to have found the sale and some random Master of Kung Fu back issues, even if it was abundantly clear that they were…unhealthy. Let’s put it that way. These weren’t CGC 9.8 by any means. Maybe 0.8.
He loved them all the same.
The Definition of “Key” is…Broad
One important difference between this effort and previous ones was this time I afforded myself for set up. I went through all my boxes with the same types of apps that guide many of these buyers. I was staggered by the sheer number of “keys” and just what qualified as one. First appearances, of course. First issues, yep. But there was a wild mix that made the cut, ranging from a certain character appearing in a single panel (obscured, even) to the right cover artist drawing the right character. And I’m not just talking about average, $5 comics or something. Just having Kang on a cover made it a $10 issue — and one that sold!
I’m not complaining. It turns out I had a lot of comics with Kang in or on them. And Kang is understandable. He’s been deemed the big bad of this phase of the MCU, even if none of us are Kevin Feige so what do we know about what’s coming? But it’s still weird to discover what fuels value in these comics. It’s not always obvious. That’s part of the reason I sold a whole lot of comics I shouldn’t have last time I had one of these sales. I apparently don’t value certain things the same way the market does!
People Love Apps and YouTube
When I was a kid, the driver of all my back issue purchases was a combination of base desire (i.e. “Is Wolverine on the cover?”) and awareness of a comic’s importance. If you didn’t know how or why something was valuable, you wouldn’t price it properly or know to buy something. It took specialized knowledge. That’s why I was able to buy The Avengers (Vol. 1) #1 for $10 at an antique store outside of Seattle when I was a kid. I knew, so I quickly bought it.
That specialized knowledge is no longer necessary. Varying apps like Key Collector Comics and assorted YouTube collector shows have democratized the process. Phones being out was a constant while people were visiting my pop up shop, and when I asked around, these apps and shows were quite popular. I had a number of YouTube shows recommended to me — including one in which apparently the host and “Black Bolt stans” had been arguing for days because the former said the character sucked, which is very much not my kind of thing — throughout the day, because these hosts and app developers are the tastemakers for the modern collector.
A great example of this was one of my first customers. A younger man, he said he had gotten into comics during the pandemic, admitting he really didn’t know anything about them. But he bought a collection of nearly 500 Gold and Silver issues and went through the process of flipping them. He realized during that experience that he loved the hunt of back issues. That’s what he does now! He buys and sells comics, often operating on Facebook Groups and Instagram, and he’s grown to love the medium as well, making friends strictly because of that shared passion. 7 That’s pretty cool!
He bought a lot of Kang comics, though. That Kang. So hot right now.
Worth noting, one person I believed to be using a key app was actually using CLZ, another app that can catalogue your collection. Of everyone who visited, this guy was the one who seemed most like a pure reader. He loved the X-Men, and he cleared me out on a lot of my X-Factor and miscellaneous X-Men related issues, saying he was not reading comics in the late 2000s/early 2010s, so he was filling gaps to catch up on what he missed. None of them were “keys,” at least to my knowledge. He visited twice, actually, because he updated his app when he got home and realized there were still some holes he could fill. He probably bought 350 comics from me! Love that guy.
Buying is often a Prelude to Selling
While that last person I mentioned doesn’t fit this bill, I did get the read that a fair few of these people buy with intent to sell. One couple showed up and flitted from keys to $1 comics and beyond, chasing after anything that could be deemed “important.” 8 They spent by far the most of anyone who visited, including the purchase of one of the few bundles I sold. It was of Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk besides issue #2, a wonderful series. When I saw they had that, I quickly informed them that a) it was missing that issue and b) it is an exceptional comic.
One quickly responded with, “Oh yeah? We already have two sets of it” before suggesting that they hadn’t read it. Now they have three, at least for the time being.
Their focus was on three things: Marvel Cinematic Universe potentials, 9 Invincible, and any #1 issues they could find. I suspect I know why. That was the most extreme version of that type of customer, but I got the impression that a lot of my customers came in looking for profit as much as any specific comics. In that regard, I’d call my garage sale a mutually beneficial relationship. I cleared some space. They expanded their business prospects. It was a win win.
The Hang Out Vibe Sells
For the third straight year, my shop earned strong reviews from a vibe standpoint. Everyone had a blast, commenting about how cool it was that this was happening, with some visiting multiple times or just sticking around for a long time – one stayed for at least 1.5 hours – to talk comics or general fandom things the whole time. After events had been off for some time, it seemed like people really just enjoyed basking in the comic book camaraderie of it all.
The hang out vibes of the sale were a hit. Interestingly enough, I feel like it led to greater sales! The longer people stayed, the more they bought. What would often happen is we’d be talking, something would come up and I’d be like, “Oh have you read (insert comic here)?” and then they’d dive back into my long boxes to find it. There were fewer customers this year, but way more was spent per person, especially by those who visited the longest. One person even bought a SKTCHD BOOK because they just seemed enamored with the whole experience!
Several people even asked, “Do you do this every weekend?” in a way that suggested they would really like that to be the case. My wife and I, both exhausted and borderline insane by the end, quickly said, “NO!” 10 We might do another one later this summer, as we figured out our process and now believe that Saturdays might be better. But every weekend? No, thank you. If there’s a biggest takeaway from the experience, it’s this: running a comic shop is a lot of work! Respect to retailers! Your job is not easy!
It turns out that I’m better at not loading up my collection with random issues of things I have no feelings for now that I’m capable of complex decision making rather than just buying any comics that had a) Wolverine, b) The Transformers, or c) a Transformer that turns into Wolverine in it.↩
Think every comic you wish you didn’t have, like the bevy of issues of New Universe that came in the grab bags you would get so you could get the cool X-Men comic that was visible on the outside.↩
Completed runs that would only be sold in full, that way the customer benefits by being able to read the full thing and I benefit if it doesn’t sell as my run hasn’t been broken up in the name of keys.↩
It was also a crazy nice day here in Anchorage, Alaska, which may have had an impact. Alaskans hate being inside when it’s nice out.↩
These were mostly the kids.↩
The last part of that might have been the least believable sentence I have ever written. — even if the reasoning behind it differed. I had heard about how similar customers were showing up at comic shops over the past two years. Seeing it firsthand was still surprising. The new fan and return of the lapsed reader is real!
Very Few Were Looking for New Comics
When asked about whether they were more into new or old comics, the latter was largely the preference. More than that, very few bought any comics published in even the last five years at the sale. Part of that was because I held on to the bulk of my newer comics, so there was a certain amount of self-selection there. But the more recent releases that were out there weren’t much of a draw. The only time someone snagged a non-key release from that period was unusual enough that I mentioned my surprise to the customer. They were also the only Wednesday Warrior I confirmed from the day.
A certain amount of this comes from garages full of long boxes attracting a specific type of comic fan. Back issues draw collectors as much as readers, although many tend to overlap between those two audiences. That said, that was another shift since my previous sale. Many were eager to pick up more recent books at my previous sales. I distinctly remember customers commenting in years past that they were thrilled to find titles from recent years in the mix. That was a big change in this year’s edition. Almost no one wanted the new stuff. I even was asked specifically for certain eras of titles at times. [footnote]It turns out I do not have a lot of comics from the Golden Age of comics.↩
One of whom joined him and it turned out they are a chef at one of my favorite restaurants. Nice!↩
My word, not theirs.↩
For example: they bought all of my Young X-Men issues. So they’re thinking long, long, long term.↩
I may have shouted.↩