Don’t Sell Comics, Sell a Community

How my comic shop got out of the book selling business and into the community building business

This piece was written by Matt Klokel, the co-owner of Fantom Comics in Washington DC. Give it a read and get some insight into the world of comic book shops in the process.

November 9th marked my store’s tenth year in business, but in many ways it was only our 18 month anniversary. The summer of last year we moved to a larger space and took an entirely new approach to our business.

If you’d asked me ten – or even two – years ago what Fantom Comics’ mission statement was I would have said “selling comics.” No more. Our mission statement these days is “creating a geek community,” and it has made all the difference. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share our story to anyone interested but also to my fellow retailers in the hope that one or two might take something away.

Fantom is in the process of diversifying ourselves away from being a distribution channel for comics publishers and into a community center that can withstand the ebbs and flows of the direct shipment market.

Our Experience at Fantom

The bulk of my store’s revenue comes from comic and graphic novel sales. And for the foreseeable future, they’ll remain the primary way we monetize our community-building work. But the beauty of our new approach is that by focusing on the community first and selling product second, we ensure that while the latter may change over time, the former will remain. And it’s the former – the community – that buys stuff. So focusing directly on them makes sense.

And it works! Through our aggressive schedule of events, both big and small, combined with a great staff that cares more about the customer than who’d win in a fight between Hulk and Thanos (FYI: Thanos), we’ve built a dedicated following.

Shutter Book Club
Fantom Comics’ Shutter Book Club

I’d like to take a moment here to acknowledge the person that moved us in this direction in the first place. Our manager (and now co-owner), Esther Kim, who first converted me to this way of thinking and is the true architect of the store we’ve become. I’ve embraced her model wholeheartedly, and do what I can to support her. But she’s the true force behind our paradigm shift. And what a shift!

Over the last year our community has connected three sets of romantic couples (that I know of) and a set of roommates. We even had a marriage proposal take place in our store (on Back to the Future Day, no less). We have customers bring their folks in to introduce them to the staff like we’re old friends. And we are friends, because while the store may be for-profit, the team that runs it is comprised of people who care deeply about the relationships we’ve formed with our customers.

This is incredibly moving; that people would care so much about a little shop that sells funny books. It’s also incredibly lucrative. Seeing the bounty generated by this shift in focus from selling people books to selling people on us and the community of people we attract because of it has relieved most of my fears of the boogeymen that keep so many comic book store owners awake at night: Digital. Amazon. Obsolescence.

Why the Shift?

Our customers aren’t stupid. I’m not a believer that people with fancy jobs are necessarily any smarter than us common folk, but for illustrative purposes I’ll throw out that our regulars include lawyers, Hill staffers, think tankers, lobbyists (one of whom ended up on Keith Olbermann’s “Worst People Ever” list, which is hilarious because he’s a teddy bear) and even a White House staffer or two. We couldn’t hide the existence of Amazon or ComiXology from them even if we wanted to. Our customers know that buying from us is more expensive and, in the case of digital, arguably less convenient than buying online.

Sure, every store will have their holdouts. Many might be like me and simply prefer the tactile nature of books. There will always be those people, just like there’s people that’ll always use typewriters. But that’s hardly the underpinning for an entire industry. Or maybe they stay out of loyalty to the store. God bless those people. But they won’t be around forever and this does nothing for growing the customer base.

Even a shop that’s great at retaining these customers won’t thrive. Survive for another decade or so, possibly. But thrive? Doubtful. Gaining an increasing share of a shrinking market is a sure way to eventually go broke. Down the tubes. Slow but sure (credit to Lawrence Garfield for that bit of wisdom). And that’s just looking at the small boogeymen of digital and Amazon. Let’s not forget the greatest threat out there to retailers.

Demand’s Only Half the Equation

There’s one threat on the horizon that trumps any hard work a store may do to cultivate, keep and grow brick and mortar readers. It’s something I’m shocked I rarely hear about, even though it’s The Everything and my fear of its eventual arrival is what really got me listening to Esther’s sage advice. I’m talking about The Supply. Not The Demand, which we retailers have some control over, but The Supply, of which we have no control over.

Marvel and DC are big businesses with diverse interests even taken on their own. When you factor in that they’re just cogs in the machinery of Disney and Warner Bros., respectively, then you see that their goals risk diverging even further from those of the retailers.

Marvel and DC are subsidiaries of world-spanning media conglomerates and the value they bring to the table is their intellectual property. That’s it. If the execs at Disney and Warner could find a more profitable way to protect and continue to develop that IP – and in ways that didn’t involve physical publishing – you can bet your Incredible Hulk #181 they would do so. My hypothesis is that brick and mortars remain important to Marvel and DC less because of the revenue they generate than the Big Two’s (correct) understanding that retailers nurture and grow comic book fandom, ensuring that their IP’s can continue to make money through their movies, TV shows, licensing agreements and merchandising.

We retail stores are the fertilizer. And hey, fertilizer’s important. Non-metaphorical fertilizer contributes greatly to feeding the world’s poor. But ultimately fertilizer is still just sh*t. And in the end, if we don’t need sh*t, we don’t hesitate to flush it away.

I hope I’m not coming off as defeatist. I bear no ill-will towards the Big Two. I’m just putting myself in their shoes and it tells me that we comic book shop retailers are in a very vulnerable spot no matter how loyal our own customers may be. Loyal customers may want to buy comics from us, but if they’re not being printed, who cares? And don’t kid yourselves: as much as my shop loves Image, D & Q and other publishers; where goes the Big Two, so goes them all.

Stay Relevant, My Friends

But the future needn’t be scary! Comic book shops bring a lot of value to the table, too. Our biggest value just doesn’t happen to be buying the publishers’ comics; it’s our ability to nurture and grow the fan base. Good shops already do this, but not enough of us focus primarily on this.

I’m appealing to my fellow retailers to follow suit, competition be damned. For comic shops to survive in the digital future we need to remain relevant, not only to our customers but to the publishers. If the day ever comes that monthlies do stop being printed, we’ll be prepared to survive and thrive because we’ll be so much more than mere distribution channels.

Here at Fantom we started broad. We chose to build our community around the amorphous yet flexible concept of “geek.” As such, we host disparate events like book clubs, trivia nights, stand-up comedy, script readings for plays, ladies’ nights, an open-to-all happy hour called Comics & Cocktails at a nearby pub, fanfic readings and poetry slams and whatever else we can nudge under the pop-culture “geek” umbrella that sounds like fun. We make money doing so because people who hang out in the store buy things. But we also pony up cash for temporary liquor licenses and make money selling hooch. Our revenue options have blossomed with this approach, and it can for other shops, too.

Script Reading
Molotov Theatre’s script reading of the play “Gallery,” about Batman’s rogues gallery, at Fantom

Maybe other retailers will find themselves catering to more specialized communities. Go for it. But find something that you can build a true community around; something that goes beyond hoping for big Wednesday sales; something beyond keeping your fingers crossed that publishers keep publishing. And you’ll not only be helping yourselves and your customers, but the whole retail industry by keeping us all relevant.

Thanks to Matt Klokel for putting together this piece. You can visit his shop’s site, check out their social presences on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, or if you’re in the Washington DC area, you can visit his shop. Either way, pay attention to them, as they’re one of the most savvy shops in the business.