Engineering Comic Shops: Part One

Those who frequent The Engine likely noticed a somewhat lengthy thread that began with a premise involving taking comics creators hostage in an effort to improve the quality of comics in general. Things quickly devolved from there until Ellis stepped in and ordered everyone to stop repeating themselves, leading to the best post I've seen over there in awhile (which was then topped the following week, but more on that later): Tom Spurgeon laid out a 12 point plan for how specifically creators, but really the industry in general, could make a significant difference in the comics landscape. Go read that post and guess which part I'm most interested in. Here's a clue:
3. Work with a retailer group to study and isolate a small-store model that works, and advocate for loans and business guarantees with the goal of creating 1000* new comic book shops in the next ten years on that model, with a further goal that half be owned by women. Different locations bring with them different sets of incentives, with an eye towards getting stores into places stores aren't or where they suck.

Now this is what I'm talking about. There are several huge hurdles to this idea involving everything from organization to implementation, but Spurgeon is right in his belief that allowing the direct market to flounder in pursuit of bookstore markets would ultimately be damaging to the industry. Cultivating both markets as compliments to one another presents the healthiest option for growth, but then, that will require cooperation. And there's our first hurdle. Getting retailers to agree on anything is far from easy, but getting them to agree to help develop what would theoretically be competition would not sit well with many. That's not to say there aren't a large number of retailers who see the need for more direct market shops and I think a key part of Spurgeon's idea is to focus on areas that could support a shop but at the moment don't have one. But getting agreement even within a retailer trade group like ComicsPro isn't always easy. Add in an organized group of creators and you've got the potential for years of talking in circles.

That does not mean, though, that Spurgeon's idea should be ignored. It may be a difficult project to get off the ground, but that doesn't mean it's not feasible and it certainly doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. What will be required, though, is someone (be it an individual or an organization) to spearhead the effort. The two most intimidating elements of opening MacGuffin were financing and location, two burdens that a project like this could ease significantly. The Small Business Administration generally looks for a new start-up to provide at least a quarter of the initial capital before applying for a loan with the rest covered by collateral (generally in the form of a personal guarantee and/or real estate, etc). According to our loan officer, we pretty much maxed out what we could safely borrow and invest ourselves at approximately $65,000 in capital, less than we would have liked but more than enough to get the doors open. The problem of course being, what happens, then?

More small business failures are blamed on undercapitalization than any other factor, though in reality that ends up acting as a catch all for a variety of issues all of which ultimately come down to poor planning. A big part of that planning is where to locate the store. We went with a small, upscale strip mall on the third most traveled road in Newport News situated between a popular restaurant on one side and a Starbucks and SuperCuts on the other. Very high visibility, which of course comes with a very high price tag. We spent about a year and half researching various locations and it would have been invaluable to have a low cost resource to help point us in the right direction (especially since I still question whether the rent we're paying is worth it, though thus far it seems to be). Help with these two factors alone would be a huge step in making it easier to get more comic shops open.

Which is not to day that simply opening more comic shops is going to help much, especially if they're in the mold of so many shops that those on the internet love to complain about. Just opening a comic shop is surprisingly easy. What's not so easy is opening a good one. That takes planning, foresight and an approach that is both innovative and fiscally responsible. Which means the most crucial element of any plan to open new stores is one that I'm leaving for a future post: developing a successful model for these stores.


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