When you send a ‘cold call’ email to someone nicknamed “Ogre” and the response you receive is signed with the same nom de plume, well, first, what did you expect? and second, you know you’re in for a good time. Justin ‘Ogre’ Sinnott's story is similar to the other comics retailers we've recently featured in Retail Therapy i.e. resilient, passionate and WICKED curious about why DC decided to get into the comics distribution game in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Oh, we'll get to that! Since we talked Ogre emailed to say, "so far, so good with UCS." Take that with as many grains of salt as you wish. As long as there are "Ogres" manning (ogre-ing?) the battlements of comics retail, we might see our way out of this yet. For location and hours, check out their site. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity -- Keith Silva
The Comics Journal: Tell us about Ogre’s Grove.
Ogre: We’re located in Milton, Delaware near the beach and right next to the Milton Town library. We’re in a historic home right on the riverfront. We live in an upstairs apartment and the shop and art gallery have the downstairs, about 900 square feet of retail and gallery space and an additional several hundred for storage. We’re in a beach resort town so we see a healthy uptick in traffic during the summer season. We have our regulars and that’s what keeps us going. Although we are a smaller shop, we make the space work for us. We started as an online shop and traveled to all the shows. I know what you're thinking, ‘really, in Delaware?’ Yes, we have a hungry and thriving comic scene, [it's] just spread out a lot more. We’ve put everything into this shop and grown organically with our clients and community. We strive to be a community hub, so to speak, like your bartender or barber. And for all the pitfalls and setbacks, we’re living in our dreams. [Between] online and convention sales coupled with almost three years running Ogre’s Grove, we’re constantly learning as we go.
In an email you said you started out as a collector. How long have you been collecting comics?
I’ve been collecting for 32 years. It all started with Wolverine #2. That was it. I was hooked. I’ve been obsessed with the medium ever since. Kristin -- my wife, the Aquariann, (Kristin Sinnott) -- started collecting comics in college (X-Men, plus “her girls,” Catwoman, Harley and Vampirella). She was studying to be a graphic artist. Me? I would just find a character and fall in love. I’d have to have everything and then on to the next one and the next one and so on. I was less focused on my collection than she was. I was always finding new things I loved all the time. With collecting, came trading and selling -- things to buy (other) things and ultimately keep the cost down by having a living collection instead of just hoarding [things] in boxes. That went for everything. At one point [I’d have] a massive Star Wars collection and then a moderate Transformers collection to a [now] a massive Masters of the Universe collection [which is] something Kristin and I are very much in love with together. So ultimately not long professionally, but in this world for a very long time. Also with my wife’s art background and local friends that have been in the creation of comics. I feel like I’ve been in this world for, well, my whole life.
How'd you get to Ogre's Grove?
We started online to make room for and to afford different collectibles or extra income for so we could go on nice dinners. As we got further along we decided to [think of it] as a business. In 2016 my wife and I were brainstorming about what to call [the shop]. We knew it would be Ogre something … I love nature and Swamp Thing. That put us on the path, but not much fit: ‘Ogre’s Swamp, ‘Ogre’s Garden,’ ‘Ogre’s Woods,’ that sort of thing. But then my wife said “Grove” and Ogre’s Grove was born! Later in 2016 my family was relocating up here from Maryland and I was house hunting for them that's when my wife and I first saw this Union Street house. It was zoned commercial (which I thought was weird), but we both loved it! To our dismay, the house was already under contract. A few months later on a family vacation, my father and I were talking about if I was going to rent some storefront and go brick and mortar with the online comics business. Several scotches into the night I told him about the [Union Street property]. I went to look it up to show him and to my surprise, it was back on the market! Then my father asked the simplest question: Why not? My wife and I talked for the entire ten-hour trip home. We called to set the appointment for viewing the next day. Upon inspection, we were sold. Now all we had to was sell our other [then current] home, restore the new property (so we could live in it), launch a business, and move, all while working 40 hours a week at a day job. We opened on October 21, 2017 as a birthday present to me.
When we started really designing our shop, the only thing my wife demanded was for our walls be adorned with other local artists looking for a chance to be seen. We currently have eight artists and jewelry makers and we’ve even have a soap maker, [they] have all had spotlight shows over the last three years.
How did you manage the shut down when COVID-19 hit your area?
Well, the shutdown was certainly a big blow to us. March and April are the two slowest months for us anyway, but a total stoppage felt like, well, it was deflating. I was in a rough spot at first. I think most all of us were. However, [given] the conditions, we saw a chance for some workarounds. As a home based business, we could continue operations, but we wanted to be safe as well. We started doing curbside pick-ups and [in-person] appointments for regular clients. We did deliveries and, of course, mail order. Mail order was nothing new, but we [had] really let that revenue stream atrophy prior to the shutdown. We changed gears and really pushed for more internet sales. All those books I’d put to the side here and there over the 38 years, started getting moved into new homes. It was not glamorous or easy. We had to really dig in. We had -- and still have -- no assistance from those supposed bills passed, with two exceptions: #1 The BINC foundation gave us a small grant and #2 the stimulus check. Speaking of that check, I had a few customers come in and use their [stimulus money] to help out the shop. One regular bought my Avengers #1 (1964). That kept us afloat and it’s still keeping us afloat. Also to note, just before all this stuff went down, I had worked a deal with a friend who owns a shop further north, about an hour away, for a bulk long box purchase and my Transformers showcase. That was a massive deal for me and it got us through these lean days. I’m truly thankful for this community that we at the Grove have been fostering for the last few years.
How is your re-opening going?
We’re open on Wednesday and Thursday from 12 to 5 for appointments and they go fast. Typically we’re booked solid both days. Then we’re open for walk-in traffic on Friday and Saturday from 12 to 5 PM. We’re good at keeping our hours updated on Google, Facebook and our website, Ogresgrove.com. The closer we get to July, I hope to be open regularly again Wednesday through Saturday, 11 to 7 with appointments on Monday and Tuesday.
What’s your take on what happened between Diamond and DC?
DC is a solid 25 to 30% of my order. And I know everything is predicated on the size of your order, so you’re taking that out and putting it to this other company (UCS) so you’re not ordering as much from [Diamond] so your order is smaller and the discounts aren’t going to be as much. There’s not a lot of built-in profit already. I guess you could mark the books up yourself, but that’s horrendous. It is a volume game and I don’t know … if that profit margin drops any from either side, l’m literally ordering new comics to sell at cost. [Which means] The shop isn’t making money. That’s what the real worry is. If DC wants to work with other distributors, that’s fine. If they want to look out for us and get more stuff in our hands why take away Diamond? Something else must have happened for DC to make this decision. I’m fine with competition. It just seems like this pandemic was not the time to do that. If anything, the time to do it would be when we’re back and everybody is open. It seems like a strange time to be doing this; especially with shop owners like me already in a bad spot. It’s the timing. They might have had all this stuff in the works. DC must have known their negotiations were coming up with Diamond and they wanted to try out some other things and this was a chance to try it out, they liked it and that’s that.
You tweeted “small shops like ours will be forced to quit ... and you ... won't be able to afford to order books from DC or Diamond.” What are your concerns about your shop and for retailers like you?
We have O.K. foot traffic, but I have 35-40 really loyal customers and if I can’t get that product and get the discounts in there, no comic shop that I’ve been to can survive on a business plan of strictly old stuff and buying and selling collections. You have to have that new product. You buy and sell those older books because the customer is very excited about a particular character or they saw the movie and you tell them, ‘by the way I’ve got the first appearance of that character right here in the case.’ [It took us] eighteen months to get the shop to support itself. We’re hand to mouth on everything. I’m hoping whatever we’re making tomorrow will be enough to cover the check I wrote to Diamond yesterday. I’ve got a great UPS driver who doesn’t throw my deliveries around. He’ll text me and say I’ll be there in 10 minutes. We have a good relationship. I very rarely have issues with Diamond.
We’re already in that spot because of the pandemic and getting shut down and losing so much in sales. I’m a positive person and maybe now that there’s competition, [I’m hoping] Diamond’s response will be, ‘hey, now that there’s another company distributing comics, and we might see discounts in other areas of Diamond that are far better than what they have been. That’s typically the way competition works. So maybe everybody makes money; that would be nice! I ran restaurants for most of my life. That was my world. I grew up in a restaurant. We dealt with seven or eight different food purveyors at any one time and it was fine. If it’s good for business, it’s good for business.
Do you see this change in distribution as a positive or a negative for retailers as you move beyond the pandemic, retail shutdown (and reopening) etc.?
The comics community is really, really strong and I don’t see it going away. People have been saying comics are dead since the ‘30s. Every couple of years, it’s the same thing. People want to hold a comic in their hand. They want to have it in their collection. It’s a collector’s market and it’s a readers market. I have customers who read on comiXology and still come in to buy the floppies because they have to have it in their collection. What will change is if we lose mom & pop shops. For being as small as we are, we [still] fill a large market. My competition, the closest comic book shop to me, is forty-five minutes away. We’re rooted in here. We didn’t let the cancellation of Free Comic Book Day stop us from doing Free Comic Book Day. We set up a drive-thru and handed out swag bags to kids and adults for five hours. That’s what it’s all about for us. We’re conscious about being in the community. We have been since the day we started and always will be.