Scroll down the Facebook timeline for Sterling Silver Comics and you'll read a variation of the same post, “I’m still here. Still doing the comic thing.” The fact Mike Sterling's store has been closed for over a month due to COVID-19 and he's still taking and filling phone orders and communicating with customers is a testament to Sterling's dedication to his business, his customers and the industry he supports.
Free Comic Book Day would have been this past Saturday, May 2. Whether FCBD blows back your hair or not, it's the one day a year when comic book readers can celebrate the medium and ring the register for their local neighborhood comics-slinger. Even if customers aren't crowding Sterling Silver Comics this year, I suspect like many other comic book shop owners like Mike Sterling are still there, still doing the comic book thing. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. -- Keith Silva
The Comics Journal: Tell us about Sterling Silver comics and how long you've been working comics retail?
Mike Sterling: I started in 1988. I was there before the big ‘Bat-Boom’ that began with the Tim Burton movie the next year. I’ve been doing comics retail ever since. I was working for a shop called Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, California. I worked there for many, many years. And in 20014, I found the right place I wanted to move to and I left [Ralph’s] and opened up my own store in Camarillo, [California]. As far as employees, I do everything. Ralph from the old shop helps me out from time to time, but it’s basically me. We’ve got a thirty-six foot long comic rack that I keep all the new releases on, tables of back issues, graphic novels. I sell mostly comics. I don’t do a lot of toys, action figures, the inevitable Funko Pop! Pile that accumulates in every store now.
When did you close and what’s the shop look like now?
I closed the shop in late March. My store was closed just in time for the last weekly shipment of comics from Diamond. And that last week, before the shutdown, sales were really high. Maybe it was nervousness or an anticipation of something that was going to happen. I did really well that week and the first week I was closed, I had an enormous number of people calling in and ordering things. I’m not doing nearly as well, but I’m still doing O.K., sales are still coming in. It’s not my usual Wednesday bump, but given that my door is locked, I’m still making money here and there. It’s just me by my lonesome. I’ve got stacks of pending mail orders I’m working on. Actually the last week of new comics from Diamond are still sitting in some short boxes on the counter because I didn’t bother to put them on the shelf yet. When things reopen, to whatever extent they do, I’ll get those up on the shelf. They’ll go out eventually.
Do you expect a surge when you’re able to reopen?
I expect customer to come back, but I can’t say it’s going to be a surge. Yeah, [customers] may want to come back to the shop, but they may not want to for fear of getting sick. Maybe they’ll be stir crazy and want to go to stores. There’s no way to tell.
What protocols do you have in place (curbside, mail order) if someone calls or emails looking for something?
Mostly mail order. I’ve always done mail order. I’m an old hand at it and it’s always been part of my business model. I have an eBay store. I’m trying to get my stock of back issues online. And I always encourage people, send me want lists, send me requests. Some people occasionally have dropped by the store to pick something up since I've been closed. I try to discourage that. I’d prefer to ship stuff to them. I’m not doing curbside pick-up if I can help it. I’ve also had plenty of people call and pay for the stuff [they] have on hold and then once the store is open again, they’ll come pick it up. Several people have done that. I’ve had other people say, ‘here’s money for a gift card or credit at the store and I’ll use it when you’re open again.’ It gave me some working capital to manage my funds here.
What did you think when Diamond announced they'd start shipping comics in late May?
I’m glad Diamond has a plan. I’m sure they’re feeling the cash crunch too, the same as everyone else. I’m just hoping shops like mine in areas that are shutdown will be open again, at least to some extent, to be able to receive product, turn it around and make money off of it. [Diamond] is going to want to get paid, but if I can’t make as much money on [new comics] as I would like than it’s going to be hard when the bill comes due. That last week when Diamond shipped (March 25) was when my store was closed. I still had a pretty much normal Wednesday’s worth of sales from mail order and pre-pay, but doing that mail order nearly killed me because that was a whole lot of extra work to get that stuff packed up and shipped out. Now, theoretically, if the shipments start up again and I’m still closed I could probably continue to do that, but I don’t know if I would want to or I have to think of a new way of getting new comics to customer that wouldn’t be so burdensome on me. We’re all kind of stuck with the current situation. Diamond can’t put it off much longer because they have people they need to pay. The stores can’t put off getting new product because they need to pay their bills. From what I understand, Diamond is planning on spreading out the new product as it comes in. So we’re not going to get immediately slammed with an invoice and a giant stack of books that we have to move. If it’s done within reason at a reasonable pace, I can see it being manageable. I suspect in a month or month-and-a-half, we’ll have some form of limited retail accessibility for customers. But I think, personally, it depends on how and when California and New York open up retail shops again. Those are the major comic book shop markets to my knowledge. If Diamond is delivering product and shops remain closed or limited in some way, that’s still not going to do anybody any good. When Diamond said, ‘we’re not going to be shipping comics,’ that came as a relief to me.
You told the New York Times, “the loss of new merchandise at stores like [Sterling Silver Comics] breaks the chain all the way around.” Is this the time to reassess how comics are sold or is this the model you’ve got like it or not?
Whether it’s Diamond or some other distributor the chain still holds. People still need to pay other people for services and it just goes on and on. It’d be great to have different distributors and lots of different places to order comics, but it doesn’t make any difference if your store is still closed. Yes, we should reassess and stores should have, how can I put this, more options for getting their product out to customers. The chain starts with being able to sell the comics in the first place. This is an unusual circumstance, [having] all retail stores shut down access to customers. I don’t want to say it’s never going to happen again, but doesn’t seem likely that you have to go out of your way to plan for in the future, but you never know.
In addition to distributing through Diamond, DC has decided to distribute to through two new distributors, Lunar and UCS. Have you had contact from either distributor?
I got an email from DC saying this is what we’re doing. I’ve already set up an account with Lunar. And I’ve already placed orders for that first week because I want to make sure I get the comics in. By the time I get these I will still be closed, I’m sure. I’m ordering to fill subscriptions and to have some leftovers. I probably ordered—if I had to put a number on it—70-80% of what I would have ordered through Diamond. That’s not due to the distributor that’s due to the situation. All the stuff is going to be returnable, DC is offering returns on everything through late June, I think. April 28th is when the first shipment is due. I don’t know, frankly, if there’s enough money in the industry for another business to say, ‘hey, I want to get into distributing comics.’ Who is going to want to do that?
[5/3/20 *** Editor’s note, Sterling received his first shipment from Lunar. He emailed to say how it went.***]
Sterling: I've not really any complaints with Lunar Distribution. I haven't had any luck getting them on the phone, which is understandable since they're probably getting slammed with calls right now. Their email response is good and considering I've been bothering them with LOTS of emails asking for clarifications and such, I'm surprised they're even still responding to me! But they are and they've been very helpful. My shipping issues have mostly been due to the shipper, and NOT because of anything Lunar did. It's not a shipper I usually receive shipments from. I did have to chase after the truck (as I related on Twitter) because, according to the driver, my package wasn't scanned into his system as being on the truck, so he didn't know to stop at my store. The package also arrived late, also not Lunar’s fault. Apparently there have been back-ups and delays in California due to the shipper. When I told Lunar about the Tuesday arrival of the package that had been promised Monday, they replied they were looking into shipping a day earlier to avoid this problem in the future. The comics were well packed and had no shortages or damages, so no complaints there either. Next week, with the larger shipment of DC books, will be the real test, not just for their delivery process but for my own ability to monetize the product while remaining closed to public traffic. Here's hoping!
How does this complicate and already complicated situation or is it some sort of ‘new normal?’
It’s no big deal. I’ve been ordering graphic novels from other distributors for a while now, so that’s just keeping track of your bills and knowing whom to pay and when. As far as weekly comics go, competition would be nice, but I don’t know that’s what’s going to happen with this. [Lunar and UCS] might be a temporary measure. I am not clear on that. I don’t think anybody knows. Back when we had Capital City and some form of Diamond, those were the two major distributors I remember from when I started. It’s had to tell what’s going on and how long it’s going to last. We’re going to have to play it by ear and see how things work out. What I’m afraid of is every publisher deciding, ‘oh, we’re going to distribute our comics ourselves through our own agents and not go through one major distributor. Maybe that’s healthier in the long run, but it would also be a lot more complicated. I like the convenience of having one catalog, one bill, which makes me sound lazy, but I do like that. I also understand having more than one distributor could be, in the long run, a lot healthier.
What’s next, for the industry and for comic book shops?
My idea is that, at least for the time being, things are going to scale back. Everybody took a huge financial hit because of this. I suspect people are going to scale back operations, retailers, publishers and distribution. I think they realize how precarious their positions are in regards to cash flow and other financial concerns. The smart thing to do right now—with cash flow being the way it is for everybody—is, yeah, maybe not do bi-weekly comics at DC. Maybe Marvel could wait a month before putting out a comic when it’s fresh off the printer. Maybe not have multiple titles all featuring the same character. Try to focus on a smaller line of stronger books rather than having it spread out over 30, 40, 50 different books. I’m not a publisher. I don’t know how successful any of that stuff is for them. I know that the more X-Men titles you put out, the more discouraged people are from trying to follow them. When there was one X-Men book, it sold great. When there were a dozen of them, none of them sold well. That’s a lesson that’s been forgotten. Shops are going to have to be wiser with their money, more careful about the product they carry. Maintaining mail order, social media contacts, making sure you’re available for your customers if they need anything. Be willing to do re-orders. I’ve been doing lots of re-orders over the last few weeks, back issues and single issues of comics, that sort of thing.
What has this crises taught you about the retail comics business?
Extremely fragile. I knew that already. I’ve been in this over thirty years. I know how fragile the business can be. But everything’s fragile, I mean, it didn’t take much for the toilet paper supply chain to break. It reminds me how dependent I am on having a regular stock of new comics come in for healthier sales. Customers have been great. I knew that already, but they’ve been loyal, understanding and supportive. I’m in regular contact with many of them. A lot of them call me up or email me to ask if I’m doing O.K. So they’ve been really great. I have no intention of giving up on comic shops. I’m kind of biased that way. I’ve had plenty of customers before this crisis hit who come in and say, ‘we’re so glad there’s a comic shop in our town. We’re so happy you’re here.’ That’s good to hear. Once I open again, I'll see a lot of those people come back.