Exit Strategy: An Interview with Andrew Neal of Chapel Hill Comics

After twenty years of working in comics retail, including eleven years of running his own successful store, Chapel Hill Comics, Andrew Neal is retiring from the business. A former employee of what was then called Second Foundation, Neal bought the store in 2003 from its old owner and moved the store to a location that had better foot traffic. Along the way, he transformed what had been primarily a science fiction shop into a place that was all about comics, found ways to diversify his customer base, navigated various ups and downs in the world economy, and finally was able to sell the store at a profit. Its bright interior, spaciousness, and variety of stock made it one of the better comic book stores in the country, a reputation bolstered by its hands-on customer service and frequent events. In this interview, Neal discusses his philosophy, some of the nitty-gritty numbers of the business, books that sold and books that didn't, and why he chose to get out now.


ROB CLOUGH: You had worked at Second Foundation for some time before you bought the store from Dan Breen. At the time, the store was largely built on selling sci-fi novels, but sales declined precipitously thanks to factors such as big bookstore chains and Amazon. What made you think you could succeed with a comics-focused approach?

ANDREW NEAL: Like you said, I had worked for Dan for quite a while - nine years - by the time I bought the store. I was the store manager for the last three years or so that I worked for him, and my duties included working up the initial orders with Dan and placing reorders on my own. I had a fair amount of information running through my head as far as what was selling and what wasn’t.

The science fiction and fantasy books took up about half the store when I took over, but I believe they had fallen to around five or ten percent of total sales, so it wasn’t a big jump from there to a totally comics-centric store. I was nervous about clearing out the books and filling that whole space with comics, but my suspicion was that it would work out, and fortunately, it did!

Obviously, moving to a more foot-trafficked area of Chapel Hill (the main Franklin Street drag) had a positive effect on sales. What was your overall philosophy in trying to bring in new customers?

I wanted to move the store to a high-traffic location, as you mentioned. It was also important to make it as attractive as possible in order to bring in new and casual customers in addition to the folks who had already sought us out.

Let's tease that out a bit. The old Second Foundation was very much a tiny, cramped store, but it was at least friendly and professionally run. It seems like many people who open comics stores do it as an extension of their hobby rather than as a business, leading to a lack of professionalism. How aware were you of those pitfalls when you bought the shop?

I learned to read on comics, and there has never been a period of my life when I didn’t read at least a few comics on a regular basis. Even before I was a comic professional, I visited lots of different types of comic shops, so I was absolutely aware that there were lots of shops which are run as a hobby, intentionally or not. I didn’t see that as a danger for me; I had very specific ideas about what I wanted to do with the business, all of which would hopefully contribute to the store being a professional, welcoming place. Plus, like you said, I did have a solid foundation (pun intended) on which to build.

How did this philosophy manifest itself in terms of the physical structure of the store itself?

First of all, I’ll say this: My wife Vanessa, who worked with me in the store for five years, was at least as responsible as I was for the look of the store in its second and third locations (we’ve moved twice). In addition to helping with color choices and floor layouts, she made lots of practical observations I would have never considered. For example, she pointed out that most customers of the store weren’t as tall as I am and that stacking merchandise to the ceiling would be counter-productive.

The philosophy we followed in designing the store was that a beautiful, open space would sell more books and comics than an ugly, cramped space. In addition to bookcases, we have lots of displays which showcase the books we sell. The more things we show face out, the better. Obviously, there’s a critical mass we have to meet with inventory to have enough in stock, but beyond that, more is not always better. Picking and choosing what merchandise we stock and not jamming the store full has been as important as having the right fixtures in the right places.

We wanted the store to be very bold and colorful. I don’t understand why any comic shop owner would fill their store with generic white slatwall. It may be professional, but it’s dull, especially when you compare it to the comics.

sadanimalsWhat were your most surprising successes in terms of the kinds of comics you've sold? Were you shocked at the appeal of some of the books, and if so, what kind of people bought them?

There are always sales surprises, though most positive sales surprises are a question of degree: I knew that would sell, but not that many! Probably our biggest out-of-the-blue success of all time is Adam Meuse’s minicomic, Sad Animals. Most self-published minis that walk their way in the door sell anywhere between zero and a few copies, but I was immediately drawn to Adam’s cartooning and recognized that I’d be able to sell Sad Animals. I didn’t suspect that six or seven years later it would be one of the best-selling pieces of merchandise I’d ever carried.

Does anything else come to mind? The Adventure Time/My Little Pony comics seem to have become a real phenomenon. Have any of the big literary comics of the past fifteen years (stuff from Sacco, Clowes, Ware, Bechdel, etc.) been big sellers for you?

Adventure Time and My Little Pony are good examples of things which I knew I’d be able to sell. We were the first store to produce an exclusive cover to an Adventure Time comic - the first issue - so I was pretty far ahead of the game on that one. Adventure Time #1 did go on to become our bestselling comic of all time, but a majority of the copies we sold were a part of our first shipment. My Little Pony was another title I ordered very heavily with the same expectation of strong sales. It didn’t perform as strongly as Adventure Time for me, but only because it was seen among retailers as the next Adventure Time, as far as something they needed to have in stock, so I wasn’t the only guy who ordered that heavily.


As far as the big literary comics you mentioned, sales have generally been strong for us, with modifiers for how much effort we put into selling them. I tend to put less effort into selling something I don’t personally love. You mentioned Alison Bechdel; Fun Home is probably my favorite memoir, and as such I pushed it and sold a ton. I thought Are You My Mother? was a mess, though, and didn’t recommend it. We still sold it well, but not on the same scale.

As far as books that are considered classics in that category, some of them keep selling, and some don’t. We sell Maus and Persepolis on a very regular basis. Clowes, Ware, and Sacco still sell for us, but have slowed down quite a bit. We did sell a lot of Building Stories, but Amazon running out right around Christmas was a bigger factor than anything else. The amount of people who specifically mentioned that they had tried to buy it online first was huge.

I don’t think it’s an overgeneralization to say that we sell genre comics far better than literary comics; it’s just that the genre usually isn’t superheroes. We started tracking sales through a point-of-sale system in 2008. I just ran a report on our bestselling books since then, and the top three are Saga volume one, Bone volume one, and Scott Pilgrim volume one.

Were there ever any comics or books that you thought for sure would be a big seller that wound up collecting dust? How did this change your ordering strategy?

Yes. Absolutely. I would assume this is true for every retailer. I don’t mind over-ordering a bit on early issues of an ongoing comic series, because it helps me find a ceiling, but there have been first issues I’ve ordered that sank me so far into the hole that I probably didn’t break even until the series ended. As far as book-format stuff, I feel like I have a better grip on that, though I have screwed it up occasionally too. The first thing that comes to mind is Frank Miller’s Holy Terror. That was a complete failure in my store. I didn’t like it, and neither did my customers. Fortunately, I ordered it returnable through a book distributor.

I don’t know that I’ve ever learned any long-term ordering lessons. I have changed my approach quite a bit. The market expands and contracts, and it seems as though I’m always chasing sales up or down. I get cocky and I get scared based on how well stuff is selling in general, and that impacts orders.

How much has your personal taste affected your ordering comics over the years? Are there some things you've had to sort of hold your nose while ordering, because you knew they'd sell?

My personal taste has absolutely informed the type of things I order, but I try not to let it dictate the things I don’t order, if that makes any sense. I really try to base stocking choices on whether I think something will sell. I do have to consider how my taste will impact my ability to sell something. I gave the example earlier of Alison Bechdel’s second memoir.

I think this is a good example of my personal taste impacting my ability and my willingness to sell something: I don’t enjoy reading comics online, but I read a lot of the beginnings of comics online and make a note to order the ones I like if and when they’re printed as books. I read the first few pages of God Hates Astronauts and enjoyed them enough that when Ryan Browne put together a Kickstarter for the hardcover, I put myself in for a wholesale package and talked other retailers into doing the same thing. The comic reminded me of an R-Rated Madman, and I thought I could sell that.

When the books came in, I took one home to finally read the whole story. I had a problem with the depiction of violence against women. Let me be clear: there is lots of violence in this book, and more violence against men than women, but I still had a negative reaction specifically to the violence against women. I don't think there was any misogynistic intent, but I still didn't feel like promoting the book once I read it all, even though I had ordered it. If the book wasn't going to sell itself, my choice was to let it sit rather than pushing it, even though pushing it would make me more money.

Did you ever find a company pressuring you to order a certain number of a certain kind of comic, or offer you incentives to do so?

I wouldn’t say I’ve ever experienced pressure from publishers to order their books, though I’ve certainly been marketed to. And there are definitely incentives on comics, depending on the publishers. Image in particular is great about offering returnability on early issues series in which they have confidence.

I have felt pressure to order from a place you didn’t mention: I have over-ordered comics in the past because my peers ordered them heavily and I allowed their enthusiasm to override my gut feeling about the comic. Conversely, I have made money by having retailer friends clue me into something I would have been unaware of without them. And with indie titles, I’ve frequently been the guy who talks his peers into ordering something. I helped spread the word on Scott Pilgrim early on, and King City years later.


Was having a kid-friendly store an imperative from the beginning? How difficult was it to do that in the early years of the store, when there were fewer kid-friendly comics (especially for girls)?

Having a kid-friendly store was very important. As you said, there weren’t a lot of kids’ comics available, so our section probably looked an awful lot like the kids’ section in any comic shop who was putting in an effort. In a way, that made it very easy: reorder all the all ages comics we sold every week and fill the bookcase back up.

Now that section is more that ten times the size it was ten years ago, and it’s important to track what’s selling and what should be let go, because it’s just as easy for the kids’ section to get slammed full of unsellable books as the rest of the store. We have more choices, and far more sales, but it’s more work. I think the biggest change in the last few years is that while we have a relatively small amount of actual superhero comics in that section, we’ve had great success with superhero picture books and chapter books for young readers. We’re selling Batman books for really young kids, but most of it isn’t actually comics!

What is your rough customer demographic breakdown, by gender, age, and race? How much of your traffic consists of UNC students, and do they actually tend to buy on a steady basis?

I don’t track that type of thing, but I can speak anecdotally and make some guesses. Probably the biggest demographic shift in the last couple years has been gender-based. I just ran a report which showed me that nine of our ten best-selling comic issues from the year-to-date sell as much to women or girls as to men and boys. That’s anecdotal, but I feel confident in that statement. The racial makeup of the customer base is probably pretty similar to that of UNC: more white folks than any other group, but very far from a homogeneous customer base. The age range shifts throughout the year: less college kids in the summer, but more young kids and their parents. Weekends throughout the year are kid- and family-heavy.

People tied to UNC represent a significant portion of our sales. This includes everyone from undergraduates to professors to support staff. UNC undergrads tend to buy steadily throughout the school year and disappear for the summer. I sell far fewer periodical superhero books in the summer, but more casual humor books and graphic novels.

What are those best-selling comic issues?

Here are our top ten selling individual comics for this year (so far):

SAGA #18

The title I mentioned which hasn’t sold as much to women as to men is Moon Knight. It’s selling well because of the creative team as opposed to the character; Warren Ellis is the writer, and he’s been a popular creator for us for many years.

I think it’s really significant that our top-selling comic of the year features girl characters and (more importantly) is created by young women. I believe that a diverse group of characters is important to comics, but that a diverse group of comic creators is far more important.

What rough percentage of your sales come from superhero/mainstream comics?

DC and Marvel account for almost exactly a third of our sales for this year. That includes comics and graphic novels, new and backstock. It includes everything published by those companies, from Mad Magazine, to Vertigo, to Marvel’s Wizard of Oz adaptations, so it’s not strictly superhero sales.

I’m honestly not sure what “mainstream comics” means any more, but if you add Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and Boom! into the mix, that takes you to a bit under 60% of our total sales.

So 40% of your sales come from other comics, kids' comics not released by a mainstream company, toys, etc?

That’s correct, but I do want to mention that comics in some form or another (new comics, graphic novels new and used, minicomics, back issues) represent 91% of the store’s sales so far this year. Comics supplies, doodads, and toys all add up to less than a tenth of total sales.

How much of that comes from you actively pushing that material on your customers, and how much is it a particular set of fans that knows your store is likely to carry such comics?

Looking at a report of our top-selling books, most of the ones I see are books which we promoted in some form or another: we put them in the staff picks section, we built displays around them, we hosted signings, we told customers we loved it. Saga would probably be our best-selling book even if we didn’t try to sell it, but trying to sell it pushed it even farther as a best-seller. Not everything the store sells because of recommendations, but recommendations are a huge factor. There have been many series I cut back on or stopped ordering after the employees who championed them left the store, because their hand-selling not only brought us more sales, but created almost all the sales for those books.


How much of your success can be attributed to community outreach events, like Free Comic Book Day, 24 Hour Comics Day, and assorted artist signings? Do these events tend to create new customers?

Events in general have been very important to the growth of the store. Every comic retailer I know has benefitted hugely from Free Comic Book Day, and I’m no exception. 24 Hour Comics Day was a huge amount of fun, but didn’t yield much in the way of sales, so we quit doing it since my store is historically staffed by grown people who don’t want to stay up all night.

Signings have been fantastic for us, especially since I got the guts to start flying talent in instead of waiting for people to travel through the area. We have definitely gained customers from our signings. There is even a subset of customers who regularly shop elsewhere for their comics, but come to our events and load up, not just on the comics that are being signed, but on things that their regular shops don’t stock. I prefer to stick to creators whose work would already sell well at our store. In the last few years we’ve had big successes with Brandon Graham, Lisa Hanawalt, Lucy Knisley, Hope Larson, Ed Piskor, and Jim Rugg, to name a few. I’m really excited about our big signing on July 12, with Ed and Jim, as well as Tom Scioli, who hasn’t signed here before. My pal Chris Pitzer, publisher of Adhouse Books, will also be there.


What kind of financial impact, if any, has the success of superhero and comics-related movies over the last decade had on your store?

There’s always an impact from comics-based movies, but in my store, the superhero movies seem to have less of a sales impact than the other ones. Part of this is that superhero comics aren’t the majority of our sales, and part of it is that people are used to superhero movies at this point and don’t go as nuts looking for the comics they’re based on as they did for, say, the first Batman or Spider-Man movies. The Scott Pilgrim movie and The Walking Dead TV show are the most effective ads for comics I’ve ever seen.

The superhero movies do tend to boost the demand for early appearances of the characters who appear in the movies. I don’t do a lot with collectible comics: if they walk in the door, I’ll make an offer, but it’s not my main thing. Having said that, I bought a nice copy of Iron Man #55 last week and sold it within a few days. That one’s in demand because it has the first appearance of Thanos, who’s going to be in some movies soon.

What strategies did you use to negotiate the worldwide economic downturn in 2008?

My first stroke of genius was to sign a lease on a bigger, more expensive place two days before the economy fell in on itself. Seriously, I think that helped. Our sales dropped a bit, but not as much as I believe they would have had we not moved to a far better location.  The fact that I had paid off the store quickly and didn’t have to keep paying that note while sales wobbled helped a lot too.

Something that didn’t help is that the restaurant next door went out of business during the whole economic mess. That killed our after-dark sales and I cut our hours. A pizza place called Mellow Mushroom moved into that spot, though, and their presence has made it more than worth waiting through the downturn for someone else to lease that space. They’re great neighbors who bring us lots of business, and we have longer hours again.

As far as reactionary stuff, I stopped ordering things that sold slowly, liquidated the bottom-selling 25% of every section of the store, and generally ran a tighter ship. Even though I cut the store’s hours during this period, I never had to lay anyone off, and I am very proud of that.

You are the rare comic store owner who's always devoted a little space to small press and minicomics. Historically, how well have these sorts of comics sold for you? What encouraged you to make an investment in this area?

Part of it is personal taste; I am generally more interested in comics which reflect the vision of one or two people than a corporate comic which exists as much to sell t-shirts, video games, and movie tickets as it does to sell comics. I enjoy good superhero comics - I’m currently reading the most Marvel Comics I’ve read in years - but for the most part I feel like I’m actively aware of the constraints inherent in corporate comics while I read them.

The other part of why I carry them is because I’m pretty good at selling them. Most of the indie comics I carry earn their space, and it’s very rare that I restock something that takes a very long time to sell regardless of who published it. The store’s location is as important in that regard as my taste and knowledge of indie comics. It’s located in downtown Chapel Hill, surrounded by other locally owned businesses, and near the university. I suspect that if the store were located in a strip mall on the edge of town, my ability to sell that stuff would shrink considerably.

Was running the store starting to become a bit of a grind or boring? Given that you have a number of potential projects lined up but nothing definitive, I was wondering if there was something you felt you were missing out on as a result of the effort it took to run the store. Was there any event or trend in particular that encouraged you to sell?

I wouldn’t say that running the store had become boring, but it was definitely a grind. The weekly nature of comics retail is a double-edged sword. It ensures that customers return to the store on a regular basis, but it also means it’s hard to take a break, especially for people like me, who aren’t great at delegation.

I have loved running the store, but I’m ready to try something else. I think the simplest way to put it is that I still love comics, but I’m kind of burnt out on retail. Dan, the previous owner, pointed out to me that we each sold the store after twenty years of involvement, so maybe that’s when Comics Retail Burnout occurs?

I don’t know that I ever felt like I was missing out on anything, though. I feel exceptionally lucky and grateful to have been able to work with this medium that I love, to meet customers, retailers and creators, to use comic book money to pay the bills, and then to cash in the business. How many other people get to say anything like that about their lives?

What can you tell us about the new owner?

Ryan Kulikowski is smart and enthusiastic, is a big comics fan, and has researched the industry thoroughly. I like Ryan and his wife Danka quite a bit. Even though we’re close to the same age, his excitement about the store reminds me of my excitement about the store years ago. He’s very eager to get in here and get to work.

I’ll be working in the store with Ryan for three months after he takes over in order to show him how I’ve done things, from placing orders with large distributors to working with self-publishers, as well as how I’ve handled the boring non-comics-related stuff inherent in running a business. I’m certain the store will change once Ryan settles into his new life as a comic retailer, and I think that’s great.

Were you able to turn a profit on the store after your initial investment a decade ago?

Yes! I will always appreciate that Dan had the confidence in me to finance the sale of the store. I paid him off in three and a half years, which surprised both of us. Even though I am tired of retail now, I am pretty good at it. Chapel Hill Comics has been exceptionally good to me.

Have you heard of many other instances where a comics store was passed down to a new owner rather than folding? The comics retail shop is less than forty years old, and it seems like shops either fold or their inventory gets liquidated when the owners die or lose interest. In what ways do you think you can act as a model for others?

I know of other comic shops which have been sold to new owners. Some of them were profitable businesses and were sold as such, but many were not profitable, at least at the time of the sale. I think what you’re describing happens to small businesses in general, and the niche aspect of comics retail ensures that in most cases, even if a shop is profitable, there’s no guarantee that a seller can find a buyer.

I don’t know if I am a model in any way that is apparent without serious private discussion: no one really know what’s going on behind the curtain at a small business except for the people most closely involved. I have spoken to another comic shop owner in the last week who is interested in selling his shop, and I told him I would be happy to consult with him and tell him about my experience, except for details restricted by the non-disclosure agreement I’ve signed.

Have you seen attitudes changing in comic book stores around the country? It seems like the era of "The Android's Dungeon"-type boys' clubs is starting to wind down as it becomes clearer that they're an unsustainable model. Even though you're getting out of the business, what trends do you predict for comics shops in the next ten to twenty years?

There will always be a market for collectibles, but I do think more of those sales will move online and into hybrid shops which are graphic novel bookstores who also sell back issues well. I believe that model of store will probably be healthier in general than a store which focuses completely on one or the other, which is why I started buying collectible comics (and cheap back issues, and used graphic novels) into the shop a few years back after not messing with them at all for five years. Back issues are a sideline at Chapel Hill Comics as opposed to the main revenue flow, but they’ve absolutely been worth adding back into the mix.

Here’s another big change: When I bought the store, most of the graphic novels I stocked could be considered classic or perennial material. Now, there’s less of that, and more books which I let sell out early and replace with the next new thing. There are so many new graphic novels being created now that competition is very fierce for shelf space. Also, there are lots of really great comics now, which means that comics which are merely good just don’t cut it as far as becoming best-sellers unless they have the strength of a license or big name creator behind them. I think this trend will continue and that more and more graphic novels will be periodicals, for all intents and purposes.

I hesitate to volunteer what twenty years down the road will look like, but my guess is that as the customer base becomes more and more diverse, the same thing will happen to the group of people who own comic shops. I said earlier that I think it’s very important for a diverse group of creators to be represented in comics, and I think that’s true of the retail side of things as well. I have nothing against straight white dudes - I’m one myself - but different perspectives and backgrounds can only bring strength to the industry.