Fat Jack’s Comicrypt

When you think of Fat Jack’s Comicrypt, the longest-standing comic shop in Philadelphia and one of the oldest remaining in the country, think of Howard the Duck. Like Howard, Fat Jack’s was born in the mid ‘70s, right around the birth of the comic book direct market, which gave it (shop and Duck) the fanbase and marketplace to thrive. Like Howard, Fat Jack’s original supporting cast was populated by stoners, artists, weirdos, and outcasts: the resident population of Philly’s Rittenhouse Square. And also like Howard, Fat Jack’s has found itself slowly but inexorably transformed from counterculture upstart to cultural institution, something so dependably a part of comics that its absence started to seem impossible to fathom.

These days, it might just as well be argued that Fat Jack’s is trapped in a world it never made. As gentrification has eroded Rittenhouse Square’s offbeat culture (bringing rising rents along with it), so too have changes in the comic market eaten into what was once a relatively stable bottom line. The shutdown year of COVID-19 in 2020, which required the store to take out multiple loans in order to stay afloat while no books shipped, proved a critical blow: this past December, store manager Eric Partridge posted a GoFundMe campaign soliciting donations to pull Fat Jack's out of debt and stay in business (at press time, the fundraiser remains just under $15,000 away from its present stated goal of $35,000).  

Nevertheless, Fat Jack’s Comicrypt endures, carrying on in much the same way it has since the birth pangs of dedicated comics retail. Partridge took time out of a recent Saturday to speak with The Comics Journal about shop life, his store’s history, and what fate may yet hold for Fat Jack’s.

-Zach Rabiroff

Eric Partridge, manager of Fat Jack's Comicrypt

The Comics Journal: So, to begin with, how long have you been with Fat Jack’s Comicrypt?

Eric Partridge: I want to say about 30 years. I was out of work for a bit and I shopped here and I kept asking if they were hiring, and finally they said yeah. [This was] probably like 1984, not ‘76 when they started, but a long time.

Tell me a little about the history of the shop, because Fat Jack’s is really one of the oldest in the country, isn’t it? How did it get started?

Well, the owner was an accountant, and he was interested in comics his whole life. So he started an after work job for himself - like I said, this was ’76, so comics were probably 30, 35 cents at the time. And, you know, he’s always been in this same neighborhood within three or four feet from the same corner; three or four different addresses, but the same neighborhood. 

Describe that neighborhood for me. What part of Philly are you in, and what sort of customers did you tend to get, then and now?

Center City, real close to Rittenhouse Square, which is a lovely, tiny, Central Park kind of place. And when he started up it was very hippy: you know, record stores, incense stores, head shops. That all went away over a period of time. It mostly seemed to be restaurants and dance schools - not clubs, but like ballet schools and that sort of stuff.

So has that changed the type of customer who tends to come in?

You know, I don’t think so. I think that the trick is in comics, most of your customers are the same people that were with you 20 years ago. And you don't get new ones, and you have to depend on the old ones, and sooner or later, they get sick of it. But, you know, hopefully there's enough interest to keep going.

You've made some news recently, because you've fallen on tough financial times, and you've been launching a crowdfunding campaign to stay afloat. Tell me about what’s going on.

Well, during the pandemic, we were shut down for a number of months. I mean, no business whatsoever allowed. And we still had to pay the rent and pay the electricity with no income. So when things opened up again, we were thrilled, but it looks like we had a bit of a debt problem that we didn’t… that I certainly didn’t know about. I’m not, you know, the owner. I manage [the store], and find out what I need to find out.

Also, a lot of our customers have been commuters. They come in, they work in town, they shop during lunch, and they go back home to the suburbs. And when everybody started working from home, they stopped coming in and a lot of them are still working from home because they found out how easy it was. So they’ve been cancelling their pull lists.

So you’re seeing that if people are working from home, they just have no desire to come in to your store anymore?

Yeah, I would say so. I mean, they're not, you know, flipping us the bird and saying “Later for you!” But they just stopped. And eventually they haven’t been in for three months, and we have to drop their subscription. And we don’t hear from them again. But we still have tons of proudly dedicated, great customers who come in every week.

What percentage of your customers would you say has dropped off since the shutdown?

I'll make this up, but it's 30%.

Wow. So is the sense that that if you can climb out of the debt from the actual shutdown period and get back on your feet, that you’d still be sustainable with the people who are left coming in?

Yes. Yes. So, we order less and we sell less, but it all works out. [Right now] we’re getting stuck with 30 copies of something that didn't sell. That way, we’re only stuck with 5 copies of something that didn’t sell.

Describe to me what you’ve got in the shop these days. Mostly new comics? A mixture of new and old? Do you have stuff other than comics on the floor?

The new stuff is paramount and key. We have some t-shirts. We have some action figures, but we don’t focus on it. 

I ask, because a lot of shops that have been trying to adapt to more difficult economic times have done it by branching away from comics into sort of general pop culture shops. And I'm wondering to what extent you've found yourself doing that.

We’ve always done that. It’s just been less than it used to be. We used to sell statues like crazy: $300 statues, but they just don’t sell anymore. We sell action figures, and they do well, but they’re not paying the rent. They’re just income, and people like them, and they make us feel good, but we don’t want to have like six different lines [of action figures that we’re stocking]. 

So, then, what are the monthly comics that are selling for you?

The main Marvels and DCs: Spider-Man, Avengers, Batman. The classics. 

How much of that do you find depends on variant covers to sell?

People will come in for the covers, and they basically strike me as [people] who just want to go and turn it around on eBay as soon as possible while it’s still hot. So as far as variant covers, some people enjoy it, some people don’t care.

So you’re not concerned that the speculator market is turning into something unsustainable right now?

Oh, I've been concerned about that for a long time, but it doesn’t seem as ill as it was back in the ‘90s: people buying 300 copies of something that just came out. That I haven’t seen. But people who go, “Oh, I want to buy this for $30 and sell it for $50,” God bless them, because it’s their property at that point. But it’s not, in my mind, as deadly as it was.

What about manga - have you seen the balance between that and western comics change over the time you’ve been with the shop?

We used to sell it fairly well, but then Barnes & Noble, which is still a national chain, started carrying it, and we couldn’t compete with the breadth [of their selection], you know? They had everything. And it just became, do we want to guess what was going to be hot, get it wrong, and sit on it for 6 to 10 years? So we kind of got out of it. But once in a while, [someone will ask] “Hey, do you guys have manga?” [So] we have this really small selection and sometimes we sell stuff from it, but it’s not a huge thing. I do think that it’s a potential we’re missing out on, but it’s just so huge - how do you decide what to carry, you know?

So even beyond manga, how much of a problem is it becoming that there are big chains selling manga and western comic collections? 

Very big. Especially because, again, Barnes & Noble. They were selling stuff that Marvel would only sell to them. Paperback Masterworks, we never saw anything like that until they started making them for [B&N], and then eventually started selling them to us. And they get returnability - they get less of a discount, but they have volume, and they can return anything that doesn't sell. It’s a problem.

And how have you been trying to respond to that?

Just doing our best to be our best, you know? What can you do?

I guess the question is, if these big national chains like Barnes & Noble or Amazon are able to move into spaces that comic shops used to have the market in, what does a shop like yours have to do to adapt and survive?

Well, Amazon is a problem because they definitely have things that we sell and they sell cheaper. There’s no denying it. But I don’t know what we do to combat it - just grit our teeth, grin and bear it. There’s no punching Bezos in the face.

You said you’ve been with the store for 30 years. So, on a broader level, what changes have you seen in the market and your customers?

Well, honestly, it's the same. It's the same people. It's the same business. You know, new comic books mostly. Back issues have dropped off a great deal over that period of time. It used to be 40% of the business. Now it comes to maybe 10%, 20%. 

Why do you think you’ve seen that drop-off?

I don’t know. Maybe electronic comics, or collections that people are buying elsewhere. 

Have you been able to figure out any new strategies for recruiting new people into the shop?

No, not really. We’re having a sale, and hopefully word of mouth brings in some curious people. But it requires advertising, and that’s [an expense] right now we can’t support. 

Again, I ask because I always want to know what people managing shops think about the fact that when you look at the average reader in mainstream comics, it’s people like you and me, and we’re getting older. How do you get a new generation of readers to be interested in this stuff?

Right. And very few teenagers: the closest we have is early 20s art students. I get a lot of those because there's a few colleges around. They read quirky, independent stuff. Saga is a huge crossover [between markets]. But how do we get that in their ears? Do youngsters even care? It’s just so alien to them. They’re like, “What is this, I can read this on my phone.” 

What do you wish more publishers knew about comic retail? 

How helpful it would be if product was available, you know? I’m not bitching about Marvel, but if they have a paperback that comes out this week and sells out in three weeks, they might go back to it, depending on what it is, but they don’t keep things in print. I’ve got to say the same for DC, but they’re much, much better about it. 

One thing that other shops have said is that Marvel really seems to be focused on putting out as many monthly titles as possible, while DC seems to be more focused on fewer monthly titles and a larger reprint catalog. Does that seem true to you?

DC really thinks about evergreens. But Marvel is definitely the best seller over DC. The X-titles, the Avengers titles, more than one Spider-Man title - they’re all pretty solid. But there definitely are these goofy little miniseries: “Who asked for this?” And then we have to order it to see if anybody wants it. And by the time it's over, you know, nobody really wanted it. I mean, it’s not an obligation; it’s savvy. Because it might be hot, you know?

So is that irritating for you, or is it an opportunity in case the book gets hot? 

I think it’s both. Definitely, when you get the new order form from Marvel, you’re like, oh, Jesus Christ, really? Do we need a Moondragon, Moon Girl, Moon Knight, whatever? But then you also go, oh, this could actually be interesting. I’m not sure. 

What about you? What are you excited about in comics right now?

I’m pretty burned out. I don’t really know. I don’t really have emotions about it. I try to analyze and deal with it.

So what’s keeping you in the business?

Well, it’s been 30 years. I couldn't just get up and get another job at this point.

What do you feel like Philadelphia would lose if Fat Jack's did go out of business?

There's no other store like us in town. We try really hard. We’re dedicated. We all love comics. We’re fairly informed: some of us specialize in Vertigo, some of us specialize in 1970s Marvel - that would be me. I think it’s a resource that’s beyond just selling stuff. That’s been our default role for a number of years. So again, it's just a question of how to communicate that fact to the people who might benefit from it.