This one, I admit, is personal. Thirty years ago, I was a 7-year old kid heading home from school in the late-spring heat of Northridge, California, when I was confronted by a larger-than-life image of Frank Miller’s Wolverine festooned as a mural outside a neighborhood shop. For a school-age boy in 1993, a year when the X-Men had metastasized into everything from Saturday morning cartoons to Brach’s fruit snacks, a more hypnotically compelling marketing tactic could not have been devised. And so, I took one small step into my first local comic shop, and in some disquieting way laid the groundwork for everything else in my life that would follow.
The shop in question was Golden Apple Comics - or, more specifically, their second, satellite location in the Los Angeles region. Their flagship location, situated on Hollywood Blvd., was even then one of the most storied landmarks of comic retail, dating back to its founding in 1979. The store’s owner and co-founder, Bill Liebowitz (who had bought out his founding partner Thom Smitham some 10 years before I discovered the shop), was, like Chuck Rozanski and Buddy Saunders, one of the intrepid pioneers of the comic direct market, helping to carve a permanent niche for comic books as a viable item of specialized retail.
During the ‘90s, as Mile High developed into a destination superstore and Lone Star took a stab at regional expansion, Liebowitz and Golden Apple seized upon a distinctly LA-toned strategy to make their particular name in the business. A well-placed mention in Wizard magazine about the store’s association with local LA celebrities, including Michael Jackson, allowed Golden Apple to begin a long run of capitalizing on their appeal to Hollywood’s more glamorous breed of comic geek - a demographic that would turn out to have surprising legs in the coming age of superhero mass media.
That much remains the case, even as much else has changed for Golden Apple in the past two decades. Bill Liebowitz died in 2004, passing on the store to his son, Ryan. The Northridge location is a thing of the past now, having been sold to local chain Earth-2 Comics in 2009 (who in turn shuttered the location following COVID shutdowns). And today, the store’s focus is either broadly diverse or alarmingly scattershot, depending on the view of the observer: there was a movie production company in 2017; a brief and somewhat ill-fated foray into comic publishing in 2018; a nonprofit foundation to preserve comic history in 2022. Near the end of our conversation, Ryan Liebowitz mentioned a new venture into Metaverse-esque virtual reality. Whether any of these are sound business strategies, even Ryan can’t say for sure. But he can’t help it: it’s in his blood, as much as Golden Apple’s storied history ever was.
So to help make sense of the store’s past, present and future, Liebowitz sat down with The Comics Journal to talk about the role Golden Apple plays in L.A. life and comic book culture. It soon became clear that the garrulous retailer didn’t need much prompting to let loose on the story of his shop.
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The Comics Journal: You stepped into your father Bill’s shoes in 2004, taking over Golden Apple. What was that process like for you?
Ryan Liebowitz: My dad passed away in October of '04. Prior to that, I had worked in the store on and off my whole life. You know, [Bill] opened it in 1979, when I was 6, and I was always kind of around the store, but when I got older I started taking it a little bit more seriously. We opened a third location in West L.A., and I had convinced my dad to get into sports cards and trading cards, so that’s where I spent a lot of my teenage years. My dad was amazing at events and promotions, so that’s sort of where I gravitated to. I ran something called Zine Fest, which, if you’re familiar with fanzines or zines - I got Rob Zombie to sponsor it, and he had his band play it. So anyway, I got into doing events so much, that I knew I didn’t want to stay in the store.
So you really hadn’t planned or intended to take over Golden Apple?
No. I mean, I always told my dad that if he needed my help down the line, I’d probably help, but I was pretty content doing my own career. My dad was very successful: he was a suit-and-tie-wearing executive, and a CPA of a prestigious firm, and got a lot of money, and did really well for himself, and gave it all up to open this little 400-square-foot comic store on Melrose Avenue. And my mom could have killed him, you know? But that’s what I’m saying: that was his dream.
And then he basically died of a heart attack, and at that point I packed it up, we sold [our] house in Vegas, and I’ve been here ever since. Now the thing is, when I set out to [run the store], I figured I would just do it for a while, and then figure out what we were going to do with it. On the one hand, it was a little bit of a well-oiled machine, because [Bill] had been doing it for so long at that point. And he had this one guy who was the manager, who had been there basically since day one. And then he had my mom, and a few other great employees who had been around for a very long time. So it was a fairly easy transition. I just kind of sat around for about a year, played along, and figured out my game plan.
And about a year and a half into it, my landlord suddenly sent us a notice for tripling the rent, which my dad had a sweetheart deal for. So after a 25-year run, I had to make the decision to move the store down Melrose a mile to its current location. And to be honest, it was with mixed emotions. Most people were onboard, but some people who had been there for years didn’t like the change, and kind of fought me on it, and didn’t adapt well. And I had to do some more changing of the guard, and eventually get rid of some of the people that had been there for, basically, too long, and were too set in their ways.
But back to our grand opening. It was on Halloween in 2006: Stan Lee himself, Stan “The Man” Lee, performed our ribbon-cutting ceremony. Seth Green and some other celebrities were there. And Stan gave a speech and did a signing. And so my era–as we call it, the Ryan Era–kind of began, and that became my store. That was the shop I built. And it was like a love letter to my dad in olden days, but it’s very modern, and new, and very me. I wanted it to be an exciting place to come.
Just to step back historically for a moment, Golden Apple was one of the earliest comic stores in L.A., and became one of the most important stores nationally for comic retail. So, to your mind, what led to that influence? What was the key to your dad’s strategy?
First and foremost, his passion, his creativity, his drive, his vision. He was a retail pioneer for comic books. There were comic book stores in the 1970s, but they were run by fans, and they weren’t even legitimate businesses. My dad is actually the one who really pushed for cash registers, for example. Everybody else was using cigar boxes or whatever, and they weren’t paying their taxes, they weren’t doing inventory or anything.
And selection was always a big thing for us. It was a really big store, the original store. We probably carried more new titles and deeper stock than anybody. We would just have hundreds of copies of every major Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Image title. Because here’s the thing about Golden Apple: we didn’t do subscriptions, like pull lists or traditional subscription boxes, which are sort of the backbone of the industry. My dad didn’t believe in it. He felt that it took away from the shopping aspect of [the store]: that they would come in, and buy [their holds], and walk out the door and not even look around. And he was wrong. There are a small handful who do that, and I always look at them and go, “Oh, you’re the ones my dad was fearing.” But it’s a very small amount of regulars.
Obviously, one of the main keys was, [Golden Apple] is a place to meet your heroes, whether it’s a comic creator, a celebrity, a movie star, a musician. If you had a comic book that you were trying to promote, you came through Golden Apple. So Wizard magazine did an article called “Comic Shop to the Stars” - we basically [had] kept it under wraps for years, as a sign of respect, and I didn’t want to publicly call out these celebrities that had been shopping in our store. And then one day, Wizard magazine said, “Hey, I heard X, Y and Z shop here.” And my dad said, “You know what? I think it’s time to tell the world.” And we did, and ever since then, our star has just risen: more celebrities come in, I think, because of it. Michael Jackson was famously a customer. It was the only comic store he went to, and we would close the place down for him. And he brought his kids and everything - we’re the last documented store where photographers took pictures of Michael and his three children before he died.
Have you ever felt there’s a downside to that - whether adding that level of glitz detracts from your identity as a comic shop in any way?
It’s a pure plus. I can’t tell you the countless amount of customers who have been in the store when a big celebrity comes in. It makes their day.
Do you feel like Golden Apple would have been able to weather the past couple of decades had it not been for the celebrity reputation attached to it?
I think it certainly helped tremendously. But it really goes back to our customers: just the loyalty and fanbase, and these movies and TV shows that have made the comic industry what it is. And the comic retailers are the backbone of it. I wholeheartedly believe that we’re the front lines, hand-selling these stories and these characters to fans that are eventually going to watch the shows and buy the tickets to the movies. So I think the Hollywood boom, plus the loyalty of our customers and introducing things like a subscription service, have really helped us get through the last 10, 20 years.
You mentioned some things that you felt needed to change when you took over Golden Apple. Can you tell me about some of the other things you had in mind?
One of the first things I did was, our website was nonexistent. It was just the stupidest website I’ve ever seen, that barely had any information, and it was never updated. It was basically like if you opened up an encyclopedia and looked up Golden Apple Comics. And one of the first things I did was put some time into e-commerce. And, you know, I had a rough start on it. E-commerce is tough, man. I didn’t get it right the first two times: I put a lot of time, and effort, and money into it, and it never worked. And my website was just never quite right, even though I tried, and tried, and tried. So I can admit my faults. But I definitely am not one of those people that like to give up.
We had this sort of burden on us: a secondary store in Northridge, California. And it was great, because it was right near the Cal State University, Northridge campus. But I went to that school, and it’s not one of those schools where you’re just hanging out in the area. And it was several blocks away, and it was kind of hidden, and it just never did that great. So we sold it in 2009, because trying to run two shops, just my wife and I and my mom, was too much for us. So we sold it to Earth-2 Comics, and unfortunately many years later they closed it. My mural is still there: my friend Tony Carlson’s. Hopefully they don’t whitewash it. [Selling that location] changed our life. Just the pressure of it - I never saw my wife or mom. It was crazy. My wife would work in one store, and I would work in the other, so we went for years not seeing each other. We were just, like, “This isn’t working for us.”
In 2017, I started a production company, Golden Apple Productions - a Hollywood-type production company, because I was sick of all these producers coming in and saying, “What’s hot now?” I mean, famously, Frank Darabont bought The Walking Dead at Golden Apple. And I sort of saw this like, “What the hell am I doing?” And I hooked up with a buddy of mine, Matt Fleckenstein - he’s a TV writer, producer and showrunner. And we spent a few years talking to comic creators, getting their okay to shop their IP around to Hollywood executives and development people. And we didn’t get anywhere. [Laughs] But it doesn’t mean I didn’t try really hard!
So we decided that one of the problems we had was that we were trying to pitch other people’s IP, and we could only get an option for a very finite amount of time. The way to [get around] that was to own our own IP, so we started a publishing line [Golden Apple Books] - I always say, like the movie High Fidelity with John Cusack. You know, he started this record [label]. And I said, “You know what? We’ve been selling comics for freaking 40 years. Why don’t we make them?”
So that’s what we did. And we published several comic books, and several very successful lines. And then, guess what? The pandemic hit. And we had already sunk a bunch of money into this, and we had all these projects that were starting to go. And I’ve got to tell you, that pandemic shook everybody. As a comic retailer, and a comic publisher on the rise, I was scared on so many levels. But I haven’t published anything since the pandemic started.
How much of a hit to Golden Apple has the loss of that publishing been?
Monetarily? It probably helped us, because I was probably sinking more money into publishing than making money. When I say successful, it wasn’t monetarily successful. It was personally gratifying. I was a minute away from being big-time. And the pandemic really took the wind out of our sales completely.
But it sounds like, on some level, maybe it was a service to the shop to force you to refocus.
Totally. It also gave me a new set of skills. God forbid the shop didn’t work out, I could go to work for any publisher in the world.
Historically, Golden Apple has sold all sorts of products in addition to comics - you mentioned coming in through your own specialty in cards and zines. So at this point, how much of your sales come from comics, and how much comes from other items?
Bread and butter at any comic store, especially Golden Apple, is the new weekly titles. That’s a good 60-75% of what any major store sells. On top of that, you’ve got trade paperbacks and hardcover collections of vintage comics - anything that wasn’t printed this week. So that’s another 20% right there. And then it gets into the other avenues: you have comic books supplies - bags, boards, boxes, whatever it is. And then we have a little bit of gaming. We’re not a gaming store, but in the last several years, Pokémon blew up, and that’s sort of what we specialize in. We dabbled in Magic: The Gathering, and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and a couple of other things, but Pokémon's the only one that really sells at Golden Apple. We never did tabletop or board games.
But we have always done statues, and action figures, and display cases. We sell some manga, which has also been popular in the last few years, and we sell a lot of kids' stuff. Kids and teen books have taken over a giant portion of the store. The female readers in the last 10, 20 years have really expanded, I would say, almost equal to the male readers. Maybe they come in because they’ve seen the movies, and they just want to get an action figure or a POP! toy, or something like that. But there was a time when a girl or a woman who came into the store was a unicorn. And then I would say in the last 25, 30 years the switch happened, and now it’s half and half.
Is there anything you’ve done deliberately to try and expand that demographic you’re appealing to?
Let’s just say that at one point, it was obvious that it’s now a non-issue. It’s not even worth talking about. There are so many women who come in, and trans, and LGBTQ and everything. Comics are for everybody. And then they appeal to everybody, because the stories aren’t just superheroes and tights anymore. There’s comic books about everything and everyone, from every walk of life. There was always the cool line of comics, like Vertigo, and Sandman, and all that kind of stuff.
Well, Golden Apple was an early champion of some of those during the 1980s. Indie books like Love and Rockets…
Yeah, and those are some of the relationships we’ve kept over the years. We just hosted the 40-year Love and Rockets event a couple of months ago with the Hernandez Brothers. We were the first store to carry Love and Rockets, we were the first store to do a signing for Love and Rockets. I’ve known Gilbert and Jaime since I was a kid. And it’s really great to be able to carry on that tradition.
So in order to keep up that kind of diversity of selection, how complex is it for you to work with so many different distributors?
Oh, the change in the industry is like the Wild West right now. I mean, it’s insane. Here’s the thing: we all bitched for so many years at all these industry conferences about “Diamond, Diamond, Diamond.” You know, the monopoly of the comic industry, oh, woe is us, right? Well, we didn’t know we had it so good, because now we’ve got three different distributors, and three different orders to do - both initials and final order cutoff, which is a weekly thing, and the initials are a monthly thing. The amount of orders, and reorders, and invoice, and billing.
Oh my God, it takes up half our time these days. And then we get them, we process the shipments at three different times if we’re lucky - sometimes they don’t show up, sometimes they’re late. Sometimes we get half a shipment from DC, and half a shipment two days later. It used to be really nice to get a whole shipment of every comic and every product that you’re going to have for the week all at once. Well, now they come sporadic from three to five different shipments throughout the week. It’s more difficult now than it ever was.
Are any of the distributors worse offenders than others?
Absolutely. It’s really eye-opening, because basically Diamond, the monopoly for 20-plus years in the comic industry, is the worst of all three. And they have the most experience.
Why do you think that is? Do you think they just got complacent because they didn’t have competition?
Yeah, I think so. And now there’s competition. I mean, Marvel and DC defected from Diamond - the top two. You own a soft drink company, and you can’t sell Coke or Pepsi.
What is Diamond doing that’s making life difficult from your perspective?
It’s always been the quality of their shipping. Their ordering systems being kind of ancient. Their point-of-sale system, which they sold me many years ago, also being kind of outdated and not up to the industry standard. They’re losing a lot of staff because of the pandemic, and losing their main accounts, and they’ve had to cut back. So now there’s really not a lot of support, and there are no reps anymore. We used to have a rep assigned, and now we don’t have a person I could call if I have a problem.
That kind of answers the next question I had, which was whether any of these companies have been receptive to complaints that you try to raise with them.
They’re all receptive, because they all want to save face. But we all know the reality, and these newer distributors are really stepping up their game and making adjustments to us retailers. I mean, they actually get on the phone with us, and they go to our industry meetings and conferences and say, “How can we do things better? What are your main complaints, and let’s fix them.” We’ve been telling Diamond this stuff for years, and they’re just, like, “Hey, whatever. We’ll do it our way, because there’s nothing you can do about it.” And now there is.
Has all of this taken a toll on your profit margins?
Absolutely. When it was one shipment a week on the same day every week, you could just have an extra body there for that day. Now I’m eating an extra body almost every day in the store, because the shipment is going to show up and everything. So it’s a lot.
What about the price of comics? One thing I’ve heard from other shops is that, as the price of books ticks up, it’s making it harder to do bread-and-butter sales of monthly issues.
Yeah, it’s funny: we’re cataloging comics in my house, and I see some 10-centers, and some 12-centers, and you can just see the progression as it goes and goes. And at some point it just jumps to $1.00, then to $1.95, then $2.99, then $3.99, and now we’re seeing a lot of $4.99s and $5.99s at the register. We’re like, “Why is this book $5.99?” It’s the same size, same page count, same everything. There isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to it. I think the retailers, and the fans, and the readers are covering all the operating costs these days. The major publishers, I think, could stay at $2.99 and $1.99 for so many years because they published more titles. And I think they’re publishing less and less titles with more and more covers, and we’re paying for it.
That’s the other thing I’ve heard from a lot of retailers: those complaints about variant covers.
Well, here’s the thing: there are two sides to that coin. I agree wholeheartedly that companies like Dynamite, for example–I will call them out–absolutely have way too many covers for every comic book, period. When you have a book that’s got [covers] A through J open-orderable, that’s just insane. And then there’s ratio variants, which you have to qualify to get, and sell for a higher amount of money. So it’s more coveted: 1:10, 1:25, 1:50. That’s okay. That’s an incentive. I’m okay with things like that - I mean, they’re a big part of our business. What I’m not okay with is just too much shelf space needing to be given to every title. No store has miles and miles of [shelving], where they can put out seven covers of every comic book.
But the other side of the coin, the positive side, is we at Golden Apple do a lot of exclusive variants: it’s our cover, it’s exclusive to Golden Apple. And we do really well with that. It actually saved us through the pandemic. The pandemic was so terrible in so many ways, but it also boomed the comic book and collectors industry. Look at the sports card industry; look at Pokémon, trading cards, Magic: The Gathering, whatever. These cards are worth 10 times what they were pre-pandemic.
And our website boomed [during the shutdown], and thankfully we were one of the shops that had a website and e-commerce set up by then. Because if you weren’t online by the time that pandemic hit, you were out of business, or you’ve got to scramble to get online.
Is the online shop still accounting for a substantial portion of your sales?
Yes. We got so big, we outgrew my partner’s house, and we rented a 5,000-square-foot building in Los Angeles. That’s been the last three years we’ve just grown, and grown, and grown. It is a separate business: it is a partnership business in which Golden Apple owns half. And it’s treated as a separate business, with a separate inventory and separate employees. But we are synonymous in the fact that you can order something off our website, and come into the store to pick it up. So it’s a huge part of our business.
So looking at where you are now, do you feel optimistic about where Golden Apple is, and where it's headed?
Yeah, there’s some great stuff going on. I started a VR company - virtual reality. Basically, what we did is we recreated Golden Apple in a virtual space, and you can actually go with a laptop or one of these VR headsets, and actually go to Golden Apple. We spent a good deal of money on it.
Do you feel like you’re running a risk, though, in the same way that you took a hit when COVID came, and the book publishing fell apart?
Yep. Actually, you’re right. A thousand percent right. Two things about my personality: one is, I kind of model everything after Willy Wonka. That’s my hero. I’m kind of a game show host, and Willa Wonka’s protégé, but I’m also just a gambler. I enjoy trying different things, and, yeah, they don’t always work out. I do throw a lot of stuff at the wall, and see what sticks. I’m not content jockeying a register for the rest of my life, selling Batman and Spider-Man comics.
And then the craziest thing happened: one of my customers for many years had a collection of over 50 years. He told me he wants to donate it to the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater. And we had a meeting where he convinced my wife and I to start a nonprofit organization, and that he would donate the entire collection to us, and that we would pass it on to the university on his behalf. And it’s been very rewarding, but also another iron in the fire, and another sucker of money until there’s some fundraising dollars. This isn’t about making money; this is about doing something for the industry. This is showcasing and archiving the best comic collections you’ll ever see for future generations to enjoy.
We also want to get into scholarship programs eventually. My dad was a business guy. I went to school for business as well. I don’t own comic books; I don’t have a comic collection at home - that might surprise you. I’m not a “fanboy”. I’m a businessman, but I also have loved this industry and its people for my whole life, since I was 6 years old. What I’m saying is, we want people who have any sort of aspiration to open a comic book store to go to school first, go to business school, learn how to do payroll, and inventory, and scheduling, and all the things you need to run a business. You can’t just open a comic book store. I mean, you can, but it’s probably not going to work out for you. We want to help people be successful.