The marketplace for comic books is direct market sales -- one-on-one, hand-to-hand. Like restaurants, bars and locally-owned businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic makes "direct," "sales," and "hand-to-hand" problematic. As shelter-in-place orders keep customers (both regulars and curious walk-ins) at home and as comics distribution comes to a halt literally overnight, the question is: what will become of the local comic shop, the LCS, yours and mine?
Like many small-businesses that run on razor-thin margins, the economic impact of COVID-19 will close the LCS, maybe yours, maybe mine. The owners, managers and employees of comic shops are not unfamiliar with how heroes respond to global crises, it's their stock-in-trade, after all and they're not going down without a fight.
And so The Comics Journal is bringing back it's 'Retail Therapy' column to share what the women and men in the comic book business are doing to keep their comic book shops in business during this unprecedented time. This week, we're speaking with David DeMarco, of Omaha Nebraska's Legend Comics & Coffee. For location information, check out their Facebook page.
Tell us about Legend Comics & Coffee and how long you’ve personally been working comics retail?
David DeMarco: Legend Comics was started in 2007 by my business partners, Wendy Pivonka and Jason Dasenbrock. It was a great little shop, about 1000 square feet and despite its small size was able to service about 150 pull file customers per week. I came on board in 2010 when we heard that a super cool space up the street (a historic grocery store building) was being remodeled and in need of new businesses. Jason and Wendy approached the building owner about moving Legend in and were told that he was hoping for a restaurant on one side and a coffee shop on the other. They both wanted to try the comic/coffee thing but needed to take on a partner (me) to help make that happen. I had worked at another store in town for about 7 years previously so I had comic retail experience. So, I bought 50% of Legend and that money was used to finance the move and the remodel and so Legend Comics and Coffee was created in 2011.
When we aren't running on a skeleton crew, we have around 12-14 employees between the comic and coffee side with about 50% of those being able to work both sides.
I'm not sure where we are at pull file wise, a lot of people have called to cancel which is completely understandable given the situation. I think the last time I did an official count it was 527 give or take.
The restaurant next door, J. Coco gets busy at night and so while people are waiting for their tables, families and couples will wander over so we get our fair share of walk-ins or just people who have heard about us for one reason or another. Business spiked in 2014 after we won our Eisner Award, which was super cool.
We are in a 100+ year old grocery store, ancient hard wood floors, we have a public space downstairs for meetings, parties, gaming, whatever and the coffee shop has seating for 48. The comic side is about 1200 square ft. with about 45,000 comics in our back issue drawers which were custom made and get us a lot of attention.
When did you close your store and what factors went into your decision?
We went into lock down I believe on March 18. The biggest thing we considered was how much of our industry involves touching things: back issues, trades, comic issues, they're all getting touched all the time, and apparently COVID-19 lives on the surface of things for at least 48 hours. There's no way Legend could guarantee the safety of our customers and we consider our customers our extended family.
What’s the status of Legend Comics & Coffee as of now?
We have one employee on the comic side and one on the coffee side. There is another work available off site, i.e. going through back stock at our warehouse for when things get back to normal. If one of my employees needs to keep working but is afraid to interact with the public, I will find them something to do so they can continue getting paid. Coming into the shop is on a completely volunteer basis. Our hours have gone from 6:30am to 9pm to 9:30am to 5:30pm and we are now closed on Sunday. We haven’t set up anything online yet, but we have pulled a bunch of high-end stuff to start listing on eBay. My normal policy is to let locals have first crack at the high-end stuff but that’s hard to do when they can’t walk in and see it.
What protocols do you have in place to serve customers (online, curbside pick-up, delivery) and/or what plan are you putting in place going forward to handle fulfillment?
We’ve transformed into a drive thru only location for both comics and coffee. Customers are encouraged to call ahead and request their pull file, a drink, or if they want something extra, like back issues, I am happy to do the browsing for them. We print off a receipt and they pay when they arrive. We've also been discussing delivery options, but haven't put that out their yet. With new comics no longer being shipped, we are going to start dialogs of things that people may have missed that are awesome. I've got tons of sets of back issues and we can still get trades (for now).
Did you have any indication from Diamond Comic Distributor’s to suspend shipments or did it comes as a surprise?
I was eating lunch and browsing the internet and I caught an article about it so it did come as a complete surprise. This was after several days of articles about how Diamond, DC, and Marvel were pretty much mum on any plans going forward. I certainly understand the decision.
What impact does Diamond’s decision have on your store?
60% of our sales come from selling new comics and trades, so certainly it hurts. We are reaching out to our landlord to see if he will allow us to pay reduced rent until things go back to normal and then disperse the back rent over the next year of payments. We've also taken the time to look at our pull file customers who have fallen behind and have been reaching out to them to see if they'd be willing to come in and get back to even. I consider myself lucky to have been able to live my dream of owning a comic store for 11 years, if we can't weather this, then at least I know it wasn't for lack of trying or letting my customers down. Me, Wendy, and everyone who is part of the Legend family aren't going down without a fight. As long as I can continue to keep the lights on I'm going to keep trying.
What support is Diamond offering?
The only 'support' that I am aware of is that they are allowing us to put our account on hold. Other than that, there are other comic publishers who are coming up with ways to help local stores.
Should publishers (Marvel and DC, first and foremost) continue to publish/release “new” comics on digital platforms?
I certainly can’t fault them anymore than I can fault the person who wants to read them. We all love these stories and want to know how they continue/end. However, I think that would be a mistake that could possibly damage the direct market for years to come. It would certainly make me rethink how much I’d want to promote books from companies that didn’t care about me or my livelihood. That being said, I am not owed a job as a comic book dealer any more than Blockbuster was owed the ability to continue to rent movies when the Netflix boom started. I’ll cross my fingers that things work out.
What alternatives are you exploring without the ability to receive product from Diamond?
Well, we are lucky to have a coffee shop so we've taken this opportunity to start coming up with new drinks for people to try and we have a gigantic collection of comics off-site so 2020 might become the year of the back issue.
What can local customers do to support Legend Comics & Coffee Comics as well as those who don’t live nearby?
Swing by for a coffee, ask for a trade recommendation (we love giving those). But, here's the thing, if people aren't working, then this is a pretty scary time to be buying comic books. If you are able to, that's great and we'd love it, but we understand if you can't. I guess the big thing would be if we need to close our doors, please understand and don't forget about us when we reopen.