There is something more than a little improbable about MyComicShop.com. Look through the ad pages of any comic from the turn of the 21st century, and you will find them littered with the names and sales pitches of forgotten online retail startups - nearly all of them cast into the dustbin of lost internet investments. MyComicShop.com was one of those first-generation dot com retailers, a fact betrayed by the decidedly early-era tone of the store’s moniker. But nearly alone among those of that age, they have not only survived but conquered: a 2019 leaked email from Diamond Comic Distributors revealed them to be, at that time, the third-largest comic book retailer in the United States, trailing only collected edition specialists DCBS and general behemoth Midtown Comics.
That may have something to do with the fact that, for MyComicShop.com, the internet represented something like a return to their home court. The brainchild of Texas-based fanzine publisher and comic collector Buddy Saunders, the shop that would become MyComicShop.com began in 1977 as a mail order service catering to the growing network of fans among Saunders’ readership, utilizing the then-new innovation of direct market sales. That business soon evolved into Lone Star Comics, a chain of brick-and-mortar shops spread throughout Saunders’ home state. That history made it less than a total surprise when, in 2008, Saunders began to divest himself of those physical locations, moving once more into the realm of exclusively mail-order retail - albeit this time through an internet marketplace with a much greater and more dominating reach.
Saunders himself, it must be said, is as unusual a figure–and as much of a persistent survivor–as the store he created. A product of the convention-centered fan culture still relatively new in the 1970s, he has helped to pioneer a model of retail that obviates in-person salesmanship entirely. An ostensible retiree following a stroke in 2021, rumors of his twilight years turned out to have been exaggerated: he remains closely involved in the day-to-day operation of the family-owned online shop alongside his wife and son.
And then there is a matter of his politics. An outspoken and unapologetic conservative who regularly updated his personal blog through 2022, Saunders has expressed (among other things) his opposition to Texas’s COVID-related shutdown measures in 2020, and his skepticism of the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. But despite periodic bursts of attention (wanted or otherwise), none of this appears to have affected the status of MyComicShop.com among buyers of comics - a perhaps improbable fact that is only the latest in a long string of ways that the store has defied the odds.
Buddy recently took the time to tell The Comics Journal about the path MyComicShop.com has followed, and how they see themselves in the modern world of comics retail.
The Comics Journal: Before you got into retail, you started out in the world of fanzines. What can you tell me about those days?
Buddy Saunders: I got interested in comics as a kid, in the early part of junior high school. I wanted to be an artist, so I started buying books so I could copy the pictures in the comics. But I started reading the comics, and I got hooked really quickly. And from there I found out about fanzines through letters, mainly in DC comics. I ended up corresponding with G.B. Love - you know who G.B. Love is? He started Rocket’s Blast Comicollector [one of the first comic news fanzines], so I was one of the eight founding members - there were only eight copies of the first issue, because he only had eight club members. And it grew from there.
So what took you from the world of fanzines into the world of selling books?
I started almost immediately selling comics to raise money to buy more comics. That’s what a lot of us comic fans did back then.
And initially that was all by mail order, right?
It sure was. Snail mail. You would print up a little catalog, and by the time the catalog was two or three weeks old, you would ask people to list alternatives, because they would be ordering things that had already sold. The internet really took care of that problem.
It took more than a decade before you went from dealing through the mail to opening your first physical location. What spurred that decision?
I had to have time to grow up. I paid my way through college with my mail order business. I lived off my mail order comic business. Basically, I had the mail order business working out of my bedroom in junior high and high school, and then when in college I had two-bedroom apartments, my mail order business had grown big enough to require its own bedroom. So after I graduated from college, I opened a little comic book store on a side street. And my only criteria was, what is the cheapest place I could find?
The point when you were moving into this business coincides with the rise of the direct market. Do you remember what impact that was having as you started up your shop? Was the market, in fact, declining until the direct market came along?
It was definitely declining. The first direct market comic I received, I’m trying to remember the name of it. It was a Marvel comic, a Daredevil type of character. But it was a real minor character, so I was kind of disappointed. That was the first book I got.
You’ve followed this unusual cycle with your shop, in that you started started with mail order, then moved into physical locations, and then went back to sending comics by mail as the internet started to emerge as a force around the year 2000. So you were a very early adopter of online sales and online advertising.
Yeah, let me tell you what happened there. The big deal back then–this was pre-internet–was that people were expecting there to be national chains of comic book stores. So we expanded: we ended up expanding to eight stores. Not many people got to that number; maybe somebody else got a little beyond eight or nine. But that was supposed to be the new rage. But then the internet came in, and initially people said, well, the internet’s not going to be enough [to sell] comics. Everybody expected computerization would work better for [physical] stores, so everybody thought the way to go was to expand into stores. I was kind of thinking that too. So I sold off my mail order business at the time, because in order to give good, decent service [by mail], you just couldn’t make any money. It was just really hard to make money.
So after 12 years of just having stores, I saw that the internet had really terrific potential. And after 12 years, my non-competition clause with the person who bought our mail order had expired - I would have gotten back into mail order a year or two earlier except for that agreement. But I got back in just at a really good time. We had hired a company to design our website, but after paying that company $200,000.00, they didn’t produce anything that was usable. They weren’t crooks, but they were just not as good as they thought they were.
So at that point, my son, who had just started getting ready to head off to MIT, said, “Dad, can I try my hand at designing the website?” And I said, “Sure, go ahead.” It wasn’t going to cost me anything. So he started working on it, and he’s still working on it. I’d ask my wife, “When does Conan get out of chemistry? I need him to fix a bug in the new software.” Anyway, those days are long passed. We now have a full team of programmers working on our site. But the more you work with computer stuff, the more doors open, and the busier you get.
How did online sales initially compare to the sales at your physical locations?
It was a gradual bumping-up kind of thing. But it was really clear at some point that we just saw the real future for us [was online]. I mean, comic book stores absolutely do have their place, but it’s not really possible to have a very successful chain of comic book stores and survive. There’s never been a big one developed. Comic book stores are almost like the corner bar, where the proprietor owns the business, he cares about his customers. Anyway, the hassles involved in trying to do a full-scale chain just didn’t work that well for us. But if it’s one guy with one or two stores - like, for example, we sold off our stores to employees who were sometimes the managers, and all those stores are still open and doing very well.
So your sense is that the way for comics retail to operate at scale is really online, and that if you have a physical location, it needs to be local?
Yeah. In other words, what happens is, some comic fan opens a store, and he does really well. But the secret of his success is him. I was thinking of Chris Simons’ comic store up in Washington state, I Like Comics [in Vancouver, Washington]. I was in his store, buying comics from him, going through part of his inventory. And I was sitting there listening to people come through, and he would greet them when they would come in; they would all be happy, laughing. I mean, you could tell that coming to his store was something they thoroughly enjoyed. There was just a fantastic ambiance in that store. And the successful stores have that, you know?
So what’s selling well for you now compared to when you started in the online space? Has the market for what’s selling changed, or is it largely the same sort of thing?
It’s largely the same stuff. In terms of the internet, superheroes still sell really well. Some of the smaller publishers do a good job of covering the different genres. Our focus is mainly on comics, but we’re expanding into what I call vintage paper: pulp magazines, and Big Little Books - anything that’s likely to be of interest to collectors in general.
But at this point are back issues still the bulk of where your profits are coming from? Do you get a fair share of online customers for new issues, or is it largely people looking to fill out their collections?
[Largely] back issue, [but] we’re probably among the five or six largest new comic buyers in the country. Our business really exploded during COVID when all the stores were closed. So that business has dropped off some when the stores were able to reopen, which is a good thing.
But for the people who are still buying new books from you, what do you find is the profile of that kind of customer? Where are they located, and do you have a sense of why they’re buying from you instead of from a local store?
Well, some people buy from us because we give a pretty good discount. You know, on the internet you have to discount. I do not like discounting: I can remember the old discount wars that hurt everybody, because idiots did that kind of stuff. But if you have a really good comic book store, if you have the right ambiance and people like your store, and you’re able to give them a little bit of a deal on comics, they’re going to shop in your comic store. But there are tons of people out there that don’t have a comic book store, or that are dealing with a store that’s pretty inferior, who prefer to deal with a more reliable [shop], so they find the internet. We’re not the only internet new comic supplier, but there’s just not that many people offering new comics on the internet. So the two or three big guys like us, we have very little competition for the internet business.
To the extent that you’re able to offer that kind of discount, as a former shop owner yourself, do you have any qualms about offering something that in a way undercuts local stores?
What can they not offer?
Well, if you’re small–say, if you only have one location–you may not be able to offer the same kind of discount that you do.
Yeah, that’s a factor. But that’s a factor of life for any kind of business retail. It’s kind of competition of the fittest. Whatever the market is.
So to your mind, is the comics market going to naturally move toward shops that are operating at scale the way yours is?
No, I think things have settled out pretty good. Good comic stores are not going to have any trouble competing with us, and we’re not going to have any trouble competing with the bad comic stores. You could find any number of comic stores around the country that are really successful and doing well.
One question I wonder about with online retail is that with no newsstand market for comics anymore, there already aren’t all that many local shops for people to encounter in any individual town. How are new customers going to keep discovering comics if the major retailers are online like you are?
I mean, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about stuff I can’t do anything about. I’ve spent a whole lot of time writing articles over the years where I’ve said every industry shoots itself in the foot now and then, but we’re the only industry that uses a machine gun. One of the biggest mistakes we made [is that] I think we lost sight of the fact that you need to create ongoing new generations of readers. And the direct market ended up where everybody ended up, chasing the current reader as he grew older. My generation, we’re all dying off; I’m not going to be around a whole lot longer. And there needs to be new blood coming in: new readers, new retailers, and new publisher people.
So I think one of the biggest mistakes the direct market brought to comics [is that it] made them so insular that we forgot about the kids, you know? One of the popular lines was, “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore.” We got to the point where comics aren’t for kids anymore, period. And then the publishers have tried to come back from that and reach younger generations. Some of them have done a very fine job, but there’s a lot of damage to be corrected.
Going back to your shop, you talked about how you’re now starting to branch out into things like pulp books, but you really haven’t gone into the kind of paraphernalia that other shops have gone into: toys, board games, t-shirts, and that sort of thing. What’s made you want to retain more of a tight focus?
We did exactly what you’re talking about in the [physical] stores. I can remember, I was at San Diego Comic-Con and Gary Groth was in the audience, and I was on a panel talking about diversifying into different product lines. You know Gary Groth, right?
Well, at the Comics Journal, I’m working for Gary Groth.
What I’m saying is, you know Gary Groth. And Gary Groth is strong in his opinions. And he said, “Buddy, if you’re going to carry all that different stuff, why don’t you just carry automobile tires in your store?” I told him, “I would if they put Spider-Man on the side of them.” So the point I was trying to make is that my true love is comic books. I don’t care about Pokémon cards, I don’t care about Beanie Babies, I don’t care about a lot of that peripheral stuff. But in my stores, when it was hot, I would carry it if it made my store stronger, so I could be sure I stayed in business to take care of my comics. But they were always the front-and-center priority. Gary was too much of a purist, and the purist stores have never survived.
So why is your focus now entirely on comics if this was a successful strategy for you before?
The comic books don’t take up very much space at all. It’s more of a space question. We’ve got 80,000 square feet, and you have to have a lot of space just to have places to put all the cardboard for packing orders.
Over the past couple of years, starting in 2020, there have been some big changes in comics distribution. We’ve gone from a monopoly by Diamond to multiple different distributors working with different publishers. How has that been for you?
That’s not been a problem, but we had to do a certain amount of software reprogramming, because our software was compatible with what Diamond was doing. So we had to do some adjusting, but we’re pretty quick on our feet, so we had no problem there.
One thing we’ve heard recently are a number of retailers complaining about the deals they’ve been getting with Diamond, claiming that they’re overcharging compared to what’s actually being provided in terms of service. Have you been experiencing any of that?
I’m not aware of that on a day-to-day basis. You’d need to talk to my son and my wife, who are the accounting end of it. I’ve never been told we have a shipping problem. We watch that kind of thing really closely.
That raises a question I wanted to ask, which is: what’s your involvement with the shop since your health issues not too long ago?
My son is now the president of the company, and it’s still a family-run business. I’m back to working full-time. For me, it’s basically like seven days a week.
One thing that MyComicShop.com really hasn’t made a move into is manga, even though that’s an increasingly major part of the buying market overall. What’s made you not want to move more aggressively into selling that?
This is a case of “Buddy has not said he doesn’t want to do that.” Actually, tomorrow, when I get into the office, I’ll call a meeting. I’ll just say, “Is there a reason why we’re not carrying manga?” I have employees that are interested in that stuff. I don’t know anything about manga. To be honest with you, I’m not that interested in learning a lot about it. For me, carrying manga is like carrying Beanie Babies: it’s just bean counter stuff - what will make our company stronger in the long-run? I’ve got employees that are into manga, so that’s a question that I need to go ahead and ask. I have no objection to manga. You did me a favor.
Well, the last thing I want to ask you about, because I really feel I’m obliged to bring this up, is your politics. Because you’ve been outspoken in your support of a lot of conservative causes, and Donald Trump in particular when he was in office…
I knew you were going to ask that question.
Well, it’s interesting. I told my editors I wanted to ask you about it, and they pointed out that I haven’t asked the same question to left wing comic shop owners, which is true. And so I’m not asking just because you have conservative politics, but because I’m curious whether being so outspoken in support of them has affected your business at all - whether you’ve had pushback from customers because of it.
I have employees that are really liberal. One of my employees had a picture of Obama on his desk for eight years, and I didn’t say a thing about it. I believe in free speech at my company. I mean, we don’t stand around and talk politics one way or the other - that usually doesn’t happen in the business. But if I have an employee that has a liberal bumper sticker on their car, it’s their business. I’m a firm believer in people being able to say what they honestly believe and stand for.
But there’s no part of you that feels like you’re risking some business here by putting these very conservative opinions out there?
No, I thought there was some risk involved, but I basically told my employees, “My country’s more important to me than my business.” I think comic fans have a better moral core than whatever their political perspective is, and they’re much more tolerant. They were tolerant of me and my business. If anything, my business has just grown like crazy since that happened. I’m not saying we had any growth because of it, but we certainly haven’t had any shrinkage because of that.
Well, I don’t think we need to dwell on this more than we have.
I think we have ventilated this enough already. It was an interview about comics, the thing that I sure love.