Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics is the epitome of professional. How the co-owners treat the staff reflects in how the staff interacts with customers. That brand of professionalism may appear obvious, but often often does it translate in reality. In my conversations with Jay Berent one of the co-owners, over email, I was struck by two things: 1. how being a diversified business (the "coffee" part of Pulp 716 Comics & Coffee) has given them a clever way to pivot in the pandemic and 2. their commitment to brick & mortar retail sales. A strong social media presence is (almost) a must nowadays, sure, but Jay and his business partner have made a deliberate choice not to have an on-line presence otherwise. Customers go to Pulp 716 Comics & Coffee because they want to go someplace and be with other likeminded people. If small businesses like bookstores, record shops and comic book stores are going to survive, it will happen because people want to "go to there." -- Keith Silva
The Comics Journal: Tell us about Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics.
Jay Berent: Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics has two locations, one is in Lockport, New York, which is the home of the historical Erie Canal Locks that are right around the corner from our location. This was our first location, it’s about 2,000 sq ft and it is run by our brilliant management team of Hailee & Kali.
The North Tonawanda location is located in the Gateway Harbor, close to Niagara Falls. It is our flagship store, double the size of our first location, managed by Alissa, who brought years of retail management experience with her and helped shape what we are today.
With 15-20 employees the stores are efficiently staffed with people that love the industry. One of the first thing people notice is that almost all the staff are woman. That plays into the fact that almost 70% of our customer base, including subscriptions, are also woman. Every employee we hired was a customer first, so it goes without saying that they have a passion for the industry.
Our subscription customers and weekly comic customer bas is quite large, it’s not unusual to see a line wrapped around the corner before we open. That being said, our walk-ins customer base is extravagant; the coffee and bubble tea bar brings thousand of people in per week.
What’s up with the 716? And Pulp?
The 716 in our name is the area code for the Buffalo/Niagara region. It’s something that this area kind of takes pride in, you see 716 t-shirts, tattoos, and it’s referenced in a lot of local marketing and business names. If you’re out of town and see someone wearing a Sabres or Bills hat, you say you’re from the “716” or Buffalo and you basically become best friends with that person, high fives, hugs, whatever…it’s just something we do here. To be honest though, the 716 was an afterthought, we were filing our corporate papers and we were just going to be called Pulp, it dawned on us after we did an internet search that it just wasn’t unique enough if someone was looking for our shop, they could end up ordering orange juice. So, we added the 716.
The Pulp name comes from the literal meaning, pulp from wood. The area we are located in, actually the very spot our North Tonawanda location sits on (Gateway Harbor), was once the world’s largest lumber port. The whole region was peppered with pulp factories. Some of the most sought-after early American comics probably can trace their origin story to the exact spot people are shopping for new comics in our shop today.
How long have you been working in comics retail?
I have personally been in the comic business for a few decades, I come from a family of traveling magicians and most of my childhood was spent on the road, without any Switch games or cell phones, all I had was comics, I had quite a collection and I would sell the ones I didn’t want to kids while we touring the country. My father talked to me about setting up at conventions and shows while we were on the road, he helped me file the paperwork for my own company, and at the age of 11, I formed Niagara Collectables. That was the cornerstone of what would eventually become Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics.
How has Pulp 176 been operating during the pandemic?
Seeing that we are a café, we were considered essential during the shutdown. We remained open, for take-out only, for a bit. We had a team meeting with all the employees, asked them if they wanted to stay open, if they wanted to work, they said yes, so we did. We would have shut the door and turned off the lights if they didn’t feel safe. We follow all the rules set in the Executive order here in New York, we have masks that SCOUT COMICS provided for guests that need them. Our customers don’t seem to mind the new protocols.
What has it been like to operate a small business (in a niche market) in other words, how are YOU holding up?
Comic shops are niche for sure, but we are something different. Being a bubble tea and coffee shop, we have thousands of guests per week that have never stepped foot in a comic shop before. This is all new to them. Coffee is recession proof, that fact has been established, but we found out it is pandemic proof too. People came in for their drinks and a lot of them were looking for something to read because they were out of work or school for a while. Our sales actually increased during the shutdown.
Social media helped us along the way. We would post a drink and within 20 minutes we would have a plethora of take out orders. We saw how successful the posts were with drinks, so we decided to try various comics. We learned rather quickly that if we do a post about a book, we better have at least 100 in stock or we could run the risk of selling out immediately. Planning was the name of the game from then on out, we would preplan our promos, make sure we had them in stock, then we would post about a book with the confidence that it would do well.
Here’s the deal, our secret is that we decided one day we were tired of driving everywhere to get the things we liked. We put all our favorite things in one shop; coffee, comics, bubble tea, desserts, candy, Gundams, all under one roof, with the idea that we wouldn’t have to go anywhere else. It turns out, a lot of people liked that idea and we were slammed from day one.
How’s it going with the new comic distributors?
The new distribution setup isn’t really any different for us. There was an issue at first when the final order cutoff switched to Sunday, because we do our orders on Monday. We rolled with it and got creative. There was a down week without a final order cutoff, supposedly a skip week, so used that opportunity to give our customers the chance to order the future week’s DC book during that skip week, and we kept that going. We are always a week ahead with our DC orders now, our customers are accustomed to the future orders and we do all our final order cutoff on Monday, just like before, we are just ahead of the game. We try not to stress about much here and take things as they come. There were days when we first opened when we would be shorted books and really get upset, like we were letting our customers down, but we came to terms with the fact that some things are out of our control and getting stressed isn’t going to magically make the books appear.
What’s it like working with Diamond now?
Our orders have increased, Diamond is doing a great job of working as hard as they can with the limited resources available. There are so many cogs in their machine, it’s a miracle that they pulled it off and we are getting our books in a timely manner. Diamond has had some great incentives for shops, and we took advantage of them and got creative with our sales. If we got a discount on a trade, we would order entire cases and them pass that discount on to the customers; one example of this was our very popular 716 sale, where all our Marvel trades were on sale for $7.16 each. People were bringing their own boxes, we sold thousands of trades that way, and even discounted we were extremely pleased with the margins.
Distribution shake-ups, a pandemic … what’s the future of the ‘local comic shop’ and how does Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics fit in?
We are not like most shops; we use that to our advantage. Our future looks to be rock solid. We plan our promos months in advance sometimes, we reach out to the creators of books that we will be doing a promo for and we tell them that we are ordering heavy on their book because we saw a preview and it will be a good fit for our customers. We sometimes do drinks inspired by the books, special combo deals, cosplay photo shoots, and whatever else our managers come up with. Sometimes, the creators send us promo items like signed books or something we can add into the event. Back to the customers that have never been in a comic shop before, those are the customers that follow us on social media, so when we do a promo, they are the ones we are pitching. Everyone knows who Iron Man is, but to be honest, none of our café customers wanted to pick up the book because it’s intimidating … [the old story] where to start?
Now, when we pitch a book like Something is Killing the Children, and they can get in from day one, we found that they are eager to give it a try. We estimate that hundreds of people that bought Something is Killing the Children #1 were first time comic readers. The best part is, a lot of those first timers cam back for issue #2, then we suggested a subscription, then they started getting other books and adding more subscriptions, and before you know it, they have a dozen books on their list, a majority of them are the ones we recommended on social media. Then we take it a step further, we invite them to a private Facebook group Pulp 716 has, only for subscription customers. We have giveaways, contests, post all the final orders there, and we direct market them the books we think they will enjoy. On top of that, we hit them with a 1-2 punch, we print up a newsletter of sorts, a top 20 list of upcoming books, and we put it in each of their subscription folders. Then when they pick up their books, our staff sees what is in their pull box, and they do a personal pitch to them right at the register using that checklist, for instance if they have Something is Killing the Children, we pitched them GRIT from Scout Comics, and it worked, GRIT #1 outsold both Spider-Man and Doomsday Clock. So there really isn’t a secret to our success, it really is just good old-fashioned salesmanship. People won’t buy books that they don’t know about. The creators and publishers do their jobs, all they must do is get the books to our door. After that, it’s our job to sell it. I think a lot of shops have lost that personal touch, they think they can just put books on the shelf and hope for the best. If this industry is going to grow, we as shop owners have the responsibility to nurture it. I can only speak for our shops, but when I speak, I hope other shops are listening; this business model works, and they industry is changing.
Looks like you rock some cool merch on your website. How can readers support Pulp 716 Coffee & Comics?
Our mission statement is clear, we are a comic book shop, not a click and ship shop. We know we could make a lot of money doing online sales with comics but that is not why we opened our doors. We are a destination shop, and we won’t do anything to jeopardize the attention the customers get from walking in the door.
There was only one item that was a hang up with that mission statement. The one thing we noticed right away was that people love our shirts, the problem we had was ordering them. If we ordered 50 of each size, it was never enough, and nobody likes finding a shirt they love and not finding their size. We solved that problem with our online ordering, now for the same price the customer can get the shirt they want, in the color they want, shipped right to their door. That is one way that someone from afar can support our shops, by checking out our shirts online. Our favorite story was someone who had a negative review of the shop and said “They are a bunch of angry lesbians and they all dress like boys”. We thought it was great, so we contacted our main t-shirt artist, Carmen Pizarro, and she whipped up two designs. It’s our pest selling shirt…so thank you random mean guy.