When Geoffrey’s Comics announced on their Facebook page toward the end of October that they would be shuttering both of their shops at the end of this year, it marked the closing of a historical chapter in Los Angeles comics retail twice over. Since 2015, the owner, Geoffrey Patterson II, had been the steward of a combined union of two of the oldest surviving dedicated comic shops in the LA region. Geoffrey’s, the younger of the two stores, had been founded by Patterson’s father in 1979, initially as a gathering place for the troubled kids he encountered as a social worker. The young Patterson grew up in and around the store, and inherited it as a somewhat weighty (if enjoyable) legacy.
He added to it with the addition of an even more venerable establishment, Santa Monica’s Hi De Ho Comics, which had opened two years earlier, and had long since become an off-kilter staple at the nexus of Los Angeles beach culture and comics fandom. In recent decades, the two stores had been gradually overshadowed by more prominent and attention-grabbing L.A. chains (the well-established Golden Apple and the more recent Earth-2 chief among them), and there were signs of trouble: facing mounting real estate prices, Hi De Ho had given up its prime spot in Santa Monica for a more out of the way location with far less floor space. But still, the two institutions soldiered on.
Then again, what’s that saying about old soldiers? In his statement, Patterson mentioned ongoing health difficulties that had contributed to the double closure, but conceded that most of the causes came down to business decisions and the economic climate: a failure of the comic marketplace to return to pre-COVID levels, the rising rents of Los Angeles commercial spaces, and the shop’s optimistic decision not to downscale operations in light of those factors, resulted in mounting debts that ultimately proved too heavy to bear. It’s a bit of bathos to close out a storied history, but one still worthy of note. As Geoffrey’s and Hi De Ho prepare to shut their doors, I spoke with Patterson about the road that led him here, the weight of a long comics legacy, and what it all might mean for the future of comics retail.
The Comics Journal: Let’s start with the basics. What happened, and how did you get to this place?
Geoffrey Patterson II: I mean, COVID hit everybody pretty hard, the business has not returned to what it was pre-COVID. The main thing, I think, is that everybody kind of learned to buy whatever they wanted on Amazon. We all stayed inside for a year, and found that it was much easier to just order that stuff and have it delivered to our front door.
So when you talk about the impact of COVID, you’re talking about customer habits rather than any particular debts you sustained?
Correct. Because we built those debts up because we kept trying to operate like we would be operating the way it was before COVID.
So compare the two periods for me. What was business like for you before COVID versus after it?
Just as an example, people walking in just wanting to try out comic books - the new comic business has become almost only pull customers.
If you had to ballpark a number of people who used to come in each Wednesday compared to today…
Like a hundred people, if not more. And people would hang out and talk. And now it's kind of like, I'm just going to come in, buy my stuff, and go home. It’s less than half, it's sometimes less than a third, or even less than a quarter of what it used to be, in terms of just talking about Wednesday.
And this is true of both your stores?
Correct. It just lost substantial foot traffic in both locations.
So what do you think is going on here? I mean, you talked about Amazon, but obviously people aren't buying their new comics on Wednesday from Amazon. So what are you hearing from people?
I mean, the pull numbers are dropping in terms of how many books people buy. Even the pull customers that we retain have a smaller list than they used to. We used to have people who would come in and their pull list was every DC book or every Marvel book. And there's nobody like that anymore.
Are they telling you why? Are they saying it’s a financial decision, or a question of just not being interested?
I think it's a little bit of both. It's definitely a financial decision, and it's also a content decision. I think we can see that both Marvel and DC have lost a lot of big names to the indie world, and in the indie world, there's a lot more, like, direct sales. The way I was describing it to a friend was that the business has gotten substantially wider, but more shallow. There's no tentpole book that sells 100 copies anymore. I've been doing this long enough that I remember the days we would sell 100 copies of X-Men, and now it's like 25 or 30 copies of X-Men, and the new customer who wants to come in and try comics is so much rarer than it was before.
I think that continuity has gotten so heavy that it's really hard for newcomers to come in and say “Hey, I've got five bucks. I want to try a new comic book.” Every single book is printing for the graphic novel. Like, as an example, I was thinking of Justice League vs. Godzilla vs. Kong [launched last month], and I was thinking how in years prior that would've been, like, a big, squarebound, one-volume book, but now it's seven issues. So the customer who wants to read that story is just going to wait for the trade paperback.
And you can’t sell the trade paperback?
We can, but there's Amazon, there's big comic retailers that are online selling everything at a discount. It’s hard to charge full price and compete.
The stuff that you’re describing-- I wonder if you felt this developing before COVID, or if it’s really been something that emerged since you came back from the shutdown?
I think they have been doing it for a while, but I think it just got more pronounced, and just easier for people to order their things online. Everybody is used to ordering things online now. And I mean, there's places that you can order your new comics and get them shipped to your house, and you're paying less than cover price.
And it sounds from what you’re saying that you hadn’t really seen this coming, and expected things to go back to normal after the shutdown?
Yeah, as I said in my statement, I think I was far too optimistic, and I was just kind of expecting a return to normalcy. And that's just not what happened. We just kept digging holes, and I was like, “Okay, we've just got to last these next couple of months, and then when things pick up again it will be all right.” And the same optimism and love of comic books that made me run a store for so long kind of made me ignore all of these signs from the economists and people smarter than me.
You’re a second-generation owner of Geoffrey’s. What year did you take over from your dad?
I was running the store for my dad starting in 2002, and then we bought Hi De Ho almost 10 years ago. There were a lot of hiccups and stuff like that, but it was working out, and just kind of kept sliding downwards a little bit. But we had a really nice location [at Hi De Ho] in a really prime spot for tourists, and so we would see a lot of new faces every day. And then COVID came, and as you can imagine, COVID just destroyed the tourist business especially. And then even when we reopened, the tourism dollars were not there, and we had to move, because there was no way we could pay the tourism real estate cost.
So at what point did you realize this closure was going to have to happen?
Just a short while ago, honestly. The landlords finally came after us in court, and they are demanding an amount of money I have no capacity to pay.
You also talked in your statement about the impact of going from Diamond as a single distributor to multiple distributors. Tell me about how that affected the business you were doing.
It added a lot of work that was never there before. It added a lot of complexity, and you had to choose between delivery services. You had to deal with a bunch of different companies, whereas for practically 30 years there was no competition. DC went to distributing through our online competitor, with what they call Lunar, but is, as you know, owned by Discount Comic Book Service. And it certainly wasn't the biggest thing, but them changing it to Tuesday for [new] DC books kind of undermined the whole Wednesday being the big new comic book day, and shrank the business a little bit more.
There was no way you could see to keep one location open but not the other?
The debt they were coming after us for was just backbreaking.
In your statement, you also talk about a few things you’re planning to continue. You say you’re going to keep doing a pull service with “pull parties.” Do you have a sense of what you mean by that, and how it might work?
Well, we hope so, because we looked at what parts of the business were profitable, and it's the pull customers, because you've got guaranteed sales. And for us, vintage books, like buying old collections, has always been a real part of what we do, and what we do well. So I want to keep doing those two things, and see how it works.
So we're going to, like, deliver comics to your door; drop them off for you. I'll be driving around on Wednesdays, and then we're going to have parties at some other local businesses to see if we can kind of work together and have something that's really fun, and kind of brings back that camaraderie; that excitement to go to the comic book store and talk about comic books with other people. I think that's something that kind of shrank, at least during COVID. And I want to try to bring that back.
So if I heard you right, you’re saying that you’ll be literally making deliveries to people to give them their weekly pulls?
You said last year in an interview with ICv2 that you wanted to lean into vintage issues as your specialty, but it sounds like a lot of your business had come to depend on new comic Wednesdays. Do you feel like something went wrong along the way?
No, I think that it was a two-headed giant. We have done well with vintage books, but it's the overhead that kind of causes the problem. And so without that, we can profit off of those vintage collections that we're buying even more. And, I mean, it's a very different thing, because you can't just call somebody up and say, “Oh, I want to buy a collection.” It's not like your new books, [which] are a steady revenue stream.
What does this mean for the staff that's been working at the stores? Have they all been let go when the shops close?
We have about five to six employees at each location. We brought them in and told them, “We are just not able to do this anymore, but we'd like you guys to stick around while we close down, because you're very much part of our family.” We kept our employees all through COVID, and we made sure they kept getting paid and that they were doing okay. And we want to continue to keep taking care of them, because they really are just part of our family. We love our employees very much.
So it’s just going to be you doing these deliveries and pull parties. Do you feel comfortable with that in light of the health concerns you mentioned?
I mean, part of it is that you can't say no. It's not like someone's going to send me money for being sick. So I have to find a way to work through it. And I think doing this stuff, and sticking with the things that are profitable, and sticking with the things that are also really fun-- like, selling new comics is fun to me. I love talking about comic books with the customers. Every time anybody comes in and picks up their books, I'm like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got to talk about this one.” I genuinely love comic books.
Do you think what you’re going through now is unique to you, or are you hearing similar rumblings from other shops in the area?
I've heard from the shops that I have talked to that things are shrinking, that they have to go online to do a lot of what they used to do in person. I don't think I've heard anybody say, “Oh man, I'm doing great.” Like, even Joe Field from Flying Colors, one of the first comic book stores in California, just recently did an update saying that he doesn't know what's going to happen when their lease is up. And, like, he's the guy who helped create Free Comic Book Day. And so, like I said, nobody is out there saying, “Oh man, I'm doing great. Everything's been fantastic since COVID.”
So what do you think this means for the comic book industry? Does it feel like things are reaching a breaking point?
I really think they are. I don't think it's going to be just us. I think we're going to be hearing about more and more stores contracting or closing altogether. It's just not what it was. And I mean, the numbers reflect that. We can see the numbers of comic book sales that are increasing are not in American monthly comics: like, graphic novel sales are increasing, but monthly sales are decreasing. Manga sales are increasing, but American comic books are stagnant. There are a lot of numbers to look at, and the numbers aren't necessarily looking very good.
The pool is getting larger and shallower, and you have to carry more titles and sell them less. And that leaves very little room for mistakes, right? Like when we were selling 100 copies of X-Men, having 10 extras - okay, we didn't make as much as we could, but we still were profitable. Whereas now, if you have 10 copies left over, you lost money on that book. And just it seems to keep getting flatter and flatter. And that is just hard. Unless you are perfect - and without returnability, no one is perfect. The thought experiment that I often have been using with this is, if someone comes in with $5 and says, “Hey, I want to try out comics,” I don't know-- I don't know what to sell them.
So, all told, do you blame the publishers, do you blame the industry, or do you blame yourself?
I mean, like I said, I don't think it was any one thing. But the economy I think is actually the biggest thing. I am not interested in throwing Marvel and DC under the bus, but I think they could have worked better and more with retailers. I don't think they have a strong connection to us right now. There used to be yearly retailer summits, but I just went to the Diamond Retailer Summit and Marvel and DC weren't there. They used to have people who worked with comic shops have positions in their businesses, and they don't have that anymore. And I think that's to the detriment of the business as a whole.
Both of the shops that you’re closing have long histories. What does it mean to you to be shutting down operations with such long standing in comics history?
It really breaks my heart. But I've injected every dollar I had into these businesses, and it's just not working.
Have you set a date for the doors to close yet?
We're going to make it through the holidays, and give people great place to shop for their Christmas lists, and have a party some time in the last week of the year. [December] 28th is what we were looking at as a party day, to kind of say goodbye, and have people share their stories, and then be closed by the 31st.
What do you think you’re going to miss most?
It's definitely the customers: that camaraderie with the customers has been such a fun part of the business for me. And just that happiness, that joy, that you get when you talk with people who like the same thing you like - it's just so much fun. And comic book stories themselves, and science fiction in general, I'll always say are important as a genre because they're typically very uplifting and optimistic. And I think that's important too. My dad, who opened the store, always said we could sell beer and probably make a lot more money. But selling comic books was selling joy, and sharing that joy with others.