When Jeff Alford started Wig Shop shortly after to moving to Denver, CO, it was as something less than a full-time gig. Operated by way of a stack of books in his garage, a good supply of postage materials, and a healthy radar for up-and-coming artists in the underground cartooning scene, Wig Shop has nevertheless staked out an influential place for a readership that’s been growing substantially over the past several years.
Jeff took the time to speak with us about what it’s like to make up the rules for web-based indie retail as you go along, and what keeps him going as a comic collector. You can check out the Wig Shop catalog at their website, or keep up to date with Jeff’s very active presence on Instagram.
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The Comics Journal: So, how long have you been in the business of comics retail?
Jeff Alford: I would say two to four-ish years? I used to live in Brooklyn, and about five years ago my wife and I moved out to Denver. I was able to keep my job when I moved, and I work on New York time remotely, so I basically found I had, like, two hours a day that my wife was in her office that I could channel into some project or something. About a year after we moved I started playing with the idea of starting a shop like Wig Shop, and I think you say for the first two years or so it was me masquerading as a business. [Laughs] But basically, about two years of me doing this comic shop for real.
What motivated you to go into comics, specifically, as a part-time business on the side?
It’s always something I’ve been kind of interested in. I’m a collector of stuff. I’m a big literary guy with a library full of, like, first editions and stuff. And comics have all of that kind of collectability to it and everything. And I was the guy who, when people would come over, I would go “you want to see what I just found on eBay?” and run them over to my shelves. So I loved the idea of moving to a place where I didn’t know anybody and channeling that energy into a place like Wig Shop.
So the happenstance of going from a place that’s connected and has everything like New York, and going to somewhere new where I didn’t have any touchstones - I had to just make them myself. Wig Shop is my dream bookstore as a bookstore nerd. That’s the kind of vibe I wanted to do, is have a place that had interesting things that people could get excited about and show their friends, and feel like they snagged something special. So it all kind of comes from that hobbyist slant where I like collecting things, and I know other people do.
What would you say has changed for your business over the four years you’ve been in this?
Well, it’s been momentum - it’s kind of become a real thing. It began as a hobby, and it still is: I’m still able to bring kind of a hobby energy to it, where I enjoy the time I put into the shop. But it’s gained momentum enough that I need to see it for what it is, and say, “oh, wow, I did kind of pull this off, and people like the shop, and they come back for stuff.” So over the past two to four years, the momentum has turned it from something that was a curiosity, and is now a responsibility, I guess. I have to keep it going.
How do you decide what and who to stock in the shop? Are you just following your own instincts as a collector?
Yeah, kind of. Pretty much 90% of the stuff I buy, I buy wholesale - so, it’s like, “I’m going to buy 50 copies of that.” And I keep it either in a big pile behind me at my work desk, or in my laundry room. And the quick answer is, do I want to take 50 copies of that into my home, and if I can’t sell them, just have them? Is it something that I just feel good about?
It’s weirdly personal, you know? It’s like the shop in some ways has to align with my own tastes. The tricky thing is, when you’re selling online, you have to really bat for your stuff on, like, Instagram: you have to say, “I just got this amazing anthology of American cartoonists, and it’s beautifully produced, and you would really like it,” and you have to mean it. That’s the kind of risk of buying inventory outright and then taking on the responsibility of: yeah, now you have to move it. Those two elements make it so you’re only buying stuff that you feel passionate about. I’ve had some people reach out and ask for recommendations, and I’m like “I love everything that’s in there,” you know?
What’s your process for discovering new artists, new cartoonists, that you want to have in the shop? How do you keep your ear to the ground?
It’s a lot of Instagram stuff. What’s cool is that a lot of cartoonists are in their own networks as creators, and they’ll post things that they’re excited about. It’s this weird chain of recommendations where one person puts something in their [Instagram] story that they think is cool, and I’ll keep an eye on them. And then suddenly they’re contributing to an anthology that someone I know is also in. It’s all a network. It’s all pretty connected in the sense that these little, individual indie printers and publishers all kind of share the same audience and creators and stuff. So it’s a matter of expanding that network, I guess. And it’s fun. I hope I’m doing a good job with it. But I like this idea that it’s a scene and it’s a community.
Are there any artists right now who are particularly exciting to you - or who are selling particularly well, either one?
The start of the sort of [Josh] Pettinger, Nate Garcia gang - they kind of started at the beginning of Wig Shop. Nate and Jeff reached out me, and it’s been a blast watching those guys rise up to where they are now. I get into printers and publishers that I’m really excited about, and right now Parsifal Press is really interesting. I just did a thing with guy called Kevin Reilly, which was a feature that included a lot of his original art, and he’s done stuff with Parsifal and Secret Room, and they’re both putting out some interesting things. I just got copies of an anthology called CRAM, that’s just a stunner. And I’m waiting on copies of Zine Panique, which is that French anthology - that new issue looks incredible. That’s a really a cool thing to watch because if you look at his momentum, and the quality of the issues as they keep going… this new one is big and heavy, and it’s cool.
It’s got to be rewarding to champion some of these people early, and watch them sort of gradually make the big time.
Oh, it’s awesome. The thing is that all of those guys work so hard, and they deserve it. Like, I’ve sold a bunch of Goiter, but Josh [Pettinger] is doing an incredible job with all of them. It’s amazing just to be there at the bottom level when it started, but I’m just excited to see when it has a major book deal with Fanta[graphics] down the line or something.
You’ve obviously been operating this as a web store, but do you have any temptation at all to have an actual, physical space at any point?
It’s super tempting. So, so, so tempting. I love that lifestyle. Before my current job, I did four years at an art bookstore - I worked for Taschen, the art publisher in New York City. And it’s just fun, because you get to hand-sell stuff to people who are excited about art books, and I think it would be fun to do that out here in Denver. But I wonder if I’m kind of caught in a moment where that dream is kind of not credible anymore, and that the web store is more of the way to go. Because I have no overhead, I pack stuff in my basement, on nice days I’m able to walk to the post office - I love the idea of a physical store, but the reality of it might kind of take away the magic of the dream.
I’ve done a couple of events around Denver. We had a zine press/small press festival [Denver Small Press Fest, which took place this past March] and I was able to table at that, so that’s kind of fun.
Would you say that your customer base is pretty regionally dispersed, or mostly Denver people?
It’s not a lot of Denver people. It’s regionally dispersed, completely. And it’s a blast to send stuff to, like, the middle of Kansas, or places where you wouldn’t imagine an alternative comics fan to be living. I’m sending to stuff to Alaska, you know? It’s cool, and you realize the people who are into this stuff are everywhere now. My goals for the next year or so are to do more Denver-specific local stuff. I’m in the process of forming a little thing called the Colorado Comics Collective, which is sort of in the works with a local cartoonist named Karl Christian Krumpholz, who’s an amazing gem of Denver comics. So we’re going to start, hopefully, doing a series of events where we’re kind of like the backbone of vendors at these things, and create a more local, vibrant scene, eventually leading up to a big festival.
Very cool. So, what’s your weekly routine like, and has it gotten easier or harder since you started it up?
It’s gotten harder because it’s more busy. Basically, I work 8:00-4:00, and at 4:00 I’ll post some new thing on Instagram. And I’ll pack up new orders and take them to the post office maybe twice a week, and then, in my phone-squirrely idleness, just search the app for some interesting things - I’ve got a list on my computer of artists and publishers I want to get involved with, money permitting. I feel like I’m at a point where if I’m going to dip into a relationship with a new publisher, I want to make a big order of four or five titles and show people what they’re all about.
If there’s a hot book - like, when that new Zine Panique comes in, I imagine those will sell out in a weekend, and then I’ll be stuck packing stuff up all night. So as my audience has grown, the possibility of a big wave of orders coming through is higher. It’s kind of intense.
Did the COVID shutdown change anything about the business for you?
I feel like COVID created this need for connectivity online, and that’s the core of the shop: you can find someone who's into the weird stuff you’re also into. So I think COVID kind of created the boom in this underground comics wave that we’re in right now. People have been a little more social, in terms of reaching out and connecting with people. I mean, I’ve never met any of these guys in person, and I think going through these two years of COVID, we’ve built a relationship with each other.
What do you wish more small press comics publishers knew about comics retail?
That’s a tough one, because that suggests there’s something that they’re missing. And more often than not, the comics publishers and creators that I reach out to are just so excited to connect. I love it when I find someone and ask, “what’s your wholesale price?” and they’re like, “oh, I’ve never done that, what’s wholesale?” I don’t wish that everybody was suddenly well-oiled in the wholesale experience.
But, I don’t know, I wish that everybody knew that these are all just individual people throwing themselves out there in a medium where the effort-to-monetary-results ratio is so skewed. Everybody should remember that these are people who do it because they love it. In my case, the fact that it’s just me is something that - I don’t wish everybody knew it, but I think that they would be, like, “that’s interesting, this shop is just a guy in his basement.”
Does that go for customers too? Is there anything you wish they in particular knew about retail or the shop?
I think any brick and mortar store has their stories of terrible customers who don’t get it that people are just clocking in and doing their work. But there’s so much kindness in this little community. I don’t think there’s any moment where people have been out of line with expectations and stuff. I tend to psych myself out and think that people are going to think I charged them $5.00 for shipping but it says $3.50 on the envelope. That’s where my head goes, but that’s never happened - maybe one guy who had an overseas order once was kind of snotty about stuff. But, no, I think people are really kind and supportive in this community.
So, what gets you most annoyed about comics right now?
I don’t really get annoyed at stuff, but one of the more hiccup-y things I’ve run into is that people reach out to see if I’m interested in stocking their stuff, and I can see that they’re going to make no effort in contributing to the machinations of the community; they think that they’ll just give me 20 copies and I’ll sell it. Occasionally when those requests pop up I’ll have to shut them down. Stylistically, there are a lot of visual tropes in comics that I’m just not very excited about anymore. But that’s, like, personal stuff. It’s just taste. The occasional moment when people will walk into a Quimby’s or something and be, like, “here’s ten zines,” and then a month later go, “did you sell them?” And it’s like, “did you tell any of your friends that they were here?” There’s a tiny little degree of assuming that it works without the effort, you know?
And what has you most excited about comics, then?
Oh, god, I can see everybody in the Wig Shop inventory community getting some incredible book deals down the line. The amount of talent that these people have is just insane. And the fact that some of the bigger publishers like Fantagraphics are noticing those people is just super cool. And I think if I were a cartoonist, I would be really hopeful that it could actually work, and you could get a book out with a real, big-deal publisher. We’re in a weird hot spot where I think the publishers are aware of what’s going on, and they’re watching from the sidelines. I’ve got no artistic talent; I just like the books, and it’s super cool to see that these people can be successful in earnest.
Anything big or exciting coming up that you want to tell people about?
The little Comics Collective thing I was talking about, we’re having our first thing on December 18 – just
a little event we’re doing here in Denver. So hopefully that will go well.
Readers in the Denver area can drop by the Colorado Comics Collective Christmas Cavalcade ]on
December 18 from 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 S Broadway, Denver, CO. Guests
will include Strangers Publishing, Karl Christian Krumpholz, Wig Shop, Dustin Holland, Sweet
Malarkey, Tinto Press, Denver Zine Library, Dylan Edwards, Cori Redford, and B. Erin Cole. More
information is available at CoCoCo’s website.