Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Chicago Comic Vault Stores Closing


Only a few short months after the opening of their downtown location in Block 37, both Chicago Comic Vault locations will be closing. The first to close will be the downtown store, then the uptown location. Effective this week, both have stopped ordering new merchandise. Until closing, everything in both stores is 35% off, with some items (like toys) at 50% off.

My time with Comic Vault as an employee and customer has been short-lived. Owner Matt Sardo has stated personal reasons for the closing of the stores, and though I may be privy to more details than the average customer, I won’t go into details as those are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Owning and maintaining a comic book store, or any small business, is a very time consuming stressful endeavor, and I don't think less of anyone who decides it is not for them. At the end of the day, business is not an altruistic endeavor; you can't be in it for anyone but yourself. But I do hope for the comic book community's sake that Matt will find his way back to the industry in another facet. With a dedication to bringing more exposure to local artists and writers, I would not be surprised to see Matt's name show up in some promotional aspect a few years from now. Creators can always appreciate incites of a person like Matt who know firsthand how the direct market works.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this whole ordeal is that this will displace many loyal readers and the short notice will have some deciding to quit reading comic books altogether. Since I personally broke the sad news to several regular customers and club members that had yet to hear about the closing, I can attest to this reality. For some readers (let's face it most), convenience and price are the deciding factors for continuing to read, not enjoyment. This is especially true for those fans that can't pick up Fear Itself without compulsively buying every tie in. Several club members even said they continued reading as long as they did because they liked the store so much (the 35% off discount program helped as well). But when one is faced with dwindling disposable income or increasing domestic responsibilities, having your local comic shop close can be an excuse to leave comics altogether. These were weekly club members saying, "You know, I was thinking about quitting reading anyway." This is a troubling reaction from customers that are the backbone of the industry.

Now we're going to take a trip to "Rantville" where I express a few thoughts on the direct market in general. In order for the industry to thrive once again, readership for comics needs to increase. Despite an unprecedented number of television, film, cartoon, amusement park, Slurpee tie ins, demand has not increased with awareness. Retailers are a little busy these days with pressing questions such as "How will a complete line relaunch from DC effect my business?" "How does one order appropriately when all new titles from DC will be available digitally the same day?" "How do I get more readers off the street to buy books?" is so daunting a task it is not frequently considered when one is trying to keep the customers they already have. Even large scale events designed specifically for this task, such as Free Comic Book Day, is still by and large enjoyed by people who already read comic books to begin with. DC's recent announcement to relaunch their entire line of books is a huge change, one that could possibly bring in more readers to DC. But it sounds like the same game of musical chairs that comic book companies have been playing for years. DC is more likely to gain readers from Marvel than off the street. It's the same pie being cut up differently but unfortunately, we are running out of pie, folks. For variety's sake, in readers and material alike, we need more pie, a larger audience to sustain diversity. I truly believe when it comes to comics there is something out there for everyone, so why isn't every demographic being targeted by publishers? When this big announcement from DC was made exclusively through USA Today, my first thought was "Who on earth are they targeting?" When they speak of this relaunch as a way to entice a younger audience, did they consider the irony that they were making this announcement through a dying medium? If they said they were going to give away a copy of Justice League #1 to every person who bought a ticket to the new Green Lantern film, I might think differently. Instead, this announcement has a lot of regular readers saying "You know, I was thinking about quitting reading anyway."

I don't want to be the last generation of regular comic book readers. As much as I love the relationships that result from their unique retail experience, comics need to come out of the local comic shop. So many individuals won't even consider stepping foot in the doors of a comic shop, or simply don't know about them. Maybe they would if they could get their hands on some books and fall in love with the medium. If a comic shop is further away from your home than the local grocery store, bank, or 7-11, for many that would be too far out of their way. Digital may be a start, but at the moment I can count on one hand how many people I know with iPads, and the number gets even smaller of the ones that are willing to put pay content on those devices. Getting books into more schools would raise awareness, putting comics in book mobiles. Seeing trade paperbacks and comics in more of the big box stores. Having more than one non-monopoly distributor would help heaps in this endeavor. Comic books used to be ubiquitous with disposable entertainment but they have become this highly specialized item. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked "Are these collectible" or "Will these be worth money someday" by a curious shopper. These people usually ask if their soggy comics from the 80's are worth selling, and often seem confused when you tell them most people read comics to enjoy them, not to collect them. In the eyes of the Average Joe consumer, comic books need to be re-branded. Unspecialized. Accessible. I am not even talking content (that’s a post all its own) comics are not physically accessible. DC and Marvel could do more about this as well. Why not make deals with big box retailers that carry the toys, giving them more incentives to carry the actual books (like making them returnable if they don't sell)? Or how about local shops working directly with local schools to provide access to course reading material, educating the parents on the value of comic books as learning tools? College level courses are not the only classrooms that should have comics in them! Nothing is more disheartening than seeing a parent drag their kid out of a comic book store empty handed. A child's enthusiasm for books, any books, is a wasted opportunity. Parents easily forget that the comics their children are enthusiastically clutching are the source and inspiration for their toys and favorite cartoons - but those comics can actually enhance their child's knowledge beyond mindless entertainment. Rodney Dangerfield had it right. (We) get no respect.

I know many retailers would support these endeavors in theory but if they actually ever saw comics being sold at say Wal-Mart, they would not be too happy for the competition. For those concerned that an additional marketplace poses a great threat to their business, consider this. If comics were to become widely available, local comic shops would still be the same entity we see today: specialty stores that cater to hardcore fans. I'm one of them. I would never consider getting my books anywhere else but from a local store. But there’s a whole world of individuals who would never go out of their way to buy comics. I want to live in a world where people ask you "What comics do you read?" and not "You read comics?" That won't happen until more people discover the difference between what they think of comics and what they know to be true of comics.

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