I’ve been making indie comics for many years and reading comics for many more. While the library was the first place that I was able to get my hands on comics, I soon wanted to read more than the small selection I found there, so I started visiting comic book stores. Living in a small town without its own local comic shop, I had to travel to do this — sometimes to Forbidden Planet in London, sometimes to the small independent comic book stores that have existed at various times in Oxford, and once getting the train to Southampton to browse a comic book store and visit a manga exhibition on the same day. I’ve always wondered how to open a comic book store, something we’ll explore today!
How To Open a Comic Book Store: A Starting Point
Comic book stores as we know them today arose in the 1970s following the decline of the newsstand market, and they’ve often had a certain reputation as unfriendly, gate-kept places. The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy might be a caricature, but I’ve certainly had the experience of stepping into a comic book store and feeling like the newcomer walking into the saloon in an old Western. Some comic book stores have indeed been unfriendly places for women comic readers and for other marginalised people, such as people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people.
But other comic book stores have rejected this trend. Many stores have set themselves up as welcoming places for everyone, with a wide range of comics and a programme that makes them social centres as much as stores. While working on this article, I spoke to Menachem Luchins, founder and owner of Escape Pod Comics in New York, a shop that has been running for 10 years and whose tagline, “comics are for everyone,” emphasises how inclusive the comics world should be.
What Do Comic Book Stores Do?
Obviously, the primary task of comic book stores is to sell comics — or, to look at it from a different angle, to put a wide variety of comics in the hands of people who are interested in reading them. While bookstores are getting better, the majority of mainstream shops still only have a small comics and graphic novels section, if they have one at all — and those comics sections tend to be all lumped together, with Marvel and DC on the same shelf as manga, biographical comics, and all the others. Booksellers in mainstream stores may not have the background knowledge needed to give recommendations to comics readers, particularly when you consider that, unlike prose fiction, some comic series have around 70 years of stories to pick and choose from: you need expert knowledge to be able to narrow it down for a reader who’s just starting out. Comic book stores can divide comics into sections based on genre, style, or storyline, helping readers to find the general area of comics they want. Good comic booksellers can aid readers further by giving recommendations and signposting the best places to start or picking out titles that they know regular customers will enjoy.
But comic book stores have always been more than places that sell comics. They’ve also been places that celebrate all things nerdy, not only selling merchandise to go along with the books but also running comic-based events. Some comic book shops host tabletop gaming clubs, invite authors and artists for meet-and-greets, or run comic-making workshops for new creators.
Setting Up a Comic Book Store
Running a comic book store is a dream of many comics fans, but how do you get started? Like any business, getting things underway can be a challenge. You need money to be able to start a business, which can mean either using a lump sum of your own — something few people have — or taking out loans. Fortunately, crowdfunding has provided an alternative. Crowdfunding campaigns have become a significant part of the independent comics landscape in recent years and have helped indie creators and publishers take control of their work, expand their projects, and engage with readers in a way that wasn’t previously possible.
As with comics publishing, crowdfunding for a comic book shop can mean that a community feels involved in the creation of the store, seeing it more as a social hub than simply a place to buy goods. Escape Pod Comics ran a Kickstarter as part of its launch process, something that helped the shop develop in ways beyond raising start-up money; Luchins notes that “the [campaign] was good for me to see how people reacted to the very idea, that a comic shop was more than just a business looking for capital, but a center for exchanging ideas…I think now, 11 years later, a comic shop that hosts loads of community enriching events and the like is taken for granted, but then it was something that people only ‘in the know’ really got about comic shops.”
Running a campaign is one way to find the start-up money for a comic store, which is often the biggest hurdle for aspiring owners to clear. At one panel held at San Diego Comic Con in 2015, comic store owners suggested that the minimum amount required to open a store is around $50,000 — and that’s a number from eight years ago, before the recent drastic increase in cost of living. This figure covers essentials like rent for a space in an area with enough footfall to guarantee a steady number of customers; fittings for the shop so you can shelve and display comics in the most appealing way possible; salaries for yourself and your staff; and, of course, the stock that you plan to sell. As comics distributor, Chris Powell noted on the SDCC panel, “The cost of opening a store is higher now because customers will expect the store to carry a broader range of stock…The clientele is no longer young men between the ages of 18 and 25.” Bringing in a diverse stock may have a greater up-front cost, but it’ll pay off in the long run when your comic shop appeals to a wider demographic of customers.
Of course, there’s more to setting up and running a shop than the financial side of things. Luchins has recommended that any budding comic book store owners should try to work or volunteer at their existing local store if at all possible:
“There are so so so many small, nitty-gritty, parts of working and running a comic shop (ordering, receiving, billing, hold lists, pricing back issues) that the more years you have under your belt at any level, the better a time you are going to have when it’s your own place. You also get to see practices you DON’T want to do from the perspective of the shop, and hopefully come to understand why they might sell items you wouldn’t want to or don’t understand!”
Immersing yourself in the comics world in any way possible is a great way to build your knowledge before opening a store. Jason Mojica, owner of Hey Kids Comics! in Brooklyn, began selling comics on stalls on the street before he was eventually able to open a bricks-and-mortar store. In my years attending comic conventions, I’ve met many comic book store owners who are exhibiting or taking part in panels. The world of UK comics is a relatively small one, and a huge amount of networking and idea-sharing happens at cons. Engaging with and speaking to comics creators and readers, both long-established and new to the scene, is a great way to gain an understanding and knowledge of what kinds of things people are reading and how they want to engage with comics.
Building this background knowledge of the comics world will give you a strong idea of what sells; while one of the best aspects of running your own business is being able to focus on stocking the comics and merch you love, you’ll be more successful if you bring in a wide range of stock to appeal to as many people as possible. (In short, don’t be Tim Bisley.)
Staffing a comic book store is another challenge and cost — it’s not surprising that, for most comic book stores in their early years, the only members of staff will be the owner/s. Be prepared to do everything from working the till to being your own social media manager, as well as ordering and curating stock. If your start-up fund does include enough to hire an extra member of staff, or you’re able to hire someone later, you may want to hire from the pool of local comics fans: their knowledge of the comics scene will be a great asset when dealing with customers.
Keeping It Going
There are many challenges in running a comic shop, particularly as the social and economic landscape has moved on a huge amount since the dawn of the comic book store in the 1970s. Bricks-and-mortar stores are struggling now that online ordering is so easy; running a physical shop involves costs like rent and utilities, something that online competitors can avoid and, therefore, sell their products at a lower price. Sadly, several of the comic book stores I’ve visited over the years have had to close because running the business became unsustainable.
The comic book stores that are thriving are the ones that have worked to stand out. Luchins told me, “I went out of my way to make a shop that’s a little more unique than most, whether it’s in how we stock the shelves or how we do business.” As I mentioned earlier, comic book stores are uniquely placed to provide things that customers can’t get online: face-to-face meetings with creators, social clubs focused around hobbies like tabletop gaming or drawing meet-ups, or workshops that teach you art skills or zine-making.
Comic book stores can also get involved in the wider comics scene through conventions; the UK comic book shop Travelling Man partners with the long-running comic convention Thought Bubble, including by offering micro-bursaries for marginalised creators. You can expand your customer base and engage more with local and broader communities by getting involved in conventions, running clubs (liaising with local schools’ art departments is also a great way to do this), and ensuring that you have a good roster of events, with something to appeal to everyone. Comics creators, particularly those working in indie comics, are often happy to do talks and signings at comic stores.
Running any business is hard, and that’s particularly true when you’re running a niche business like a comic book store. But for people who love comics, it’s worth it. Luchins says,
“The best things about running a comic shop are, again, unique to what kind of shop you make! I have friends who love being on the sales floor, others who live to schedule events and conventions and still more that want to sort through and catalogue awesome old comics — all are awesome things, depending on what your jam is! For me, the ultimate part is being my own boss and trying to make a space that doesn’t just sell merchandise but enlivens imaginations and empathy in all sorts of readers.”
Unlike the comic book stores of the past, Escape Pod Comics and many other modern comic book stores reject gatekeeping and focus on bringing readers new and old into the world of comics.