In my last piece, I discussed why I became a comic book retailer, as well as why some other folks got into the business as well. There were a couple of key points in that article worth repeating before I move on: if YOU want to become a comic book retailer, do it for the right reasons (not because you have a massive back issue collection you want to unload); and you probably will NOT become filthy rich in a few years by selling comic books. Over the next few installments of Counter Intelligence, I will be discussing what it takes to be a comic book retailer. In this piece, I will go over what I call “Step One – Basic Business Ownership.” I will illuminate you as to what the very basics are, before you ever open a store.
Let me once again insert my disclaimer here: we are only a couple years old, so it is difficult for me to look back and see how successful we have been in the long term. Also, I am not, in any way, saying that we are the most successful store out there, or that my way is the only way. These are just the opinions and adventures of one comic book retailer with one little store in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin suburb who is a handful of months away from celebrating a three-year store anniversary and preparing for our first store expansion. Now, on with the show!
Before you start pricing your back issues, and before you start looking for a store front, there are things that must be done in order to properly run a retail store. Notice I did not specifically say “a comic book store.” That is because this article is going to deal more with the basics of business ownership than specifically with comic books. But, these points are sometimes overlooked by store owners who are more hobbyists than business owners, so they are definitely valid to bring up in the discussion of what is involved in owning a comic book store.
The first and most basic thing is how to run a business. You might be amazed at how many people have asked me for advice on how to run a business and are shocked when I suggest that they take some business classes before they ask a bank for money. Both my husband, Craig and I took business classes in high school and college. After we got married and decided we wanted to own a business together, we took a few more business classes to help us refresh ourselves as well as to get some ideas of what kind of business we might be suited for. We also picked up lots of books at the library and local book stores. I am not suggesting that you get a four-year business degree before you open a comic book store, although I would not object to that should you feel that it would benefit you. But you should definitely take a few classes and read some books on entrepreneurship and managing a business. Often, community college campuses offer inexpensive business classes that are available to the general public. We took classes offered by the local Women’s Business Initiative Association, a branch of the Small Business Administration. Most classes were free or very inexpensive, and the instructors were business owners themselves.
Why waste your time taking business classes just to run a comic book store? Because it is a store, not a rummage sale or flea market, and a store is a business. In fact, a store is a tricky business. If you manufactured products, you just make the product based on orders. If you sell products you convince a person to buy it and then deliver it, and often times you can order it for them after they agree to buy it. In a store, you have merchandise that you must order before you have any idea if someone will buy it. Then, you must rotate the old merchandise as you buy new merchandise. In order to maximize sales, the store needs to be open many, many hours each and every week. To get customers to come into the store they need to know what kind of store it is; that it exists; and that they can find things they want there. Then, the store needs to make an impression upon the shoppers that causes them to come back and to send other people to your store too. Unlike many other businesses, in retail there is a lot of risk because of the inventory and often high rent and fixture costs. Taking business classes and reading up on retail store ownership will help you: 1.decide if you can even handle it and 2. give you lots of tips on getting started and running the day-to-day operations of said business.
Hopefully the classes you have taken and books you have read will also touch on ethics. Honesty is important in all businesses, and can make or break a customer’s loyalty in you and yours. This is no less important for a comic book store retailer. In fact, in order to stand out and compensate for years of unethical comic book retailing, today’s comic retailers need to make ethics a top priority. If you graduated from the Enron School of Ken Lay, then please avoid business ownership altogether. You should not, as a general rule, think that it is OK to sacrifice ethics for a buck. I am often amazed at stories new customers share with me about experiences at other comic shops. The stories frustrate me because these unethical actions turn people away from comic book stores every day, people who just decide that every store is probably the same, and they have had enough. It can be tough to make a decent living by selling comic books, but cheating customers and/or employees in order to fatten your own wallet is indecent, and eventually karma will bite you in the ass for it.
After learning about what is required to run a business, you need to think about the personal demands it takes to do it. Books and classes may or may not inform you about the personal investment required to run a retail store. First, the hours are long. As a new business you might not have the finances right off the bat to be able to hire a fleet of employees, so expect to have to put those hours in yourself. I am at my store every single day of the week except for every other Sunday and the occasional holiday, and often I am there from before we open until after we close. Depending upon the day, it could be anywhere from five to ten plus hours every day. Sometimes, those hours fly by, and other times they drag on and on. This time investment makes it difficult to have any kind of life outside of the store. (I have taken one non-comic book oriented vacation since we opened the store.) I do not have children, but parents should consider this time commitment and the impact it could have on their family before they plunge head-on into it.
A second personal commitment is financial. I will talk about money and financing more in a future installment, but there are some financial aspects to consider in this segment of my discussion as well. You should have at least a portion of the money you need to start the business come from your own pocket before you ask for a loan from a bank or other lending institution. As a new business it can be very difficult to get someone to give you a loan, so having some of your own money to invest helps. You also need to think about getting paid. What are you earning now? What will your business be able to afford to pay you in the first six months, or year or two? Can you survive on that income for any length of time? Most retail stores take three to five years to become “established,” meaning it takes that long for them to become well-known in a community and reach a business plateau where one can be somewhat comfortable with annual earnings projections. Can you survive financially on a comic book store owner’s income for three years? As I mentioned before, you probably will not get rich owning a comic book store. If you are looking for a business that makes you lots of money so that you can travel, buy nice cars and retire early, I would suggest that you avoid a career in comic book retailing.
The final big commitment required to own a comic book store is an emotional one. There will be good days and bad days, emotional highs and lows. Deadlines for orders loom, telemarketers call at the worst times, good customers come and go, vital merchandise can get damaged or delayed, landlords can be a blessing or a curse… There are all kinds of daily events that can make or break a day, or one part of a day. One day you could be patting yourself on the back for your great idea of opening a comic shop, and the next day you could be slapping yourself for getting into this mess. You need to be prepared for these emotional ups and downs. It is a good idea to have someone you can vent to, or an activity that helps you release your stress, in order to keep yourself from getting high blood pressure or having an emotional break down. If you can’t do it, accept that. There are plenty of people who just cannot stomach the emotional risks required to own a business, and plenty who thought they could only to find out that they could not.
If I have not scared you away from comic book retailing altogether, then read my next article and find out what comes next when heading down the path of becoming a comic book retailer. For those of you who have no intention of selling comic books for a living, but enjoy the insight into what your local retailer has gone through to bring you those lovely 32-page colored books, I promise to try to continue to make these articles both interesting and entertaining. Go ahead and post your comments here and feel free to send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have specific questions for me.