COVID-19 and the Comics Industry in the UK

(Close Encounters Bedford, pictured: Bub Chahal and Katy Haughey)

I wanted to start this article with a quote, one that defines us as humans, that we can battle all odds and continue through anything. It then occurred to me, although there are such quotes out there, they are defined by their context. "When going through hell, keep going" has become synonymous with World War II. This current situation we are in is like our generation's World War. So nothing that has been said could help or define these unprecedented times.

During times of hardship, it’s the leisure industries that are hit first and the hardest. Now for the likes of “Frankie and Bennys” and “Vue” (regional/national chains) these are difficult times but not fatal. However for smaller shops, restaurants, and independent cinemas this pandemic could be. Local comic shops are going to suffer too.

I was lucky enough to sit down (over Messenger due to these social distancing times) with Bub Chahal, owner of “Close Encounters,” my local comic shop. Bub has had the shop for 15 years, and in that time I’m sure there have been ups and downs. He’s changed location, and sponsors the local comic con “Nice.” Anyone who has been to one knows how amazing they are, a great way to meet writers and artists. Bub and his brother Jeff do this as a way to give back to us comic fans. I’ve been for the last 2 years and I can honestly say it’s the best con I’ve been to. Even the writers and artists say how it’s great for them as they can go meet fans and yet have a good laugh and the occasional beverage after the show. If I remember right, Donny Cates 2 years ago turned up late to Sunday with a slight hangover.

Poster from NICE 2018

So with this situation, Bub has had to adapt to changes in the way we operate day-to-day. To him, although the shop is closed, the business isn’t. Yet it’s clear that it’s not just about business.

“Initially I was absolutely gutted, that I was going to have to close the shop…but the shop isn’t just somewhere I work, it’s also a huge part of my social life; a lot of the customers that come in I would say are friends. I like seeing them. The shop functions as a community hub. I’m not going to see my friends for 3 weeks.”

So with the physical shops closing, they are putting in measures to keep the business ticking over so they can still pay the bills. So they are building more of a profile on social media. Letting people know that they are still operating. “We still have everyone’s stock and subscriptions. A few thousand items active on website”...these things will help keep the business ticking over. Bub’s brother Jeff lives above the Northampton store, so he can run down and pick something up and leave it for the postman as he walks past the shop, he explained to me. So they are doing everything they can to keep not just the business going, but to interact with customers and keep up their subscriptions as much as possible. Bub tells me that he sees a tough year, not just few months, and not just for him but for all local shops. He doesn’t just see himself in this, but everyone. The money that comes to him from local customers will stay locally he explains; he will go buy a coffee from the little coffee shop next door. It is a community to him. He talks about how during times like this, people may default to online retailers but those companies can weather this storm, maybe even seeing an increase (his point backed up by an article that was published by BBC news last week, 19th March saying Netflix will reduce quality by 30% to cope with increased traffic). So if you want to buy a graphic novel or book, buy locally, as it will mean more to them.

Looking forward, he goes on to say “when this is over, go out to the cinemas, go to restaurants, support them, support your local business.” Bub continues by telling me a story about a customer that was taking them for granted and asking them to price match online retailers. His response to this customer was something that I think we should all consider: “we sponsor NICE, maybe you should support us. If you buy from Amazon, they aren’t getting Garth Ennis to come to your hometown.”

Close Encounters have stores in Bedford, Northampton. and Peterborough. All have their own Facebook presence. They also have their website and have their eBay store too. You can buy gift vouchers from them, if anyone has a celebration coming up.

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