A Mack Johnson and Michael Austerlitz Collaboration
Because of government efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, the shutdown of many “non-essential” businesses in most states means foot traffic to Local Comics Shops (LCS) has stopped, as shops have had to close their doors to the public.
The shutdown has also disrupted the flow of the creation and distribution of comic books to the point that Diamond, the main—and many would argue “only”— distributor of comic books from publishers, has decided to halt accepting any new product at the end of March. That means no more hard copies will be shipped to LCS in the near future.
These announcements were devastating news to LCS. So, if we aren’t allowed to visit our LCS during the national shutdown, and there will be no new physical copies for LCS to ship to their customers, what can we do to support our LCS to make sure they survive beyond this pandemic?
Michael Austerlitz, Owner of POP: Culture & Comics, approached several LCS near his New Jersey home: A&S Comics, with two locations (Teaneck and North Bergen, NJ), East Side Mags (Montclair, NJ), and Gotham Underground (Ramsey, NJ), and asked these questions:
*Note from Michael - These shops are a few that I'm very close to, but I know there are so many more out there. So please support your LCS and even ones you may not often frequent.
Check out each shop's contact and website/social media info at the end of this post.
POP: What was your shop's initial reaction to the news that non-essential businesses would be closing? What plans did you put in place to ensure customers could still get their books?
Matt Whiteley, Gotham Underground (GU): It was not what we wanted to hear, but we completely understood the public health ramifications. So, as much as it was going to hurt temporarily, we want to make sure our customers are safe. Then it was “Ok, now how do we make money in this new environment?”
We were a little different than most of the shops in the area, as we closed as soon as (Bergen County Executive) Jim Tedesco made the announcement for non-essential business to close. We did not have customers in the shop for a good week, so we were already coming up with new ideas. Immediately we offered shipping, curbside pick-up, gift cards, and we even offered free local delivery (but that did not work). To keep everyone informed, we have been posting all over our social media and sending and receiving emails. And, we even did our first live stream on Instagram and Facebook to show all of the “last” new comic day books.
Jeff Beck, East Side Mags (ESM): My initial response that non-essential businesses were closing was, “Well, not us. Comics are DEF essential.” But apparently Gov. Murphy doesn’t agree with that, so we had to close our doors to customers. We did, however, institute a curbside pick-up policy, and we’re offering shipping to customers with an order of $50 or more shipping free. So far it’s been holding up, but now that Diamond is no longer shipping new comics, I’m going to have to get REAL CREATIVE to keep the cash flow going.
Alex De Marco, A&S Comics (A&S): Our initial reaction was a little bit of frustration, anger, and then acceptance. We obviously know the why of the decision, but it's frustrating that we can't provide the best service possible to our customers. We look forward to seeing everyone in our shop every week, just as our customers look forward to coming in every week to see what's new. So, frustrating would be the word here. Once we got this news, we immediately went into Plan B mode. We made curbside available as long as we were allowed to, and we are currently offering delivery if you live near either of our stores. We will continue to do that until things are back to normal.
POP: How was customer response/ support when that announcement came?
GU: Well, it is tough, people were and are really confused. Even though we have clearly stated how we are handling the situation, almost everyday at least one person is trying to open the door to come inside. We will say that the outpouring of support from our regulars has been amazing, and then the support from people we don’t know or friends of customers has been astounding. We’ve even gotten personal support from a few people in the industry. We know that a lot of people are out of work, and that this is not essential to daily life, so there are no expectations on anyone... but the support has been great.
ESM: Our customers understood, but weren’t happy about it. Not unhappy with us, but with the situation — like everyone at this point. We had a few customers cry in the shop. But we’ve also had a TON of customers really turn up and show some love, including ones that have bought gift cards for us to break up into $5 increments to give out to people still working in the service industry, grocery stores, bank tellers, CVS, etc. We’ve also had a lot of customers tell me they want to stock up on graphic novels or get our custom blank comics for their kids to create comics while at home and out of school.
A&S: It may sound cliche, but we really do have the best customers. The support we have received during this has been absolutely amazing. Everyone has been very understanding. Some have even bought titles they don't normally get, or have bought some back issues, just to support us even more. The response has been great, and we really couldn't have asked for more.
POP: With the recent news that Diamond will not be sending any new books after this week's New Comic Book Day, what steps do you think you'll take to keep the shop going?
GU: We cannot do much, but we will keep pushing our eBay shop and posting new books daily. We will continue to let people know over social media that if they want a trade paperback, specific back issue, or comic, toy, FunkoPOP! or anything in the store, to let us know and we will get it for them. Plans are in place for more live streams and we are trying to sell highly discounted back issues on Instagram ( but it has not done well ).
ESM: We’re gonna keep up the curbside pick-up and shipping services. I’m talking to indie publishers about getting their comics shipped to me so at least we have “some” new stuff coming in – and I think since the giant is sleeping, it’s a great time for indie publishers to get their stuff out there, now more than ever. We’re working with our Dungeon Master to keep hosting D&D online via Zoom. We’re working with our Learn to Draw Comics teacher about holding online drawing classes. We’re doing more live Facebook videos than ever before, and I’ll be highlighting some classic stories and graphic novels in the hopes that people will still call up and buy comics!
A&S: We have been updating our website constantly during this. We have been adding back issues daily to the website, and new pre-orders for books coming out, hopefully sooner rather than later. Customers can order directly off of our website (ascomics.com) and we will ship right to you! We are still doing deliveries as well.
POP: It seems like this might be a great time to build up online presence via websites, social media, and eBay. Lots of people do live/claim sales; do you foresee that as a good business model, especially for back issues?
GU: For back issues, no. They sell in store or at shows to people looking for specific titles to fill their runs not randomly. The only time we really sell a lot of back issues is when they are so steeply discounted that there is almost no profit left. Again, we’ve posted some back issues and a few new variants on Instagram, and the sales are just not there. We do plan on doing a live stream where we go through wall books, as people are more apt to get a key at a good price.
ESM: It can be, if done properly. We have an online store (www.eastsidemags.com/shop) and an eBay store (www.stores.ebay.com/eastsidemags) so we do some online sales, but there is also the community immediately around us that is also “stay at home” and need stuff to do.
A&S: We have been considering doing live sales, but as of now we are still in the learning stages of that. We do claim sales from time to time, and I am sure we will have plenty more going on in the future.
POP: Have the shops you're friendly with talked about banding together in any way? What would that look like?
GU: No. We have all talked a little here and there but we have not come together to try to figure anything out. Realistically, everyone is just trying to keep their own shops going. That said, in the future, shops need to come together to try to stop some of the practices within the industry.
ESM: I have no idea. We’ve been checking in on each other here and there, but generally it’s still business as usual.
A&S: We have talked to one store about doing a live sale together. Again, that is still in the early stages, but it definitely is a possibility.
POP: With print on hold, and the future of the comics medium as we know it in question, do you think this is a good time for the industry (that is, publishers) to rethink how they market? There are so many books put out each week, I imagine it's tough to keep up with sales. Maybe this will be a good thing in the long run.
GU: No, I don’t think this will change anything with the Big Two, but maybe some of the smaller/indie publishers will rethink the quantity and the quality of the books they release.
ESM: The medium is definitely NOT in question. It will continue. They have essentially hit “pause.” The real problem is 98% of shops are mom and pop shops and need to keep themselves afloat until the product starts shipping again. The other problem is that we have no idea WHEN that will be. So the name of the game is survival for the shops – not publishers, not Marvel or DC or Image or whoever. WE (the shops) need to survive this so we can still be around to provide awesome comics to the masses. Publishers also need to hold up on the distribution of digital comics to help out shops. If we can’t sell the new stuff, they shouldn’t post the digital copies on Comixology or whatever either.
A&S: I think this is a good time for publishers to consider how important the direct market is, and how important it is to work with comic shops, instead of mass printing. To their credit, a lot of the smaller companies, and Image, have made great strides to become more retailer friendly, like offering returnability on some titles.
POP: I've heard some shops saying it's good that Diamond is halting distribution, because while non-essential businesses are closed, having books shipped that you can't get out to people will just build up your inventory, thus burdening you more. Do you agree?
GU: Yes, that is true, but it is more about trying to find a way with the shop closed to make $1000-$2000+ dollars to pay for the next order. When Diamond announced a halt of distribution, a big heavy burden fell off our shoulders.
ESM: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Inventory sitting around and not selling is “How to go out of business 101.”
A&S: We do support Diamond's decision to halt shipments for the time being. I think it's important for all stores to be on an even playing field every week. If only a handful of stores aren't forced to close, and can still sell product, but a majority of shops can't, I don't think that is necessarily fair to all retailers. It is difficult to not get what customers are coming for every week, but if you can't have customers in your store anyway, what exactly would the point be to get product just for it to sit in a box?
POP: Can customers buy gift certificates to help your shop keep cash flow going? Are they available online?
GU: Yes, gift cards are available and have zero restrictions on them. Technically, they are not available to purchase online, but if you message or email us we will mail one out.
ESM: Yes they can buy gift cards. Just give us a call at 862-333-4961 and we can take a credit card over the phone or email email@example.com. We also accept PayPal and Venmo, if that’s more convenient.
POP: What else can your customers do to help your shop get through this difficult time?
GU: First, soooo many of our customers have been awesome… many thanks!! To keep us going it starts with social media. Tweet, post, share, like, engage with our content. A retweet of a post of an eBay book can reach someone who will Buy it Now. There are people in Hawaii, Texas, and Florida to name a few states that have been sharing our posts. It may not equate to a dollar, but it puts our name out there. Of course it would be great if every person that has ever walked in our doors asked us for books or toys, but that is not a reality at this time. Also, if you can, leave Google, Facebook or (if anyone still uses it) Yelp reviews. People rely on those–we do—and the more good reviews we have, the more customers when the doors reopen. And of course, gift cards, gift cards, gift cards!
ESM: Buy gift cards, or check out our videos for products on sale in the shop, or pics of the shop. Reach out and support! We’re also great with recommendations and have been doing some “personal shopping” for people. Give us a few of your likes – fave movies, fave tv shows, etc. – and we can suggest some things the customer might like! We’re here, and we’re doing everything we can to stick around! Don’t miss out on any of our AMAZING events! Go to www.eastsidemags.com/events for details.
A&S: Check out our inventory on our website. Follow us on Facebook or our Instagram page.
Gotham Underground Comic Shop
147 E. Main Street
Ramsey, NJ 07446
East Side Mags, LLC
7 South Fullerton Ave
Montclair, NJ 07042
563 Cedar Lane
Teaneck, NJ 07666
7512 Bergenline Avenue
North Bergen, NJ 07047
Facebook: A&S Comics