Jim Hanley: ‘We wanted customers to buy their comics from us, for the rest of their lives’

A young man became co-owner of a comic shop in 1983 in Staten Island. The initial name was The Merchant of Venus, which he soon changed to The Fantastic Store.

But this guy is best known for the business he opened next, two years later, the one with his name on the sign: Jim Hanley’s Universe.

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Just a little shop in Staten Island. All photos used with permission of Jim Hanley.

He talks about his early struggles by saying, “I didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out.”

He told me this at least a half-dozen times, with only minor variations in the wording. I bet his family has heard it hundreds of times.

He and his new business partner were able to get their footing and expand into a small chain of shops, including two in Manhattan.

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One of the Jim Hanley’s Universe locations in Manhattan.

In the process, he became known as one of the most innovative retailers in the business, making friends with like-minded people such as Rory Root in the Bay Area and Joel Pollack in the Washington, DC area.

Hanley was a counterpoint to the many shop owners who didn’t know how to set up an inviting space or deal with customers.

“We always approached it as merchants, rather than thinking customers were lucky to buy their precious comic books from us,” he said. “We wanted customers to buy their comics from us, for the rest of their lives. When they asked for something, the next time they came in, we wanted to have it for them, so they had no reason to look anywhere else for it.”

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Here at Jim Hanley’s Universe is a guy whose name tag says “Jim Hanley”

He will tell you that he often was a difficult boss, a perfectionist with strong opinions.

He had great success and terrible failure, and he told me about all of it in hours of interviews.

“Never confuse brains with a bull market,” he said, something he first heard from a Wall Street guy.

Now he is retired and living in the DC area. His legacy is all over the comics business. If you’re in New York, visit JHU Comic Books, the rebranded two-store chain that is owned by former Jim Hanley’s Universe managers and was started using the assets of the former business.

In Middletown, New York, Peter Dolan owns Main Street Comics. He was a manager at Jim Hanley’s Universe from 1986 to 1994. Dolan is known in the business as the president of ComicsPro, the trade group for comic shop owners.

One of the pleasures of working on my book was getting to know Jim Hanley.

Learn more about Hanley and the comics business in my book, COMIC SHOP: THE RETAIL MAVERICKS WHO GAVE US A NEW GEEK CULTURE, which went on sale Oct. 11 at comics and books retailers.

****** UPDATE 10/16/17: Jim had some comments about this post on Facebook. Here is a sample, in response to someone asking about the “pinolia nut” sign to his left in the top photo:

“That’s the little store next door. They were an electrician’s office, where the wives of the electricians ran a candy & nut business to help wit the rent. Evan used to call them Nuts & Volts. Within six months of this, they hired a receptionist and the wives went back home. Turned out that there wasn’t any money in candy & nuts.”

The comments thread includes fellow retailers Joel Pollack and Joe Field, saying nice things. Both of those guys are in my book, and I’ll be seeing Joe soon at this great event he’s planned.

Incidentally, this post got more views than any other in the (brief) life of this site.