How I spent my winter vacation

My nine years in Ohio have desensitized me to cold. I got a reminder of this when my home state, Iowa, greeted me with a cold snap last week, as if to remind me who’s boss.

Other than the extreme cold (with lows of -15 Fahrenheit), I had a great time seeing friends and family in the Des Moines area and in northwest Iowa.

On Dec. 27, I did two events for my book. First was a reading at Beaverdale Books, a cozy independent bookstore in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood. Turnout was great. The store sold out of its stock of my book, and I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing a few former colleagues from the Des Moines Statehouse press corps.

Thank you to the store’s owner, Alice Meyer, for inviting me, and to the whole staff for promoting the heck out of it. Daniel P. Finney, the Des Moines Register columnist, wrote a column about comic shops and the book, and John Busbee interviewed me for his show on KFMG radio.

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Alice Meyer introduces me at Beaverdale Books.

Later that same day, we had a gathering at 515 Brewing, where the tap room manager is Matt Johnson, my high school classmate and a former comics retailer. We had the misfortune of scheduling this at the same time that the University of Iowa was playing in the Pinstripe Bowl (Go Hawks!). Despite this, a bunch of people showed up, and it was great to catch up with Matt.

A few days later, Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool picked up the Register story, and posted “The Man Who Gave Up Comics for Beer.”

Before I go, I wanted to comment a bit on what I’m hearing from comics retailers as they concluded a difficult 2017. While the nation’s economy grew at a healthy pace, comics retailers were going through a sales swoon, due in large part to an awful performance by Marvel.

The question going forward is how much of this is cyclical and how much can be attributed to secular decline.

I think it’s safe to say that there will be fewer comic shops next year at this time than there are now. A lot of the closings will be stores that were barely holding on, even in good times. The real concern for the industry will be if well-run stores with loyal audiences find that their profit margins have slipped to below the point of sustainability.

Although I did interviews for my book in 2015 and 2016, many of the comments ring true today even more than they did then.

First was Mark Waid, the comics writer who was a co-owner of a comic shop when I spoke with him:

“The role of a comic shop is to be a curator, is to be a gatekeeper, to help new readers find what they want. … It is a great time in that more and more people are coming in and looking for things that are not Marvel and DC comics, that are looking for creator-owned stuff, that are looking for material based on creators rather than on franchises, and that’s pretty cool. And frankly, it’s healthier for the market because it brings new people in. Very few people walk in the door at age twenty-five and say, ‘I want to start reading Avengers.’

“The paradigm shift seems to be away from monthly comics and toward trade paperbacks and stuff like that, which is great. It’s better money for everyone in the long run and a better format. But it’s the changeover that is dangerous. That’s the part that could kill us because all comic book stores still depend on that Wednesday cycle. All comic stores are still budgeted for those people who come every Wednesday for their comics. We can’t change overnight to deal more with a bookstore customer, people who only come in infrequently to pick up bigger amounts of stuff.”

Next was Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California:

“There are waves in this business. … The retailers that have been able to persevere through all of that have learned to ride those waves. Sometimes there’s an occasional wipeout and you get sucked under the tide, and there are times when you’re riding high and you’re on top of the world. For me, in all of that, the key has been how do you manage things, not just on the way up, but how do you manage things when things aren’t going well. And that’s, to me, the difference between the stores that last and the ones that don’t.”

Now, shop owners are going into the slowest time of year and hoping that the major publishers can come up with a few hits in the spring.