Comics carpentry, or, how to survive the comics retail bloodbath

A few weeks ago, I visited one of my favorite comic shops, Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan, and walked right into a carpentry project.

Co-owner Dan Merritt was making a bookcase, while his wife, co-owner Katie Merritt, was working the register and helping customers. (That’s the bookcase-in-progress in the photo above. It was their idea to put my book on the top shelf, honest!)

Green Brain, like most comic shops, posted a decrease in sales for 2017 compared to the prior year. The co-owners had not yet closed the books for the year, so they didn’t know the precise amount of the decrease, but it likely was in the 5 percent range.

Much of the industry’s malaise could be traced to the disappointing performance of the largest publisher, Marvel. Much has been written about Marvel’s woes and I won’t rehash it here.

So what about today? Things are getting better.

“2017 was rough,” Dan Merritt said. “Now January is starting off fairly strong. Not five-years-ago strong, but fairly strong. Part of it is Marvel coming back. I’m selling through on Marvel nowadays, which is cool.”

But Marvel has a long way to go to regain the market share it lost among his customers over the last few years.

I asked Merritt if he expects his 2018 sales to be better than 2017. His answer was a qualified “yes.”

“It’s got to be,” he said. “It has to be, for everybody’s sake, or else there won’t be comics in 2019.”

The comics retail business is prone to wild ups and downs. One of the great challenges, in comics or any other business, is managing through the downturns. Green Brain has some built-in advantages when it comes to facing hard times, and other shops would be wise to learn from its example.

Here are a few of those advantages:

  1. A do-it-yourself sensibility. Many of the fixtures in Green Brain were made by the owners. The ability to make your own stuff leaves more money for comics and everything else.
  2. A close connection to the community. The store and its owners are cheerleaders for Dearborn as a place to do business, and they have made connections with a number of community groups. This visibility helps get the word out to potential customers, including lots of people who may not otherwise have considered going to a comic shop.
  3. Owning versus renting. This is a tough one to pull off, especially in high-priced urban areas. During the most recent slump in the real-estate market, the Merritts bought their building and are now paying a mortgage as opposed to rent.
  4. Events! Green Brain has a schedule of events aimed at comics fans, young readers and board game enthusiasts. When I was there in January, there were postcards at the register to promote the Jan. 31 book club discussion of Watchmen.
  5. Steady and fun social media. I wrote few months ago about Green Brain’s weekly videos about newly arriving products. The videos help the staff become familiar with the new stuff, and serve as an opportunity to plug specific books that may not be well known. Katie Merritt says credit for the store’s social media presence should go to the store’s employees, who were initially much more savvy about it than the owners.

Below are a few other photos from my visit to Green Brain. (Not pictured is a large children’s section, and a big selection of mainstream comics.)

Green Brain 4
This table has a rotating selection of books that the employees want to make sure customers see. This is the most precious real estate in the store.
Green Brain 2.JPG
“Shay thinks this book is awesome.” The store has these recommendation cards throughout, in addition to many face-out displays.
Green Brain 3.JPG
This spinner rack is stocked with small-press comics. Notice the actual green brain on top.

One more thing:

I was just on the Off Panel podcast with David Harper. Among other things, we talk about how I like the work of Don Heck, and wish I had a time machine so I could go back to DreamHaven Books circa 1996.