Local Comics Shops Struggle, Even in Age of Movie Superheroes

Jul 22, 2019

Comics adorn the shelves at The Secret Lair in Harrisonburg.
Credit Jason Barr

You might think that with all the superhero blockbusters in theaters these days, comic book stores would be raking in the cash.  But almost the exact opposite is true.  WMRA’s Jason Barr explores the unique challenges these small businesses are facing.

[Sound of customers in the shop…]

These sounds -- the electronic chime, the hum and buzz of customers talking about their favorite subjects, the ringing up of merchandise – can be heard in just about any neighborhood store.  But this is a different type of shop: it’s a comic book shop, and, in recent years, these stores have been going out of business at an alarming pace, in spite of the higher mainstream visibility of comic book properties such as Wonder Woman and Captain America.

In 2017, for instance, at the height of the boom of comic book-based films, including three that year from Marvel’s Avengers universe alone, more than fifty comic book shops around the country closed their doors, according to one industry observer.  And the shops that are closing aren’t just the new start-ups.  Even some of the biggest, most venerable and longest-lived shops are struggling.  St. Mark’s Comics in New York City closed after 36 years.  Mile High Comics in Denver had to make a dramatic reorganization.

Jonathan Atkins and his wife Karris ran Comic Toast in Harrisonburg for five years before going out of business.  He says that the popularity of superhero films never translated into sales for his store.

Along with his wife Karris, Jonathan Atkins owned and operated Comic Toast in Harrisonburg for around five years.
Credit Jason Barr

JONATHAN ATKINS: The expectation is that you’ve got all of these movies that have come out and they’re super popular and everyone goes to see them … shouldn’t that translate into more sales?  The answer is no. 

STEVE LOTTS:  The funny thing is, I don’t really notice a big bump.

Steve Lotts is the owner of The Secret Lair Comics in Harrisonburg, which has been open for a little more than five years now.

LOTTS:  Occasionally, you’ll have somebody that are motivated come in and they saw the Avengers movies and they want to read Avengers comics.  But the problem is the movies, both DC, Marvel and the independent stuff are so divorced from what’s going on in the comics that the characters are almost unrecognizable.

I spoke to Steve on a Wednesday, which is when all of the new releases come out, and so his store was quite busy.  He says that comic book shops aren’t just places for people to come and buy merchandise.  They also offer a sense of community.

Steve Lotts is the owner of The Secret Lair comic book shop in Harrisonburg, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Credit Jason Barr

LOTTS: It’s easier for a lot of people to order stuff online and have it delivered to your house, but to be able to create a community place for going and finding out about new comics and picking up and talking about new series and artists  It’s something where we have a lot of people come in and don’t know a lot about comics, or maybe they’re an old fan of comics and they’re looking for something new or different.  Definitely much more community-focused than profit-based, because if it weren’t, I would have given up a long time ago.

Jonathan agrees that the community aspect is the driving force behind deciding to open a shop.   

ATKINS:  I always dreamed of owning a comic book shop.  That’s something I think that everybody that reads comics has that dream of, “oh, I’m gonna own my own shop.”  And this is something the two of us agreed on, was that: as much as this is going to be a business and we want to make money, it was also about creating a community. 

Dan Dyer, who recently opened Multiverse Comics N’ Games in Culpeper, agrees.

Dan Dyer recently opened Multiverse Comics 'N Games in Culpeper.
Credit Dan Dyer

DAN DYER: I wanted to have a place in my hometown for young people as well as others who like gaming and stuff like that so they have something to do. I would like it to be a community place where people come, just hang out, and interact with other like-minded individuals.

There’s a constant tension between running a business and having a community hang-out, and sometimes, the challenges of the business side can be overwhelming.  For Dan Dyer, whose shop is just a few months old, it’s the simple challenge of letting people know that you exist.

DYER: That’s the big one. Because I know a lot of people that are excited about it, and I know that there are a lot of people who would be excited about it, if they just knew we were there.

But even the more established shops still struggle, with many peaks and valleys.

LOTTS: My goal each week is to make enough money to keep the lights on, keep the new books coming in … There’s still months where we are operating at a loss, where it’s not really making a profit and I have to dip into savings to keep it afloat.  And then there’s other times where we have a really great couple of weeks or a great month … all of a sudden we became profitable for a few months in a row, and it was this huge deal.

Still, despite the financial and business struggles in running a comic book shop, the community aspect is what makes the experience worthwhile.

New titles await customers at Multiverse Comics 'N Games.
Credit Dan Dyer

ATKINS: It sounds really corny, it’s one of those things that you tell a group of graduating seniors, but, chasing your dream.  When I die, when they write my obituary, that five years was important to me.  There still people that I talk to on Facebook and stuff who will occasionally just say, you know, I really miss the store.  I miss the environment, I miss the sense of community that you guys really created in that store.  I will never regret having had that experience.  Quite the contrary. It was a wonderful experience.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, if you want to go right to the source, you may still find a comic book store near you – a place where multiple universes of superheroes await.