JohnnyFosterSouthPhilly
Sam Dunnington

South Philly Comics is hosting its own funeral, but it’s not a death knell for other city shops

The printed word is waning, but local comic shops rely on loyal customers … and new ideas.

JohnnyFosterSouthPhilly
Sam Dunnington
DunningtonHead shot

After five and a half years in business, South Philly Comics is throwing its own funeral on Sunday, a decision that co-owner Johnny Foster puts down to nothing in particular. “I just know. I have a very intimate relationship with my store. I feel it. I don’t have a lot of business savvy, just a lot of common sense. It’s time to go.”

While running South Philly Comics on Passyunk Avenue, Foster subscribed to a management style reliant on conversations with customers and gut feelings about what might be popular. “All of it’s a well-educated gamble,” he said. “You get to know your regulars.” This informal style is consistent with Philadelphia’s older comics shops, while two relatively new shops are leveraging stock-tracking systems and reaching out to new consumer bases to overcome some of the industry’s perennial challenges: stock that can’t be remaindered, distribution monopolies and a static base of regulars.

Foster said that after South Philly Comics’ initial months of operation, the shop’s sales plateaued, and other long-running comics shops in the area report similar difficulties in boosting sales. Bill Fink, the owner and manager of Ontario Street Comics in Port Richmond since 1989, said, “sales have been pretty stable over the last five to 10 years. Nothing dramatic. The water and gas companies had our street blocked for a couple months, and that hurt.”

At Fat Jack’s Comicrypt in Center City, manager Eric Partridge said, “business has been very static the last few years. Our regulars aren’t being replaced. We still have folks coming in who have been with us since ’94, but there’s attrition.”

Bill Fink @ Ontario Street Comics

Bill "Cap'n" Fink presides at Ontario Street Comics, which he's owned and managed since 1989.

Sam Dunnington

Sluggish sales trends are in spite of consistent efforts by these shops to get comics into the hands of the public. At South Philly Comics, Foster offers to bring a subscriber’s comics to a neighboring bar if he can’t make his pick-up at the shop. Fink’s alter-ego is a 216-year-old pirate that’s active on Ontario Street’s Facebook page, where he auctions comics and promotes literacy and cosplay events to 6,500 fans. Last year, he gave 900 new comics to Webster Elementary School up the street.

At Fat Jack’s, Partridge holds surprise 50-percent off sales, hosts game nights and tries to keep the store’s social media presence as engaging as possible. All of the comics stores in Philadelphia participate in the annual Free Comic Book Day each May — at their own expense.

That these outreach attempts haven’t driven significant new business is worrisome, especially because of the challenges unique to selling comics in a brick-and-mortar location. “Comic books are non-returnable,” said Rob LeFevre, the manager of Brave New Worlds in Old City. “That’s one of the hardest parts of being a comic retailer. You can’t be swamped in merchandise you can’t sell.”

Amalgam Comics

The coffee service takes pride of place at Amalgam Comics.

Sam Dunnington

‘You can never be rid of Diamond’

Ariell Johnson, owner of Amalgam Comics in East Kensington, echoed those concerns. “We’re trying to cut down on our single issues. We order for our subscribers, and only a couple of additional copies for the shelves.”

Ordering is especially challenging because most of any comics shop’s stock comes from a single distributor. Diamond Comic Distributors has exclusive distribution agreements with publishers including Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image — conventional heavy hitters that produce some of the most popular comics in the world. “You can never be rid of Diamond,” Johnson warned. “They’re a monopoly. Even if we’re not getting the best terms, there’s nothing we can do. If you want single-issue books [from those publishers], there’s no other option.”

Diamond’s exclusive agreements strip bargaining power from comics shops all over the country, not just here in Philadelphia. Fink described his most recent ordering headache: a set of special Marvel lenticular covers coveted by his subscribers that he couldn’t get unless he agreed to order a mass of other Marvel comics he didn’t think he could sell. These terms were set by Marvel, but with Diamond as the only distributor, there’s no competition that might challenge such a punishing deal from the publisher. At the shops mentioned in this piece, stock ranged from 75 percent Diamond titles at the low end to 99 percent Diamond titles at the high end.

Conscious of the difficulties inherent in stocking and ordering for a comic shop, LeFevre and Johnson employ tools at their respective shops to keep their stock lean. At Brave New Worlds, LeFevre and his employees use MOBY, a point-of-sale system designed with comic shops in mind – it lets him track customer orders, manage subscriptions and observe long-term buying trends in a way he couldn’t with a more conventional POS. Johnson went to her sister, an actuary, to get help designing Excel spreadsheets that allow her to precisely manage her subscriptions and ordering.

Brave New Worlds

Brave New Worlds, which does roughly 50% of its business in non-book merchandise.

Sam Dunnington

The tools used by Johnson and LeFevre aren’t utilized at other local shops. “We were working towards something like [MOBY] at one point,” Partridge said of Fat Jack’s inventory system, “but it didn’t seem worth the initial effort, adding in all of our backstock.”

At Ontario Street, Fink said he does have his stock on his computer. “But this particular computer is getting a little old,” he said, tapping his temple. At South Philly Comics, Foster runs on a similar system. “It’s all up here,” he said, patting his head. “It’s just sort of an intimate comics-shop set-up.”

‘Trying to keep up’

All of these shops also focus more exclusively on books than Amalgam and Brave New Worlds. Amalgam runs a brisk coffee stand business in the store, and LeFevre estimates that 50 percent of his sales come from merchandise other than comics, including games and toys.

Johnson and LeFevre are also committed to reaching out to groups typically underrepresented in a comic shop setting. “We hosted our first ladies’ night a couple of years ago and only let women in to shop,” LeFevre said, “and we try to stock so that anyone from an 18-year-old art student to a 55-year-old single mom can come in and find something.”

Johnson’s shop has received national press for making people of color and LGBTQ customers a priority. “I had a lady in here from Guam who’d heard about the shop, and wanted to come visit us,” said Johnson. To bolster her business, Johnson received a $50,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in July 2017 to build out classroom space at Amalgam. The writing, art and development classes she has in mind will offer professional tips and polish for underrepresented groups looking to break into comics creation. “It sometimes feels like the shop has run past me, and I’m trying to keep up.”

LeFevre’s and Johnson’s efforts seem to be paying off. LeFevre said that 2017 was the first year in Brave New Worlds’ 10-year run that isn’t tracking to be better than the last, though he chalked the brief downturn up to weak offerings from Marvel, and Johnson’s business has been increasing since she opened at the beginning of 2016. Ontario Street, South Philly Comics and Fat Jack’s all described business over the last several years as static, stable or plateaued.

Finding ways to increase business is especially important for these shops as online retailers and digital distribution services offer prices and delivery timelines that can’t be beat. “If someone finds a comic for a dollar instead of four dollars,” said Partridge of digital comics, “I can’t blame them.”

Still, digital providers like comiXology and online retailers like Amazon seem to have done less damage to comics shops than that experienced by music and video stores. “I have people come in who look up a title on Amazon, but come in and say, ‘I’d rather get my comics from you,’” said Johnson. “A lot of people complaining [about comics pricing] weren’t coming to your store to begin with,” said LeFevre. The printed comics medium continues to inspire a cultish sort of devotion. “They’ll pry the last paper comic from my cold, dead hands,” said Fink.

At South Philly Comics, though, neither the appeal of the medium nor plateaued sales were compelling enough to keep the shop’s doors open, and so a funeral is in order. You can pick up remaining book stock and pay your respects to South Philly Comics on Sept. 3. The funeral will include a day-long wake and memorial, followed by a drinking session at Lucky 13 next door. After that, Bill Fink has a prescription that should work well for any comics fan in the city: “Stop by,” he said, of local shops. “Read comics, and have fun.”