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Comic book shops, industry facing adjustments due to COVID-19

DISPLAY — Wendi Schoville, manager at Bob’s Bullpen in Alpena, Mich., leafs through a comic at the shop on June 3. -- Warren Scott

FREDERICK, Md. — Comic book shops are about camaraderie as much as their products, and that’s a big help as they work to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(We have) a distinct advantage over lots of small shops because we have more of a loyal and personal base,” said Jon Cohen, manager of Beyond Comics in Frederick. “Some of them are wrapped up like a mummy because they’re trying to stay safe, but even then, they couldn’t wait to get back in the shop.”

Specialty collectible shops have supplanted grocery and drug stores during the last several decades as the primary source of comic books, as well as a host of pop culture-related merchandise.

Like other retailers, they were hit hard by the closure of non-essential businesses and social-distancing efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On top of that, Diamond Comic Distributors, the exclusive distributor for monthly comics during the last quarter century, made the decision to pause its operations in March.

“We, like every other business in the world, were caught off guard with a pandemic,” said Steve Geppi, president and CEO of Diamond. “I know it was the right decision, albeit not something we wanted to do.”

That meant no new products for comic shops for nearly two months. While nostalgia and back issues are important components of their business, so are customers regularly coming in to pick up the latest installments of the ongoing adventures of Spider-Man and Superman, as well as comics and trade paperbacks featuring a variety of genres well beyond superheroes.

Beyond Comics adapted by holding Facebook sales once or twice a week and mailing or even delivering products to customers.

“That’s one of the things we did just to get some cash flowing,” Cohen said of implementing a delivery system.

Online events included auctions, flat price sales and some giveaways with purchases because Free Comic Book Day — the industry’s biggest outreach tool — was called off due to the virus.

Other store owners found business in places beyond comics.

While Bob’s Bullpen in Alpena, Mich., was closed, for instance, owner Bob LeFevre’s adjoining restaurant, the Bulldog, continued to provide takeout service.

“I had an opportunity to still get books out through food orders,” he said.

The Bullpen also offered online sales, putting together sets of comics and highlighting classic stories fans might never have gotten around to reading.

Diamond, meanwhile, was forced to furlough workers at its three major locations in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Olive Branch, Miss., and the United Kingdom.

A planned restart date of May 20 wasn’t set in stone, but as time went on, Geppi said, “the unforeseen circumstances didn’t occur, and here we are, shipping (three) weeks in a row with no end in sight.”

During Diamond’s pause, two retailers stepped in to offer their own distribution services, Lunar Distribution and UCS Comic Distributors. In response, Geppi said he welcomes the competition.

On June 5, publisher DC Comics sent an e-mail to retailers announcing it was ending its relationship with Diamond and distributing comics through the new companies, which proved to be a major shift in the industry.

Shops typically place their orders with Diamond two months in advance. The company worked with publishers to readjust the schedule so that products originally slated for April and May releases were pushed back to May and June and spread out a little more.

“We didn’t want to burden the retailers with more than they could possibly sell at a time when the customer base” couldn’t come in, Geppi said.

LeFevre, for his part, said that while he understands the rationale, there’s more demand than supply — at least among his customers.

“People want to and are buying up every little bit of new stuff we get,” he said.

“As a self-employed person that can no longer get pandemic unemployment assistance because I’ve reopened, I need to be receiving more new product to get people back in the doors,” he added. “They’re trickling out such little product that the over-carefulness is actually hurtful.”

Cohen has been selling comics for 39 years but said he’s “ordering blind” right now, unsure of how many customers will return.

“This is unprecedented,” he said. “We don’t know who’s coming out of the back end of this with a job.”

Beyond Comics in Frederick reopened May 23, allowing about 10 people in the store at a time and reducing its hours.

Customers are asked to wear a mask, and surfaces are being cleaned as often as possible, Cohen said.

In-person gaming for “Magic: The Gathering” and “Dungeons & Dragons” is still on hold until certain self-imposed conditions are met, Cohen said, including that players and employees feel safe and capacity limits don’t prohibit shoppers from entering while games are being played.

Down the road at Beyond’s Gaithersburg, Md., location, the business was able to start offering curbside service.

LeFevre has taken similar measures at the Bullpen, installing sneeze guards at cash registers and having employees wear masks.

“I haven’t had to force anyone to act a certain way … people are generally just being cautious by themselves,” he said.

Diamond recently launched #BackTheComeback, an initiative intended to “generate excitement for retail comic book and gaming stores.” Shirts bearing the slogan, “Our comeback will be bigger than our setback” will be sold and an auction is planned for the summer, with all proceeds going to assist retailers. Geppi said he’s donating $50,000 worth of collectibles to that effort.

He’s also working with publishers to place a logo, reminiscent of the old Comics Code Authority stamp, on comics to mark the occasion.

“The stamp is designed to commemorate the strength of the human spirit,” he said.

Whether it was psychologist Fredric Wertham’s controversial indictment of the industry’s content in 1954’s “Seduction of the Innocent,” the bottom dropping out of the 1990s boom once collectors realized the “Death of Superman” and all those No. 1 issues weren’t going to make them rich or the rise of digital comics, the industry has escaped from apparent death almost as often as the characters it chronicles.

“We’ve gotten so used to that, we kind of see it as a badge of honor,” Geppi said. “If anything, we’ve got more experience dealing with this than most.”

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