Houston Retailers on Hurricane's Impact

When hurricane Ike roared towards Texas last month, the roughly 3.5 million residents within the storm’s impact zone were advised to flee the oncoming wall of water or face “certain death.” By Friday, September 12, the Category 2 hurricane was threatening to make landfall late that night or early the next morning, near Galveston. And make landfall it did, destroying homes and businesses all along the Gulf Coast with wind, rain and floodwaters, leaving millions without power.

CBR News spoke to comics shop proprietors in and around the Houston area to see what impact Hurricane Ike has had on their businesses and the local comics community.

One of the hardest hit Houston comic shops was Bedrock City on Westheimer, one of three stores in the Bedrock City franchise. CBR caught up with general manager Michael Steenbergen just after he and an insurance agent finished surveying the wreckage of Bedrock City’s flagship location. “The tar part of the roof all blew off, so during the hurricane, all of the water came in from the top and kind of soaked a ton of our stuff in the store,” Steenbergen said. “We have mold growing everywhere here. We came in Saturday [September 12] after the hurricane, we had three or four inches of water we had to try to get out of here, and the ceilings dripping all over us, and there’s no power, and stuff was just wet and ruined everywhere.”

Some of their more expensive merchandise -- like Golden and Silver Age comic books -- had been stored in a water-safe cabinet, so Steenbergen salvaged what he could on Saturday. But when the remains of the store were once again pelted with rain on Saturday night, even more merchandise was ruined. More than that, the building is a total loss. “We have to get it down to studs and concrete,” Westheimer said. “Every single fixture in here is ruined.”

Rick Blount, owner of R&R Comics in East Houston, had gotten word of the plight of Bedrock City’s Westheimer location, and was very deferential to his fellow retailer. “My store, on a scale of 1 to 10 is probably a 2, compared to Bedrock City being a 9 or a 10,” Blount said. R&R Comics didn’t sustain near the structural damage that Bedrock City did, but a prolonged power-outage has certainly cut into Blount’s business. The retailer only just bought his store in January, but his is the latest in a long legacy of comics shops at the same location, having been East Side comics for the seven years prior, and Happy Trails Comics before that. R&R lost power on Saturday, September 13, and Blount was forced to close his doors until he was able to get a generator up and running on the 24th, a week-and-a-half later.

T.J. Johnson, who has been president and owner of Third Planet Comics for 34 years, said his store suffered minimal damage, but lack of power forced him, too, to close his doors for a week. “My building is 8000 square feet, and there’s no lights, and I only have a glass door,” Johnson said. “When I bought the building, I had all my windows bricked up so nobody can break in, and I have more display space in my store without windows. So 8000 square feet deep into the store is pretty damn dark.”

The minor damage R&R Comics did sustain should be covered by the landlord’s insurance, but Blount’s biggest concern was the eleven-day interruption of business. Many distributors didn’t ship comics the week Ike hit, for fear of the books not reaching their intended destination. So in the wake of the hurricane, many stores found themselves receiving double and triple shipments just when their coffers were dwindling from lack of customers. “We got two orders at the same time, basically,” Blount said. “So I got a couple thousand dollars worth of comic books that I had to pay for, and really no customers at this point.”

Becrock City’s Steenbergen, too, has a month’s worth of Diamond bills to pay and not nearly enough business to cover the cost. He explained his situation to Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Sales & Circulation David Gabriel and DC’s Direct Sales Director Vince Letterio, and both expressed willingness to help. “DC and Marvel were both talking about maybe doing something like they did for Katrina, maybe giving us some free books or something, or deferring billing later on,” Steenbergen said. “And Diamond also has said they will certainly help, but whatever help they’re doing it, all hasn’t been all confirmed yet, I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. They will certainly let us slide on payments for a little bit until we get back on our feet.”

A general lack of internet or phone access since Hurricane Ike blew through has hampered retailer correspondence with Diamond. When R&R’s Blount was finally able to touch base with the distributor, they were decidedly sympathetic to his situation. “When I spoke the credit department today at Diamond, they were willing to ship me shipments for a couple weeks without payment so I can get caught up,” Blount confirmed. “I still had to pay for today, but if I had made arrangements, if I’d have been able to call them last week, I could have got today’s shipment that way, but I didn’t call them in time, that’s not Diamond’s fault.”

Compared to that of some of his fellow retailers, Third Planet owner T.J. Johnson’s experience with Diamond has left something to be desired. “Diamond has not called or offered anything,” he said. “They did this two years ago when we had a hurricane, same thing. You have to download your order packs to them on a certain date, and we had no power, we couldn’t download our stuff. They actually hit me with a 5% late fee.”

Johnson did confirm hat Alliance, a gaming subsidiary of Diamond, called to inquire about their situation, but said Diamond itself has offered his store little to no help.

Bedrock City has shifted its subscription services from their Westheimer location to another of their branches, but with so many residents in the region still without power, getting word to their customers is far from easy. Bedrock City’s wo surviving locations were able to re-open as early as Sunday, September 14, but many of their Westheimer customers have been unable to access the internet to learn of that store’s fate.

Blount, too, has had difficultly getting word to his customers that R&R is up and running again. But comics readers know that new books ship on Wednesdays, and many customers who were unable to confirm that R&R would be open still decided to make the trip on spec. “We’ve been fairly busy today, considering,” Blount said. “We opened the door about [noon] and started sorting our books, and by about 12:05PM, people were already there checking.”

In a city like Houston, which is more than 100 miles across, navigating the flooded streets is no easy task. “I live on the north side, my store’s central, I drive 70 miles a day,” Third Planet’s Johnson said. To make matters worse, in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, gasoline in the area was in short supply. “I’m in a big business district, so a lot of my customers are business people that work here in the area, they live on the outskirts, so they had the same problem, they couldn’t get down here either.”

But Third Planet was not without customers for long. While other stores were still closed down, Third Planet picked up some of their displaced comics fans. Johnson was sympathetic to his fellow comics peddlers, but grateful for the increase in business. And believe it or not, an unexpected influx of customers poses its own problems. “It throws your counts way off,” Johnson explained. “We’re running out of merchandise real fast on certain things. The problem with our industry is you order way in advance, and Diamond doesn’t have restock on a lot of it.”

During this crisis, Steenbergen was very cognizant of the situation his Bedrock City employees were in. With lack of power, longer commutes to work and extra expenses for gas, Steenbergen tried to give his employees as many work hours as he could. “Even though they didn’t work full time, we actually went ahead and paid them full time hours so they could pay their rent and stuff,” Steenbergen said. “I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Comics creator Terry Moore and his wife Robyn live and work out of Houston, and told CBR News that Hurricane Ike setbacks were not limited to comics retailers: the Abstract Studios team lost contact with the outside world for a whole week. “Water, ice, power, gas -- it's amazing how important those things become when you don't have them,” Terry Moore said. “I live on the edge of downtown Houston where things have remained troubled but civilized, with work crews all over the place around the clock trying to get the city back up and running. South of Houston is a war zone, an absolute nightmare. Comic book creators should come down here and take notes and reference photos for all future apocalypse stories.”

As Houston slowly nurses itself back to health, so, too, will the local comics community. The gas shortage has more or less been resolved at this point, but for the first week, the situation was dire. Many of the local refineries were damaged during the storm, and even stations that had stores of gasoline were unable to operate their pumps without power. “Then, finally when it started to come back in, it would come back in to one station, there’d be lines 100 cars long waiting for two hours,” Steenbergen said.

Steenbergen estimates that mid November is the earliest that Bedrock City’s flagship store could be up and running again. “They have to put a whole new roof on here, too, so we can’t start our complete build out until they put the roof on, it’ll be totally unprotected if it rains again,” he explained. “Our construction will probably start next week, but then we’re going to be in a holding pattern until they get the new roof on, and then we’ve got to totally redo the inside of the store.”

Despite the long road ahead, Steenbergen has no doubt that his store will bounce back. Moreover, he told CBR News that all of his customers have been very understanding about Bedrock City’s plight. “Our other store, where we moved all our subscriptions to temporarily, is about 45 minutes away from this location,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people haul up there, and it’s been really kind of heartwarming to see the people who have made the trip up there. That’s all been real good, I appreciate that from all them.”

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