SPEEDING BULLET COMICS & RICOCHET CAFE
I've always loved Evel Knievel.
Evel was the man who, dressed in his star-spangled leathers and sitting atop his motorbike, inspired and awed an generation by doing the impossible. He boldly accepted challenges that no one else would dare. And night after night he proved that no amount of fear of bodily harm, humiliation, or even the end of his life was enough to stop him from obtaining those goals that were quite literally unconceivable to others. And even though the never-ending potential of dying an ugly death in front of a gawking public was likely, he would face each new impossible task with a calm and determination that made him larger than life. This was, after all, not the comics but real life we're talking about here, and Knievel showed to the youngster that I was that fear itself could only stop you if you allowed it to.
And Matt Price of Speeding Bullet Comics and Ricochet Cafe in Norman, Oklahoma brings that same daredevil spirit to the world of comics retailing. True, unlike the flashy stunt jumper of the 70's, Mister Price isn't some glitzy, razzle-dazzle type and surely if he heard you comparing him to any daredevil he'd just turn red and laugh... but trust me when I tell you that this man is fearless.
After all, he's pulling off some pretty amazing stunts in two of the most volatile industries out there: the comic industry and the restaurant industry. You've probably heard once or twice how challenging owning a business in either of those fields can be, but just like the undauntable star-spangled cycle jumper of my youth, Matt Price is out there doing the impossible and making it look easy.
He's crafted a truly innovative comic shop where special events host local performers, karaoke, and comic creators who both you and I love. He's brought to life an honest to goodness comic themed cafe and made it a place where you might hold your child's comic-themed birthday party or a community event. He's partnered with a local Action Figure and Toy Museum to create a jaw-dropping wall of glory that celebrates the world of fun in a truly beautiful way. He's brought weekly doses of comics knowledge and enthusiasm to the masses with a comics column for The Oklahoman, the state's largest daily newspaper. And he's done what so many have claimed to be impossible by nurturing this unique store and this vibrant comics community not in a teeming metropolis famous for art and culture, but in the fun and friendly city of Norman, Oklahoma.
Personally, I couldn't be more impressed if he'd just landed a twenty-car jump.
When I decided to talk to hot new comic retailers about their distinctive approaches to retailing, you know that Matt Price was near the top of my list. So let me introduce you to a person who I think will truly inspire you to put aside your fears in your life and make the impossible possible.
Comic Pimp: Unlike many of the other retailers who I'm doing interviews with, you and I have actually met, but somehow we never got talking about how we got into comics as readers. And it's pretty apparent that you're a guy who loves comics as much as I do. What was that first book that really did it for you and kicked off life-long sequential art love affair?
Matt Price: My mom is a teacher so I started reading before I was two years old. According to my parents, I harassed them incessantly to take me to the first "Superman" movie when I was not yet four. So, I always liked superheroes and reading comics. "Captain America" #332, with the "President Fires Cap" story, in 1987, shifted me from a kid who just bought whatever issues he could find to a serious "collector."
Comic Pimp: Oh yeah, those Mark Gruenwald Caps are addictive!
Matt Price: I started working in a comic-book store in 1992 -- I actually cut class my junior year of high school to help sell copies of "The Death of Superman" -- and became aware of a lot of books that helped me see the real potential of the medium beyond superheroes. "Sandman," "Bone," "Strangers in Paradise" were all favorites starting around that time. Shannon "Too Much Coffee Man" Wheeler was the first "name" creator that I interviewed for a self-published comics zine I started around that time.
Comic Pimp: Aha! Your connection between comics and coffee came early on, then (laugh)! Let's face it, your vision for a full-sized diner plus great big glorious comic book store isn't something anyone would dare just casually attempt. When did it come to you that it was your calling to open up Speeding Bullet Comics and Ricochet Cafe?
Matt Price: "Calling" makes it sound like a destiny -- it may have been more a case of following up opportunities. That's something I've always tried to be aware of, whether it was acquiring the assets of the predecessor to Speeding Bullet Comics in 1998; expanding to open Ricochet Cafe in 2002; or partnering with the Toy and Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley to create their gift shop in 2005. However, to give more credence to the "destiny" theory, my cousins and I from a fairly young age played "newspaper" or "bookstore" -- both of which I currently do for a living.
Comic Pimp: Okay, tell me about the skills you brought to Speeding Bullet. Before you opened it up what kind of things did you do for a living?
Matt Price: I started Speeding Bullet when I was 23, so I hadn't had a lot of different jobs. I worked in two different comic stores in high school -- the first of which was the store that would eventually become Speeding Bullet. At the University of Oklahoma, I worked at the student newspaper as a copy editor, entertainment writer and entertainment editor and was sports editor of the yearbook. A Dow Jones internship placed me at the Dallas Morning News after college, and I took a job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette afterward. My wife, Annette, had also just graduated with a journalism degree from OU, and we wanted to work in the same place; we selected Arkansas because it was close to home and they had two openings that fit what we could do. After eight months there, the store back home came up for sale. We decided it was a great opportunity to do something we had a passion for, in a town we loved.
Comic Pimp: Not having had a lot of other job experience, you are probably the perfect person to give advice to an aspiring young person who wants to go straight into comic retailing. What kind of skills would you suggest every retailer have in their arsenal before getting into the business?
Matt Price: Math and computer skills would be great, neither of which I had in abundance. People skills, desire to work hard and long, love for the material.
Comic Pimp: Let's look at the big picture Speeding Bullet was built on, what is the philosophy behind your store? How do you manifest that vision with your shop?
Matt Price: My philosophy is basically "read" and "listen." While I will sell comics to anyone for virtually any reason -- as Stan Lee apocryphally said, "I don't care if you buy them for the staples" -- I really want to promote the reading enjoyment of our medium. I think comics interface with the eye and brain differently than just about anything else you can do, and it's a pleasurable and educational experience that I think as many people as possible should enjoy. I do my best to connect people with material they might like, as does my staff.
Comic Pimp: How do your store aesthetics reinforce your retail philosophies? How does the way you organize and display the comics help you make that love connection between the comics and the readers?
Matt Price: When we took over the store, it was primarily a used-book store. Over time, we rearranged the front room of the shop to solely a comic-book store, with wider aisles and more attractively displayed merchandise. There is sort of a constant battle between "more stuff" and "stuff displayed attractively."
Comic Pimp: Always! So how do you deal with that?
Matt Price: We decided graphic novel stock needed shelves to reflect all their crisp, colorful art -- something made specifically to show off the alluring texture and easy-to-hold size of a graphic novel. The result are customized shelves with built-in panels to break up the monotony of the titles. Also, each shelf has a spotlight box, so that covers of select books can displayed face-out. Oversized books are displayed on top of our regular graphic novel shelves. Smaller graphic novels have their own customized shelves: one for manga and one for the smaller small-press books. We also have waterfall shelves for art and how-to books, and another for used merchandise. We also have a slanted face-out shelf for new arrivals, and multiple spinner racks.
Comic Pimp: I think anyone looking to open up their own comic shop is going to see a lot of retailers I interview going with custom shelving and a little thinking outside of the box to achieve the display and storage they want specifically. Howsabout we cover some more of the nuts and bolts of comic retailing and the challenges that come with it. Think you could give my readers an insight on the secret world of lighting your shop, or racking and display?
Matt Price: When we added the wider aisles, we also shortened the "island" shelves to open up the store a little. We also added some additional ceiling lighting, but I don't know that we've done anything terribly innovative as far as that goes. I'm not a fan of "new this week" racks, so our books are divided into Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image/independents, with DC further subdivided with WildStorm and Vertigo sections. We intend to have new issues available on the shelf for 6-8 weeks, though sometimes it's a longer or shorter window. Our graphic novels are organized by categories (crime, adventure, humor, etc.) for browsablity.
Comic Pimp: For those members of my readership who don't realize it, you just served up two important and perpetually retail-controversial pieces of information there, Matt. Does every great comic shop need a new arrivals rack? Is there an advantage to genre racking for graphic novels? The endless debate will indeed wage on, but we now know what Matt Price's answers are... let's poke the hornet's nest with the sharp stick a bit more shall we? What can you tell my readers about your approach to ordering new books?
Matt Price: If you mean entirely new, I've-never-seen-this-book-before books, creators are best off if they can make some kind of impression on me. "Mouse Guard," for example, caught my eye with its interesting concept and outstanding art, so we decided to take a chance on it. The staff has gotten behind it, and it's really sold well. However, getting attention via Previews is getting harder and harder; I really encourage creators to mail indy-friendly retailers with information. And I think, while e-mail is cheaper, physical mail has a better chance of being read and making an impression.
Comic Pimp: Great advice to aspiring and professional comic creators alike. Seeking out the stores that fit their market and letting those retailers know what they have to offer can be crucial to the survival of their books. And there are lots of indy-friendly stores and enthusiastic retailers all across the country.
Which brings me to something I know I hear all the time on messages boards and such - that a store like yours couldn't exist outside of a city like New York or LA... and yet here you are, doing something completely innovative in the world of comics retailing. Why do you think your shop thrives in your city with your clientele?
Matt Price: Norman has always been a good comics town, but even so, I think taking chances and stocking good material should succeed in most cities. We have a lot of great customers. I think the passion that I have and that the staff has for what we do comes through, and I think that's a big part of why we've been successful. We've had some great staff members over the years, and our current manager, Travis, is great at hand-selling the items that he likes and spending quality time with every customer. I never really liked the idea that you have to move to New York or Los Angeles to accomplish something -- everyone can make a difference right where he or she is.
Comic Pimp: Absolutely. I think those people who think the "rest of the country" isn't up to or isn't interested in new comics retailing experiences are selling the industry, the artform, and the people behind those shops short. There are always going to be those people who tell you whatever new thing you try is impossible...
Matt Price: A journalism adviser in college -- otherwise a nice guy -- informed me that "no one will ever pay you to write about comics" in the real world. On my 26th birthday, the largest newspaper in Oklahoma ran my first column about comic books, which has run weekly for over five years. So either I'm really motivated by people telling me things are impossible, or it really is possible to accomplish a lot more than people think if you put your mind to it.
Comic Pimp: A perfect segue to talk about doing the impossible! I've been telling people that I think you are the comic industry's Evel Knievel for a long time now, and it's because of your utter fearlessness in the face of great challenges. Coming from a restaurant and bar industry background, I gotta tell you how much I respect and admire your ability to run both a comic book store and a restaurant. Both industries are historically difficult ones featuring products that have a limited shelf life, and on top of that you're running two businesses at once! Talk about being fearless... you make it look easy, Mister Price!
Give us an insight on how it all works, won't you? How do you deal with the restaurant part of your business and how does it in with the comics aspect of your business?
Matt Price: First off, there's no way I could have done it without the expertise of my wife, who is a former trainer for a major restaurant chain, and our manager, Dan, who has years and years of restaurant management experience.
For the first two years, we ran it as a straight-up, everyday cafe, and while our overall sales increased by 48% and 18% those two years, we decided a better use of staff and time was to narrow our targets. So we're open regularly on Wednesday, and then for special events. When we book children's birthday parties, for example, we don't just rent out the space. Annette will research the child's interests and customize the party with original thematic games especially designed for age. For a little Darth Vader fan, she built a Death Star piñata that the kids whacked with lightsabers, and created a Jedi Training obstacle course.
Comic Pimp: Oh, man, I wish you had been around to throw my birthday parties when I was a kid!
Matt Price: My wife also has become an award-winning cake designer, and her creations are as much about art as are the comics that we sell. Like many things we've ended up doing, we focus on our interests, learn new skills and put a lot of heart into it.
Matt Price: I can't be anything but pleased. More people through the door than last year, more transactions. Sales were up 75% from last year and well over our best FCBD ever.
Comic Pimp: Gotta like that!
Matt Price: Also, the second-most people and the second-most transactions we've had on FCBD, behind only the first year. We served free cake, and even sang some karaoke.
Comic Pimp: Karaoke? (laugh)!
Matt Price: Our theme was to celebrate the connection between great music and great comics at this year's Free Comic Book Day. A perfect example is this year's "Free Scott Pilgrim" comic book. Scott Pilgrim is a twentysomething rocker in the series of graphic novels from Oni Press. Publishers' Weekly named "Scott Pilgrim" one of the best comics of 2005, and called the book "a great oddball tale that captures the energy of a generation."
Singer-songwriter Kendric Bailey performed for us with an acoustic set at 7 p.m. Kendric's music, as he describes it, is "a little bit Hank, a little bit Clash, and a little Woody Guthrie. I like the term Cow-punk." We all had a lot of fun. You know that line in the Elvis song, "King Creole" -- "he won't stop playing til the guitar breaks"? It was kind of like that, except - when Kendric broke a guitar string, he just pulled out his backup guitar and kept going. Then, he even broke a pick or two.
Comic Pimp: Awesome! Now I know anyone who would come up with a cool event like that for Free Comic Book Day has got to have a deep love for the funnybooks and this column is called "The Comic Pimp" so let's talk about comics. What's your favorite book that people need to be reading?
Matt Price: A couple that I've previously mentioned, "Scott Pilgrim" and "Mouse Guard" are two that I heartily recommend. I haven't gone wrong yet with any of Brian K. Vaughan's writing, either. Brian Wood's "Local" and "Demo" are both great reads. I'm a longtime fan of both Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis. I suppose if I have to say one, I'll ask people to seek out the Andi Watson collection "Little Star," about a new father, that really connected with me.
Comic Pimp: Yeah, those are all great reads "Little Star" was terrific! Okay Matt, let's say you woke up one morning to find out that your store has become the blueprint for the way comic stores will be built and operated in the future. What would the world of comic retailing be like?
Matt Price: Well, instead of saying everyone should have a restaurant, or sell online, or have outside partnerships, I'd say people should be willing to adapt to their market. A specialty shop in a lightly populated area can be a death sentence if you're not interested in seeking out new and fresh ways to serve your customers. Always look for new opportunities and new challenges. Don't do the same old thing just because that has always worked.
Comic Pimp: Great advice. Any good business makes it's own opportunities, and has to keep making them day in and day out. So what's next for the future of Speeding Bullet?
Matt Price: One of our main focuses in 2006 is the online component -- people may want to keep an eye on www.speedingbulletcomics.com!
Comic Pimp: Well, I've been impressed with everything you've done up to this point, so I really will be keeping an eye on your website.
Okay, to round this interview out I'm turning the floor over to you. Here's your podium to sound off on whatever you'd like. Go ahead and rant, gimme an ad, or just preach the gospel truth. Knock me out, baby!
Matt Price: Don't be afraid to try something new, whether you are a creator, retailer or even a reader of comics. When that fantastic idea comes to you, listen to it, push it to perfection, then follow through. There is no "one right way" to sell comics.
Comic Pimp: Thanks for talking with us, Matt!
Folks, be sure you check out Speeding Bullet's website and if you're in or around Norman, Oklahoma be sure to visit this truly unique store.