Welcome to Store Tour, ROBOT 6’s weekly exploration of comics shops, and the people who run them; think of it as the retailer version of Shelf Porn. Each Sunday we feature a different store, and also get to know the person behind the register.
This week’s store is Big Pete's Collectibles, located at 128 Lonsdale Ave. in North Vancouver, British Columbia. We spoke with Big Pete himself.
ROBOT 6: Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work that out?
Big Pete: This is our seventh store location. Our last location had its block torn down, and we wanted to stay within the block, so we rented an older unit; the only available unit was a 90-year-old unit that needed some work. We had it gutted and an old mezzanine removed, which opened up the back 1,000 square feet quite nicely for a play area and back-issue comics. It’s out of the way of the main 1,600 square feet of retail at the front, so the play area and back issue separation is really nice. New-release comics towards the front, and one massive wall of trade paperbacks and hardcovers.
One of our favorite features in the new shop are the angled upper portions of the walls, which we had trouble trying to figure out what to do with when we moved in. We realized one day we could put stuff up on them using industrial Velcro. So we used print top loaders and comic top loaders with Velcro, and it makes a really brilliant wall display. Easy to take down off the wall and next to impossible to fall down off the wall. As we sell issues we simply reload the top loaders with a new book or print.
What is the secret origin of your store? How did the store come to be? How did you decide on its name and its location?
I moved to Vancouver in the early 1990s to get involved with baseball. That didn’t go well, as my shoulder gave out, so at the time my other hobby was sports cards. The timing was fairly strong as it coincided with the sports card boom. I’m a fairly tall guy at 6-foot-4, and a lot of people used to call me Big Pete, so we went with Big Pete’s Sportscards and Collectibles. The location was picked by a fellow I hired for some business help; he helped me with startup information and found what he thought was a good location in North Vancouver. We’ve been in North Vancouver ever since.
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing?
Aside from a few comics I read as a child, comics were a new thing for me in the 1990s. The card collectors we had as customers also had an interest in comics. We had daily requests to bring a wider variety of products in, so we felt comics would be the next step for us. This also coincided nicely with the boom in comics in the 1990’s. We started bringing in comics in 1993 or early 1994. I have a love for all things collectible, so the comics business was an easy addition for me.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing?
The most important thing for me on the retail side of things is that the store has to be fun and relaxed at all times. I’ve always been a fairly cautious retailer, so I’ve never attempted to expand too quickly, and that was probably what saved us during the collapse of the industry in the late '90s. I’m quite content with the business we’ve built, and we’ll continue to try to slowly build it until my wife and I are ready to retire (hopefully within a 15- to 20-year span). That would take us to our store’s 45th anniversary. I guess you could say “slow and steady” has been my philosophy.
What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?
Our current bestsellers are as follows:
- Rat Queens
- All-new Marvel Star Wars titles
I’m a huge horror fan, so one of my favorite titles is Crossed, I’d like it to sell better, but it’s a tough comic to push on the average comic reader! Shaolin Cowboy by Geof Darrow is also one of my favorite books, and I love to introduce people to Geof’s work, but it’s still not a household name like it should be.
Because I was always a big reader as a kid, I wish the kids titles in general would sell better, but that is also a tough market. Comics like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and even Archie are a much tougher sell than they were years ago. We really strive to have a spectacular section of kids books.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time, if at all? Do you have a discount or loyalty program?
The customer base is in a “golden era” right now. I think this is the best setting in the history of pop culture in regards to fan base and potential customer base. Kids that grew up with Star Wars and G.I. Joe and Transformers and all the other great things that came out of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s have grown up, they now have their own children and they shop together with their families. There is tremendous buying power when an entire family collects together. I’m sure this is what has brought on a resurgence in the board game industry also.
We do not have an official loyalty or discount system, but long term customers always get treated very well. We like to price things fairly from the get go, so we feel the customer base is quite happy with us for that reason anyways. Long term customers also know there’s perks along the way.
Your website is regularly updated with new merchandise arriving in the store each week, and you're also on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. How do you feel your online activity supports or supplements your store?
Keeping in touch with customers on a daily basis through all the channels mentioned above was a game changer for business. Customers having the ability to constantly monitor new products that arrive in store, and contact me within seconds to put something aside for pickup is spectacular for business and customer interaction. The biggest perks for us in this type of environment is the ability to buy a nice vintage collection of comics or toys, have this information relayed through all those channels to our regular customers and churn through a lot of the product within a day or two of purchase. Years ago, prior to having that ability it could take weeks or months for customers to even know that new product had arrived. It required a lot of phone calls or a really good email database. I feel confident that I can spend a large amount of money on a sizable collection and recoup a solid portion of that outlay within a week.
There is no denying the power of the social websites for organizing a store event/party or signing session also.
How has your store’s experience been with digital comics?
I’ve found that a majority of our customer base has used digital to test specific things, and then if they enjoy the book they will buy the real deal. I have no problem with digital at all. If it gets more people into reading comics and enjoying the industry, that will have a trickle down effect into other products such as apparel or toys, so in long run, even though we may miss some physical comic sales to digital, if your store is diverse enough, you will benefit from sales of other merchandise.
Do you have any events or programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
We do multiple signings a year, usually between four and five, including one large signing event for Free Comic Book Day. Vancouver is teeming with amazing local talent, most of which I’ve had the pleasure of befriending over the years in business, so we often have the local talent in for small signing sessions or release-day signings for a newly released issue or TPB. Recent signings have included Daniel Way for FCBD, and some great local comic talent, including Kurtis Wiebe, Ed Brisson, Johnnie Christmas, Max Dunbar, Simon Roy and John Gallagher (digital artist for TV show after TV show), and on the horror side of things the Twisted Twins (Jen and Sylvia Soska).
Which conventions do you attend? How does your store benefit from attending them?
We attend the local Vancouver Fan Expo and a couple other minor single-day shows as a dealer, but we do go shopping and information gathering at many cons throughout the year, including ECCC and GenCon.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly affects your store?
Keeping pace, keeping things fresh and having the industry grow at a stable pace. It’s been really strong for a few years running, but keeping the product strong enough and fresh enough to keep people interested in spending their money will be a tough thing to do. I’m terrified of having a movie year in which everything released by Marvel and DC is a bomb/dud. That could affect the industry more than anything at all, a streak of bad movies could be devastating.
Conversely, what is the industry's biggest asset that is helping you be successful?
Exactly as above, the movies/TV shows being put out, when they continue to be strong, it generates new consumers on a daily basis. Also of note is the ability of creators now to truly have free reign to write/draw whatever they desire. Image Comics’ no-holds-barred attitude has been the best thing for the industry in years. A fear-nothing attitude is a must for storytelling. The ability for comic creators to communicate with their fanbase through social media is also a tremendous plus. Involving your fanbase is a very important step for future independent comic book releases.
Anything coming up at Big Pete's that is a good excuse for someone to stop by?
Aug. 9 is my birthday party sale! We’re going to have a large party for that one. Beyond that, there’s always something good to come by for!
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.