Welcome to Store Tour, ROBOT 6’s weekly exploration of comics shops, and the people who run them. Each Sunday we feature a different store, and also get to know the person behind the register.
This week’s store is Carol and John's Comic Book Shop, located in Kamm’s Plaza, 17462 Lorain Ave. in Cleveland, Ohio. We spoke with store president John Dudas.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
John Dudas: My great-grandfather was a Polish immigrant, and he could speak English but not write it. In the 1970s he would use comic books to learn how to read from the context of the pictures. Whenever I visited him he had this huge stack of comics I'd get to flip through. When he passed away he left them to me, and that was the start of my collection. By 11 years old I was working in a local comic shop. When I was 14 they hired my mother as well. When I was 17 they laid us both off and we decided to open our own shop. That was in 1990, and we've been in business ever since. The name was a result of her name and mine, and while I always thought it sounded a bit clunky, it's served us well, as more women entered the hobby and saw it as a comforting name when selecting a shop.
Why did you decide to get into comics retailing? What in your background do you think made you particularly suited for the retail side of comics?
My first memory is of the Super Friends water ski show in Sea World in 1976. I was 4 years old and I remember it vividly, and it's where my mom bought me my first comic, the Super Friends Treasury Edition. So you could say that all I've ever known is superheroes. I've always loved comics, and the first time I entered a real comic shop I was hooked for life. I've always had an entrepreneurial streak, from my first lemonade stand to a detective agency when I was a kid.
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work that out?
Over the years we've worked to make sure every inch of space in the shop pays for itself, while allowing enough room to explore it comfortably. The highlight of the shop is our new comic book table, which sits in the center of the store and features all the week's new releases. People can walk a full 360 around the table, and it helps to promote conversations among staff and customers. We also keep the previous week's comics on a separate section so when customers stop by biweekly they only have to check those two sections for new releases. From there we keep a 'new comic wall' area that goes back anywhere from six months to a year for every title. We then have thousands of back issues that are restocked regularly. Our walls are also lined with graphic novels and the inventory is meticulously maintained. In 2011 we were nominated for an Eisner Award, and we created a five-minute video walking you through the store layout. It's slightly dated but still pretty accurate.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing?
Our store looks very different now than it did 25 years ago, and we've done a pretty good job of adapting to the times. Our philosophy is to create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable to enjoy what they enjoy, and have a chance to share that love with another. We believe that the perfect story is different for everyone, so we never try to just push our favorite comics into people's hands. We'd rather hear about what they like, then help them to expand what they've read based on that knowledge. I had my first daughter four years ago, and it definitely helped me to make the shop even more family-friendly, as I could watch how she interacted with the shop to learn how to make improvements.
What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?
As with all shops, we sell a lot of Amazing Spider-Man and Batman. Small press-wise, Saga and The Walking Dead are at the top. Personally I'm a huge fan of James Robinson's Starman series as well as anything by Darwyn Cooke, specially DC: The New Frontier. We also have a pretty big crime noir following in the shop, and we enjoy recommending Criminal, Gotham Central and the Parker graphic novels.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
Pretty much the standard 20- to 40-year-old male, but we've found our female readership to be growing at an exponential rate. We've also found ourselves to be a good place for a family outing, and we get a lot of families coming in together all looking for different stuff.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise?
We advertise by engaging our community as much as possible. We support our local Drink and Draw and Dr. Sketchy clubs, as well as provide support to local school and library events. We host regular events at the shop, and we find positive word of mouth to be the best way to bring in new customers. We try to make sure our events all have a local component, some form of free giveaway, and something that is interactive so that the customer can feel like a part of the event. We have a store subscription program, and you get 10 percent off all your new comic purchases if you sign up.
How do you feel your presence on Facebook supports or supplements your store?
We have a huge Facebook following, and were even picked out of 800,000 businesses in Ohio to be a part of the Facebook Small Business Boost class. Our store's website acts as a static source of information for us, while the Facebook page is more dynamic.
Do you have events or programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
We regularly put together art shows and fundraisers, supporting local charities. We are very grateful that we've always had the support of the community when putting things together. We always aim to impress, and more often than not just aim to break even and allow the extra media attention to be the pay off. We put together a Superman event that raised over $5,000 in a day for the Cleveland Courage Fund. We have an annual Christmas party/art show for the Cleveland Food Bank that helped to create over 11,000 meals this past year. We did a comic book beer pairing event with out local brewery that sold out and had over 80 attendees. Our Free Comic Book Day event is divided into a day and a midnight release event, with over 3,000 people attending. We have over 30 local artists involved with that. Our theory is we'd rather have 30 local artists than one big name.
Does your store attend conventions? Does it benefit from them?
We don't really do conventions regularly, but there's some that we attend. We like to set up at shows that we'd be attending normally so we have a base of operations as a staff. We're a part of the Akron Comicon and provide participation prizes to all the kids that enter as well as being part of the judging.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
I think we're all in a never-ending battle with big box stores and the Internet, more over pricing than service. Sometimes it feels like the publishers aren't providing us with all the information that they should to help us sell their products. I think they become dazzled by the prospect of working with bigger retail outlets and forget that we're out there personally invested in their product on a daily basis.
What's the industry's biggest asset that's helping you be successful?
It's cool to read comics right now, and comics have been around long enough that they're a shared generational hobby. The movies are obviously a big deal. Our biggest asset we've got is an inventory made up of product that people care deeply about, and that they want to share with other people. Here's an article I wrote for Sequart that was a rebuttal to an article about Amazon killing the comic shop that was pretty well received, and has some of my viewpoints on the matter.
With all of the people that come through your store, I imagine you must have some great stories. What is the funniest or most memorable moment you've seen in your store?
During Free Comic Book Day 2009 we staged a live race between Superman and The Flash. We thought it was going to be a joke, but a bunch of people showed up and it really was the beginning of our event-driven existence. People talk about it to this day. Here's a video; it's old and hokey but it captures the energy.
Another memorable moment is when we helped to collect over 200 pounds of Superman memorabilia for Mike Meyer, and then flew him out to Cleveland to get a tour of the house where Superman was created. Really the feel-good moment of our shop's history, and when we started putting together more charity-based events. Reuters even sent a reporter out.
Anything coming up at Carol and John's that's a good excuse for someone to stop by?
We'll be doing Halloween Comic Fest again this year on Oct. 31. We actually won the Diamond Best Practices Award for our event last year. We also have a huge Black Friday event that is our longest-running shop event. We'll be participating in Local Comic Shop Day the day after that. We'll also be having our aforementioned Christmas party/food drive art show on Dec. 19. I've got another little girl due on Sept. 16, and that will be taking up a bit of my time.
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.