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 Casablanca Comics, located at 151 Middle St. in Portland, Maine. We spoke with co-owner Rick Lowell.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Rick Lowell: I had been collecting comics from a very young age. I had an uncle who worked in comics in the 1960s who really turned me onto fandom. He gave me a subscription for the old Buyer’s Guide to Comic Fandom for my birthday when that first started, and I was hooked. I started buying and selling through the mail in the 1970, then I went to college in the early 1980s and lost touch with comics for a couple of years. A few years later, I started to be aware of the direct market comic stores. I rediscovered comics and began to sell at conventions. I was working full-time at a newspaper and doing conventions on the weekends. Soon I realized that I enjoyed selling comics enough that a store would be a viable option for me. I found a VERY small location in the town where we lived (Yarmouth, Maine). It was 150 square feet, and had previously been a barber shop. The sink was still there and one of the walls had mirrors on it. The store was located behind a hardware store. It was small enough that I figured we could open it on the weekends and after school, and would not need to travel to shows. The rent was less than I was paying for tables at conventions. We opened on March 14, 1987. We soon outgrew that location and moved to a larger spot in Yarmouth, then moved the whole operation to our current location in Windham. We opened the Portland store in 1996.
As far as the name, I wanted something with a nostalgic feel to it. I didn’t want to have a generic name, and I also wanted something with alliteration. I wanted to be the first one in the phone book. Casablanca is a favorite movie of mine, and it seemed to fit. After all, the store is “Rick’s Place." I believe it was suggested by my wife (co-owner Laura O'Meara) and sister-in law while we were going to the beach.
What in your background do you think made you particularly suited for the retail side of comics?
One of the defining moments, that light bulb-going-off moment, was when I was still in high school. My favorite comic at the time was Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck. I had been a fan from the very beginning. When I was younger I had a paper route, and all of my money went into my collection. I would go each week to the newsstand, which for me was a local chain called Bookland. I could buy pretty much everything that came out for $10 a week. Somehow, I missed an issue of Howard the Duck. There were no comic stores in Maine at that point. Fortunately, my mother called the store, and they allowed her into the warehouse to look through the returns (comics were sold returnable on the newsstand). She found my missing issue, and I knew there had to be a better way to do this. That is when the seed of a thought for the store was planted. I was still very active in fandom. I was submitting data for the Overstreet Price Guide by the late 1970s. I was a member of the Maine Comics Club, which consisted of 30 or so members. We would meet at each other’s houses once a month and buy, sell and trade comics. That was my first real attempt at retailing. I also had begun advertising locally to buy collections. I would sell via mail order through the Comics Buyer’s Guide. I found that I really enjoyed this part of the hobby.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing? Has it evolved from when you first started?
My philosophy has stayed consistent. The important things are customer service, selection and providing a pleasant shopping experience. You can’t compete on price; it is a losing battle, as there will always be someone willing to sell for less. The problem with discounting in a retail environment is that it limits your cash flow and ability to maintain a well stocked and staffed store. We have the most amazing employees. Some of them have been with us for 20 years or longer. We have a very diverse staff that loves comics.
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work it out?
We felt that it was really important to have room for customers to move about the store. When we first opened, we had visited too many stores that were cramped and crowded. We continue to visit stores all over the country. We always find ideas of what we can do better, and what to avoid. I feel sometimes less is more. Better to have a curated, well stocked store that is neat and well lit than something that is jammed full and dark. There is plenty of aisle space. We try to have as many full cover facings as possible along the walls. Our weekly new releases are on a custom-built table in the middle of the store so that you can see from the front to the back wall. All of the comics are alphabetical by title. Our graphic novels are alphabetical as well, with special sections for certain publishers and creators. We also do some genre boutiques.
What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?
Currently the majority of our best sellers are from Image Comics, including Saga, The Walking Dead and Sex Criminals. They are our No. 2 publisher, behind Marvel and ahead of DC. They understand that telling a good story with a consistent creative team is a recipe for success. If someone had told me 15 years ago that Image would be rivaling Marvel, I would not have believed it. The new Star Wars line has been a hit for Marvel. Other bestsellers for us include lots of non-traditional comics such as Lumberjanes and My Little Pony. My favorite book that deserves to be selling better is David Lapham’s Stray Bullets. We have been fans since the very first issues in the 1990s.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
Our customer base is a very diverse mix. We deal with a lot of families, and a lot of art students. Some of the families are people who started shopping with us when they were kids, and now they bring their kids in. Because of our location we also deal with a lot of tourists. What is nice about that is we have people who visit us every year when on vacation, and make our store a planned stop on their trips. We have a very strong female customer base, which continues to grow. Half of the staff at our Portland store are women, and they work New Comics Day. I think that we try to be inviting and welcoming to everyone.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise?
One of the most effective ways for us to reach new customers is by hosting events. We created the Maine Comics Arts Festival eight years ago, which is held in the spring. That is an event much like SPX where we have 120 comic creators and publishers at the festival, but no dealers or stores. In the fall we host a more traditional comic convention, the Portland Comic Expo. We also work with over 100 libraries throughout the state. By creating new readers through libraries, the hope is that they will someday find their way into a comic store.
I like to think that we market more than we advertise. At the beginning of the store, we had some very successful radio campaigns. We used to use the Yellow Pages. Times change, and neither one of those methods is effective anymore. We do a lot of social media posting and advertising, as well as a weekly e-mail newsletter. We have a customer rewards program that allows customers to earn free graphic novels and back-issues.
The great thing about an online presence is that it is interactive and immediate. It is the quickest and most effective way for us to share information with our customer base. We can list the weekly new arrivals on our website and Facebook pages. We can organize events using online tools. Our vintage back-issue business is something that is important to me, so I created a separate Facebook page just for dealing with that. Whenever we get a new collection it is posted there with photos, and we will almost always get quick replies from customers asking about the books.
Do you have events or programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
We love hosting creator signings. We would like to do more. In the last year or two we have hosted events with Scott McCloud, Klaus Janson, Sean Murphy, Jeff Lemire and many others. Portland is a wonderful city to visit, and we feed everyone lobster. The trouble with signings at this point is many creators have too many demands on their time. There are so many more conventions than there were even five years ago. It is a balancing act between meeting your fans and getting your book done. As much as we enjoy creators, it probably is more important for them to get their books out on time.
Does your store attend conventions, other than the ones you put on?
I have recently begun attending conventions again as a dealer. This is in direct response to our growing vintage back-issue business. It takes me back to how I began in this hobby. I really enjoy it, except I am convinced boxes of books get heavier as I get older. I also attend some shows as a fan and consumer. I attended Cartoon Crossroads in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the guests at that show are people we have hosted at our comics festival, so it was nice to see them.
What are your thoughts on digital comics? Have they had any effect on your store?
I consider digital comics to be supplemental to the printed books. Many comic fans still want to own a physical item. They are collectors. While some people have left print for digital, we see just as many come into the store who discovered digital first and want to buy the comics or books. Stores offer a shopping experience that you do not get with a download.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
There are several problems that I see. The direct market distribution system is broken. Many retailers are having trouble with their weekly shipments and reorders. Diamond tries, and I understand that they are moving millions of individual items each week. I miss the days of regional warehouses.
From a publishing standpoint, the constant relaunches and rebooting is a problem. The move to the West Coast by DC Comics put them under the watchful eyes of people at Warner Bros., who do not understand the direct market. In addition, the publishers are once again chasing the elusive big-box bookstore market, and treating the direct market as an afterthought.
And what is the industry's biggest asset that is helping you be successful?
The biggest asset for us is diversity of product. There are so many good comics and books being produced today that we can find something for everyone. We deal directly with many publishers on a weekly basis, and do not rely upon the traditional distribution system. I also think that general awareness and acceptance of comic properties due to the various television shows and movies has been a big help. People aren’t afraid to visit a comic shop anymore. When Penny visits a comic shop on The Big Bang Theory, it shows it as a viable option for anyone.
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?
Recently we had a marriage proposal in our store. The ring was hanging on a statue in our showcase. It was all planned out ahead of time and we knew about it. I am happy to report that the couple is engaged.
Anything coming up at Casablanca Comics that is a good excuse for someone to stop by?
Everyone is welcome anytime. We are constantly buying vintage collections and you never know what will be in the store from week to week. There have been discussions about having a warehouse sale but we still need to set the date for that. We will host the Portland Comic Expo on Sunday, Oct. 25, at the Portland Exposition Building.
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.