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 JHU Comic Books, located at 32 East 32nd St. in New York City. We spoke with store manager Aimee LoSecco.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Aimee LoSecco: JHU Comic Books rose out of the ashes of Jim Hanley's Universe. Jim Hanley was retiring, and the current owners of JHU Comic Books -- Ron Hill and Nick Purpura, who were operating managers of Jim Hanley's Universe -- decided to buy the guts of the company from him and start fresh: new location, new company, new name, but the same employees and ideals -- clean, well-lit, well-stocked stores with a knowledgeable and friendly staff. And if you haven't figured out, the JHU in the title is a loving nod to Jim Hanley's Universe.
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work that out?
The layout of the store is alphabetical by title, with some exceptions. We have kids' books, magazines, mini comics, and a few other genres have their own sections. We also keep things in families, such as Avengers, Batman, X-Men, etc. We also like to highlight writers and creators, such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.
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?
I got into comics retailing because I have always loved comics, and I was in between jobs at the time. I had been working in entertainment licensing when the company was sold and found myself working in public relations, which wasn't for me. I was in my 20s and wanted to pursue my art career, and was offered a job at Gotham City Comics. When they closed their doors, I was offered a job at Jim Hanley's Universe, and was kept on staff at JHU Comic Books. Working in licensing and public relations definitely has helped in the 11 years I've been working in comics retailing. You get to see both sides of comic book (and comic-themed product) productions, as well as the marketing end of it. You get to know your audience, from start to finish.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing?
My pitch is pretty basic: an honest, soft sell; be knowledgeable and passionate. If you act like a car salesman, you drive people away. I'll walk out of a store if a salesperson hard sells me on something, so I won't do that to someone else. I love giving people gifts, so suggesting comics is like picking out the perfect gift. I won't push a book on someone just to sell it. If I think they won't enjoy it, I'll lead them to another book. I won't shit-talk a book, because every book is someone's favorite, but you can tell pretty quickly if a customer won't be satisfied with a certain comic.
What are your current bestsellers? What are your favorites that deserve to sell better at your store?
The classics always sell, current or otherwise. Batman alone accounts for a large chunk of our sales, just under 15 percent. We've sold upwards of 600 copies of Saga Vol. 1. I've hand-sold 10 copies of Lumberjanes trade paperback in about 18 hours, six copies of Punk Rock Jesus in four hours, and that was just off of "What do you recommend?" I try to push little publishers and sleeper hits. Everyone knows about Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. People need to read offshoot stuff like Rachel Rising, Humans and Toe Tag Riot. They also need to revisit books like Elfquest and Groo, which are printing new stories.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
Our customer base is incredibly diverse. We get a lot of international and tourist-based customers, but the majority of our customers are regulars who come in for their weekly, monthly, or yearly fix. We're lucky to have loyal customers, even if they come through once a year. Over the past 11 years, I have to say that women are waving their nerd flag a whole lot higher and more proudly, which is so awesome. Comics are for everyone. Everyone. They transcend race, creed, culture, gender, age, everything. If the book is well-written and the message universal, then anyone can accept it.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise?
We try to make the most of social media, since that's how everyone communicates nowadays. They like the tweets and the facebooks and the instagrammings, so that's what we do too. I always say that cheekily because it's so informal, and we like to be the local comic shop where people hang around and socialize. We also have a membership program that offers weekly discounts on new releases, and also have seasonal, holiday, and "just because" sales that are only for members. We like to reward our customers for their loyalty and support. In an economy where it comes to comic books or rent, and people choose comic books, we like to show our appreciation however we can. And that's mostly through sales, signings, events, and going above and beyond the call with customer service. We even post pics of customers who come in costume or have cool comic-themed tattoos or T-shirts.
Do you have events or programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
Signings are pretty regularly scheduled at our Manhattan location. Theme days, such as Kids' Day, and recently, Archie Day (where we had a local band play some classic Archie tunes), are better suited for our Staten Island store (at 299B New Dorp Lane). Signings at 32nd Street are usually after office work hours, 6 to 8 p.m., or until the creator leaves. Many times we have great guys who are friends of ours, like Dan Slott or Walt Simonson, will stay until the last person has their book signed. We've been pretty successful at reaching out to creators who are receptive to signing with us. Publishers, such as Dover, are very active in working with us for book signings. Their rep, Drew Ford, is there every step of the way, from booking to promotions, signage, and to the actual signing itself. In the end, it's beneficial for both the publisher and the store.
We have event days at our New Dorp store because it's more family-friendly. Everyone is at work in Manhattan during the week for work, which is great for signings, but they're at home on the weekends, and our store in Staten Island has been a comic book staple (pardon the pun) for over 30 years. Weekend events are a pretty big draw for us out there.
Does your store attend conventions? Does it benefit from them?
Sometimes Ron and Nick will attend out-of-town conventions, like Baltimore or Allentown, to see what's happening in the comic universe out of the Tri-State area. They'll make contacts, purchase some stock for the store, that sort of thing. I'll go to smaller press conventions around the area to see what self-published and mini comics are hot, buy some books for our minicomic section, and make contacts. We don't have booths at the cons anymore because our store is so close to the venues that people stop through on their way to and from the cons. If any of us has time off, we'll go to NYCC to see what's trending, visit with creators and company reps, or pick up some cool swag for the store.
What are your thoughts on digital comics? Have they had any effect on your store?
Digital comics are a good tool for retailers to preview books that are in the pipeline. As a Valkyrie, I get access to advance digital copies of comics. We have a digital storefront through comiXology, so customers can purchase their digital comics through us, and we get revenue from that. Marvel's done it right and included the digital copy for free with all of their physical books. I have noticed that most people download the comics they are mildly interested in, but will come in and buy hard copies of the stuff they really love. On a personal level, I don't care for digital comics. You can't really zoom in all that much on the artwork, it's hard to read on your phone, and even if you read them on a larger device like an iPad, stuff like two-page spreads are kind of lost in the translation. And God forbid you drop the iPad while you're reading on the toilet ...
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
The biggest challenge is probably Amazon. Why buy from a brick-and-mortar store when you can get it for mega-cheap on Amazon? Every retailer has experienced That Guy -- the one who buys three trade paperbacks, then turns around and returns them because he looked up what he can buy them for on Amazon. Sure, he can get the shipping free, but he still has to pay tax. The reality is that, yes, you have to pay tax with us, but you have the copy of the book immediately, you see the copy you're buying, and you can browse it. If you don't know what the book looks like or is about, and you get it in your hands and don't like it, you have to go through the hassle of returning it. Go to the store, check it out, and if you like it, buy it. If it's not your thing, sales reps are on hand to recommend something else. Or you may see something that grabs your eye anyway. It's not just comic books, it's all physical-presence stores. We all hear the mantra, "I can get this for cheaper on Amazon," but it's up to us how we deal with it.
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?
There are too many funny and awesome stories to count, but a few "--the hell?" moments are when someone walks in and asks if we sell sporting goods, sailing equipment, or dry ice. I once had a guy ask if Captain America was bulletproof, because he saw the movie poster and he was holding a shield. There was also the guy who asked, "Which is the guy who's up and the one who's down?" He meant Superman and Batman. I don't know which is worse: that the guy was American-born and had no idea of who Superman and Batman are, or that I was able to figure out what his ramblings meant. One of the most poignant moments was a kid in his 20s visiting from India, bursting into tears when he saw the wall of Archie comics, because that's how he learned to read and speak English when he was little. And of course, having Batkid visit our store. That was a great moment for us, because that little guy is a real trooper and awesome to boot.
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