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 Star Comics, located at 2014 34th St. in Lubbock, Texas. We spoke with owner Robert Mora.
ROBOT 6: What's the secret origin of your store?
Robert Mora: Star Comics, originally Star Books & Comics, was born in 1977, the idea of two brothers, Joe and Mike Gulick. Mike wanted to open a used book store. Joe loved comics, and they weren’t always easy to find, so he convinced his brother to carry those too. A comic book store was born. As a few years went by -- 1980 to be exact -- and a man by the name of Sid Deavours partnered with Mike Gulick to focus more on comic books, science fiction and fantasy and less on the waves of romance novels that kept coming through the doors. In 1981, Sid bought Mike’s share of the business. Eventually he got rid of those romance novels to make way for all these comic books that just seemed to keep piling up. As the years go by, many items like D&D, sports cards, gaming cards, anime and used books, came in and out the door. Some items sold well, some didn’t, but the constant was always comics. Sid was my uncle; he passed away in 1999. We all love and miss him dearly. I have worked my entire life since, maintaining his legacy. I sadly dropped “Books” from the original title just to eliminate confusion, but I will always keep the name Star.
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?
It’s a family business. I was almost “born” into it. My uncle bought the store when I was young. What kid in the 1980s wouldn’t love to hang out at their uncle’s comic book store whenever they could? I would get comic books for Christmas and birthdays. I thought everyone did. I read comics, I studied price guides and I took every opportunity I could to tell my friends about comics, without apology. I truly loved this store as a kid. It became my first job while in middle school and high school. I continued working here while attending college. After graduating from Texas Tech University in a field not related to business whatsoever, I had to get a real job. Even after getting an 8-to-5 job, I still worked here on the weekends. I just never left. I knew the people and I knew the business. It was comfortable. It was family, and it still is.
Do you have a philosophy or strategy to retailing?
Every person has been a customer longer than they've been in retail. I know when a store or restaurant’s environment works well for me, and when it doesn’t. I think the best retailers in any style of business are successful when they listen to their market and the needs of their customers. If the people walking through my door are looking for a certain type of environment but they are not finding it here, take notes. Pay attention and ask questions. I’ve been the guy across the counter, behind the counter and in the back office. I try to remember the strengths and weaknesses of all those positions, and what rubs me the wrong way at a movie theater or a burrito stand can be applied to what I do as well. It can drive my family crazy at times, but I have a habit of turning most retail experiences into scenarios for my store.
Tell me about the layout of your store. How did you work that out?
Happy accidents. Like most locally owned stores, we have a variety of displays and fixtures, and mostly used. I happen to enjoy working on new displays, layouts and floor plans. It’s like a bad habit. Every time I think I have settled on a design, I end up changing something. I realized many years ago that this is not my personal hangout, it’s a business. I grew up around comic book stores from the '70s and '80s. Comic dungeons don’t frighten me, they actually fascinate me. A good comic-dungeon layout is hard to achieve, but I have avoided trying. Open concept is our current idea, and we are not working with a lot of square footage. Who knows? This time next year, we may try tall shelving and stacks.
What are your current bestsellers?
Bestsellers are Star Wars, Batman, Harley Quinn, Deadpool and The Walking Dead. I think that is pretty universal for the average comic book store in the United States. Close seconds are Saga, Fight Club 2, Sex Criminals and Afterlife with Archie. I would say those are also pretty typical titles. We love the big titles, love it when a new miniseries takes off, or makes national news. But what I really want is to support publishers and artists who take risks and explore new themes. Publishers and creators who want to reach their audience through me, I’m all for it. I encourage it. I want to help you find your readers. If I can become that radar blip for a book that needs to find an audience, I’m game.
What is your customer base like? How has it changed over time?
Lubbock Texas is a college town. Through the late '90s and early 2000s, post-speculator crash, college kids were our main customer base. Undergrads and grad students both would come and go, but every semester, we would meet a new group of readers. Our customer base has definitely changed since the first Iron Man movie. We still see those college kids, but we see more children and families than I have ever seen in my 27 years of actually working in this environment.
How do you reach out to new customers? How do you advertise?
Social media is our main form of advertising. Our second-favorite form of advertising is partnering with other local businesses and community events. My city comes first. I want art and culture to thrive in my town, and if I can be a small part of that, it’s truly an honor. We have worked with local libraries, art groups and other businesses. This is meaningful to me, but it is still a form of advertising. It’s advertising that actually makes a difference.
We have a discount loyalty program. It’s based on purchase quantities, and is set up within our point of sale (MOBY). It’s also kind of a poorly kept secret: We kind of snuck it in about two years ago, and when a credit popped up on a customer’s purchase, we would just shrug our shoulders, and then tell them “Oh, yeah, we have a loyalty program." The surprise on their face, and the impression it made, was more than any membership or percent discount ever did. We tried both memberships and discounts in the distant past. A good friend and fellow retailer, David Siegler from Ground Zero Comics in Tyler, Texas, once told me that discounts were a marketing tool, but customers eventually just expected them, and never truly appreciated them. This always stuck with me, and when the opportunity for a customer-loyalty program came about, I wanted to create a customer “thank you” that was paid attention to. When their credit kicks in, they actually get excited. It’s kind of fun.
How do you feel your presence on Facebook supports or supplements your store?
It’s more about atmosphere. Our online presence is focused on the same conversations that our customers have while in the store. I have an amazing Facebook admin, Todd Gray, who loves comics, television and movies. He finds articles, talking points and humor to link the three together. He posts things daily and just makes the online atmosphere an extension of the store.
Do you have events or programming, such as signings? How is it coordinating those?
I love signings. Local creators and artists are the best. It’s like a training ground for conventions. However, we are not geographically close or convenient for most established writers and artists to visit with their fans. Danielle Corsetto came through town on her U.S. tour last year. It was amazing, and we would love to do more events like that, but paying to bring anyone to Lubbock who is not already on their way from Dallas to Albuquerque is cost-prohibitive. That being said, we have a captive audience, and a community that loves to meet with their favorite creators, and others who are willing to try your material out. Who knows, you may earn that favorite-creator label from a few of our customers. Wink, nudge, push, etc.
Does your store attend conventions? Does it benefit from them?
We support local or regional conventions when time and money allow. We actually helped co-host our own conventions, the Lubbock Comic Book Expo and West Texas ComicCon, with Will Terrell and the Lubbock Sketch Club from 2007 to 2012. After a small break, Star Comics has become part of a local group that is starting a new set of fan conventions in 2016 called Lubbock-Con. It’s a group of passionate, smart and fun people that I have enjoyed working with these past few months. Our goal as a store has always been to share comics, art and entertainment with the Lubbock community, and as luck would have it, I found a group that share a similar goal.
What are your thoughts on digital comics? Have they had any effect on your store?
Digital comics are inevitable. When they burst on the scene, we grumped internally, but to be honest, I am a personal fan of digital media. Why not comics? I can’t force you to like or dislike paper. I get it. As long as you are buying from artists and creators, then I’m all for it. As soon as you start scanning books and reading comics for free, that affects all of us. I think that is where our true argument and battle with digital lies -- not with the legitimate digital comic, but the torrents and the scans. What kills me is, I wonder if people that scan comics work in this business? If so, why would you do that? I better stop there.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in the comics industry today that particularly impacts your store?
I think the biggest challenge to the industry at this time is retaining the current influx of fans that movies and television have been generating. I take some of that challenge to heart. We have a new audience, and they are interested for reasons better than the '90s ever gave new fans. This new audience wants to be entertained! I have a wonderful staff that is great at introducing titles to new readers. I quiz them on it from time to time. Give them a movie, or a show, and see what books they would recommend. They are pretty good, to be honest. I’d be rude to not mention Brandon, Bad Sam, Danny, Todd, Johnny and John. You know who else is great at recommending comics? Customers. I actually listen when they talk about their favorite title, because there is a good chance it will be someone else’s too.
What's the industry's biggest asset that's helping you be successful?
The biggest asset the comic book industry has that helps us is diversity. The more diversity in themes, styles and stories help us introduce potential readers to comics as an entertainment art form. We love superheroes, but we love comics more. Small press and growing publishers are where we look to the future of comics. Their success means we stay around for years to come, and my success means I have more money to buy new titles and try new projects and creators. That’s the cycle.
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?
I have a lot of stories. Frightening, infuriating, funny and more. This store has so much history. When people walk through the door and can tell you the wave of memories from decades ago. We still see people that may have moved away, and haven’t seen the store in over 20 years, but walk in the door and nostalgia kicks in. We can remember the old days, and get them up to speed on the new. It makes up for the people that have told you Stan Lee stole his ideas by reading their thoughts through radio waves. We all have those stories. Some of the “funny” stories actually turn out to be kind of sad the more you think about them. I prefer the good memories. I’ve had customers bring their kids in, and tell us that this store meant so much to them as a kid, and they wanted to share it with their children. When people take pictures of their kids in front of our window mural, and tell me they have that same picture at home, except they are the child ... and the picture is 30 years old. I’s humbling.
Anything coming up at Star Comics that's a good excuse for someone to stop by?
Every Wednesday, Bad Sam holds court and tells all who will listen about the wonders of Judge Dredd and the Metabarons. It’s impromptu, so I can’t guarantee a time (just kidding, sort of) ... but if you don’t have time for that, we have a busy fall planned. Halloween Comic Fest is a fun time. Free comics, costumes, sales, not much can go wrong. Also in October will be our third-ever “Ladies Night” hosted by the wonderful Sam Gaitan (Good Sam). She has welcomed and introduced so many female readers in our area to the world of comics. The events are a blast. The boys sit outside and eat cookies and drink lemonade, while their wives or girlfriends get to check out Rat Queens, Bitch Planet, Spider-Gwen, Revival and Harley Quinn ... they talk comics, video games, movies ... local artists come in and do sketches ... kids create, draw and color or make their own superhero masks. It really is a lot of fun. You should check out Sam Gaitan's art at raicodoll.tumblr.com and give her a wink and a nod from us.
Lastly, and most important: Truly, I am nothing without the fun and loving people around me. My wife, my kids, my comic book family ... and the city I live in. Those before me, and those yet to come, they are truly what has made Star Comics what it is today.
If you’d like to see your store featured here on Robot 6, email us.