Like traditional bookstores before them, comic book stores are now learning a hard lesson: Adapt or die.
After the closure of Atomic Comics, the Valley’s hitherto largest comic store, some comic store owners in the Valley have come to the conclusion that they can no longer keep their heads above water selling only their eponymous product. According to store owner Mike Banks, Samurai Comics is working on living up to a new slogan: “So much more than just a comic book store.”
The store has diversified its offerings by putting all sorts of new knickknacks on the shelves such as key chains, coffee mugs, toys, video games, and rare or once-popular candies like Pop Rocks that induce a sense of nostalgia among adults. The store also charges customers to participate in card game tournaments like “Magic: The Gathering.”
Even young girls, once a portion of the market seemingly lost to comic stores, now appear to enjoy going into the store with parents, according to Banks. “Angry Birds” plush toys sell well with them.
“We’re poised (to remain solvent) regardless of any downturn,” Banks said.
That was not the case with Atomic Comics.
On Aug. 22, Atomic Comics sent waves through the comic book industry when owner Mike Malve unexpectedly declared bankruptcy, immediately closing all four Valley locations. As one of the larger comic outlets in the country, Atomic’s closure caused a lot of talk not just in the local scene, but the national one as well.
Other stores in the Valley rushed to get the comic shipments meant for Atomic the week they closed to better serve customers who would find their default store locked up when they arrived that Wednesday, the day new comics are put on the shelves. The displaced customers helped boost business for stores in the Phoenix area, a market some store owners called saturated with comic stores.
For Banks, the closure of Atomic was not just a boon for business, it was an opportunity to expand. In the wake of Atomic’s closure, Banks hastily opened up a third location next to Atomic’s former flagship location at Southern Avenue and Country Club Drive in Mesa to fill the void. That location could become permanent as Banks looks into expanding his chain to meet the new demand. Banks said he intends to have a permanent location in Mesa regardless of whether it is in the current spot.
“It’s more space than I need, but I like being there,” Banks said.
The new Samurai location still has people coming in every week who are just learning about Atomic’s demise by way of a sign on the locked doors pointing them next door. Some of these customers are startled to find that the new Samurai Comics is still mostly empty as Banks and other employees work to fill up the new location with merchandise from his other two locations and new shipments coming in each week.
As confident as Banks is about the future of his store and the new location, he said Atomic Comics was a victim of the economy — and that it has taken a toll on his business, too.
“The last three years have been tougher for us than our first three years,” Banks said.
Alan Giroux, owner of Phoenix’s All About Books and Comics, agreed that the last couple years have been rough for comic retailers.
“It’s a very finite business,” Giroux said, adding, “Comics will always be on the sidelines.”
Giroux looks to appeal to his customers by trying to offer a more pure comic book store experience.
“(We are) probably one of the few remaining comic book-only stores in the nation,” Giroux said.
Giroux said his business declined about 30 percent last year, but that 2011 has looked much more positive. Banks, too, said profits are up in 2011. This is especially true since Atomic Comics went out business.
This rosy outlook for 2011 is congruent with what the industry is seeing nationwide. Figures from Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., the largest comic distributor in North America, show total sales of comics and graphic novels in the third quarter of 2011 are up 3.55 percent from a year ago. Unit sales increased 8.74 percent.
Gotham City Comics & Coffee, a relative newcomer in the Valley’s comic book market, is also positive about its prospects. The store opened last December in downtown Mesa, then sold to three employees in August.
Before the purchase, co-owner Tom Price said business was poor. Since taking it over and reinventing the store, he said, sales are up — and he expects to see a profit.
With a smaller selection of comics than All About or Samurai, Gotham City relies much more on being a new kind of comic store. It, too, offers toys, T-shirts and other products. However, the store also charges to play video games, and has a cafe and a lobby area to read and watch TV.
“We want people to hang out,” Price said. “We’re more like the social media of comic stores.”
While each store is positive about their ability to keep their own locations bustling with business, none of the owners could say for certain where Atomic went wrong. Atomic Comics owner Mike Malve could not be reached for comment, but those who knew him well said he would likely not return calls as he was tired of talking about the bankruptcy.
The blow to Malve’s business was also a blow to him and his family. In a public statement released after the closure of all four Atomic locations, Malve said his family’s home was secured against his store leases, which had to be broken in the wake of the bankruptcy.
Rumors of Atomic going out of business were not uncommon, former employee Yvette Arteaga said. Arteaga started working at Samurai after meeting Banks at his downtown Phoenix location.
Justin Blair, another former Atomic employee and now manager of the new Samurai location, said some people were so certain the rumors were true that they were already actively looking for new jobs when Atomic closed.
Out of respect for Malve, former employees and other store owners did not want to speculate too much about what happened with Atomic Comics. However, some said the store may have been stretched too thin. Its most expensive location was at Chandler Fashion Center — a high-profile spot with a lot of foot traffic, but relatively few sales.
In the early 1990s, All About Books and Comics had as many as six locations. As Giroux got older and his children grew up, he decided to stop renewing his leases, sold off his merchandise and downsized to one location. One of his previous locations became a now-popular Tempe comic store called Ash Avenue Comics and Books.
Today, Giroux thinks he could have another successful location if he wanted it, but he doesn’t want to deal with the hassle. He said he downsized for purely personal reasons — but perhaps in light of Atomic Comics’ fate, it may have been a smart business move.
Price, too, believes it is better to focus on maintaining one great location. “I’m a firm believer that each town just needs one really good comic book store,” he said.
As another former employee of Atomic Comics, Price also did not want to speculate on the genesis of Atomic Comics’ failure. Price said Malve’s business was important to the owner on a personal level.
Why didn’t he downsize or try to change course before it was too late?
“You just have to know Mike (Malve),” Price said.