A few weeks back, we took a trip south to visit my mother in Virginia, and I decided to hit Diamond’s Comic Shop Locator to see what the four-color world was like outside of New York City. Punching in the zip code of her suburban Richmond town, I was surprised to see only three shops pop up, none in Richmond itself. I input a few more zip codes for Richmond proper and parts due north, and still came up with the same three shops. Odd, I thought, but Virginia is a bit of a conservative state – to this NYer, at least – so I wasn’t completely surprised.
With a couple of hours to spare, I decided to hit the two closest shops – Richmond Comix and The Time Capsule – both more than 10 miles from my mother’s house and even further from Richmond itself. I took my wife with me to get a non-comics fan’s perspective, too.
Interestingly, Richmond Comix didn’t have a profile listing with Diamond, while The Time Capsule did, leading me to believe the former would be a small, Big Two-only hole in the wall. In fact, it was the other way around. While both shops had gaming tournaments running when we visited, there was a distinct difference between them, the starkest being Time Capsule’s cramped, musty, disorganized location with comics indelicately stuffed into racks and longboxes, and a minimal selection of indies, mostly limited to Image titles. There was also a back room that looked like the owner probably lived there during his off-hours. Both my wife and I were skeeved and after one quick lap of the store, we headed out.
What was originally intended to be an article comparing a couple of LCBS’ in Virginia instead became a spotlight to recognize a really good shop that hit all the right notes. Fortunately, we’d visited Richmond Comix first, and could judge it objectively without the taint of the other shop boosting our first impressions.
First thing we noticed when we walked into Richmond Comix was that it was bright and clean. There also wasn’t a single Greg Horn, et al, T&A poster hanging anywhere, something my wife particularly appreciated. Even though there were three or four long tables full of HeroClix gamers in the middle of the store, there was plenty of room to browse and no feeling of intruding on someone’s clubhouse. On the first wall as you enter, to the right, is six-foot high wire shelving with a ton of All Ages comics, everything from DC and Archie to other titles I didn’t recognize. On the other side of the store, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image and a solid collection of indies lined the shelves. Towards the back, on the right, was DC and its imprints, along with the New and Last Week’s Releases.
At the counter, located two-thirds of the way back on the left, next to the rack of indie comics, was the owner, Frank Miller, a friendly-type who waited until we reached him to ask if we needed help, and nicely left us alone when we said we were just browsing. After a full lap around, we returned to the indie rack to get a better look at what they stocked, and I was impressed to see a full run (less the Free Comic Book Day first issue) of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty, as well as 4 out of the 5 issues of Street Angel – not stuffed in back issue boxes, but ON THE RACKS! – both titles I’d been interested in checking out. I snatched them up and took them to the counter to pay, and Miller engaged us in some friendly conversation, and even offered to seek out a copy of The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty #1 that he was sure he had in storage somewhere. He also recommended AdHouse’s Project: Superior as something I might be interested in. I love contextual recommendations, especially those with sincere praise as opposed to a recitation of the solicitation copy, and if I didn’t already own it, he’d have convinced me to pick it up. Leaving the shop, even my wife – who hates going into Midtown Comics because it’s so overwhelming – had positive things to say about it, saying she’d feel comfortable browsing there.
When we returned home, I emailed Miller for an interview, and thus was born Comic Book Commentary’s first Retailer Spotlight.
Comic Book Commentary: How long has Richmond Comix been in business? Are you the original owner?
Frank Miller: We started the business (actually a corporation with 3 stockholders) in 1987, so I am coming up on 20 years in 2007.
CBC: Retail in general is a tough business, specialty retail that much more so. Why a comic book store? What’s your origin story?
Miller: I learned to read in the 50’s with Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories. I have collected and read comics during most parts of my life. When a couple of friends wanted to open a skateboard shop back in the 1980’s, they were looking for another kind of business to share a retail space, and it just kinda happened.
CBC: What’s the best part of running a comic book store? The worst?
Miller: The customers, for the most part, are the best part of my job. I see quite a few people every week, and they become an extended family. The old Eagles line…..”knows all his customers by name”….the store is a friendly place where customers strike up conversations as a spontaneous thing…almost like the old days when people were actually trying to get along with each other. For the worst….partly the folks who still insist on speculating on new comics…..my philosophy has always been that new comics are for reading primarily.. If you bag ’em and they become valuable, all the better, but, first and foremost, READ THE BOOKS!!
CBC: How many employees do you have?
Miller: This becomes an answer to the previous question also. My daughter works with me on weekends, but mostly, it’s me. I have one person, my friend, KC Carlson, to whom I will always be in debt…he has worked with me on “new comic day” for quite some time, now –gets a great discount on his books for helping, of course– but, I do not think that I could have kept my sanity without him. Plus, as a former editor with DC Comics, KC is a wonderful source of information on those hard to answer comic questions.
CBC: Do you offer pull lists, and if so, how many do you have?
Miller: I have about 110 subscribers. I stopped giving a cash discount (one of the worst things ever created in a comic book store!!) years ago, and went to a reward system…i.e. a credit for every $50 spent in the store.
CBC: What’s typically your Top 5 best-selling comic books? Most popular Trades? Manga?
Miller: At least 2 of the top five usually have an “X” in the title, but, at the current time my top five are Astonishing X-Men, Superman/Batman, New Avengers, Green Lantern: Rebirth (this line was Identity Crisis last year!!) and Superman (until the Jim Lee run ends). I stock lots of trades…right now the Sin City TP’s are doing quite well, but more and more customers are (dare I say this?) waiting for Trades for lots of comics…..Marvel, especially, has gained quite a presence, as they release the Trade a week after a mini-series or story arc has finished. The Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men TP’s are a great example of this. Before Marvel’s agressive program began, I would sell the same number of issues of Ultimate Spider-Man as I do now, but now I also sell ten or so volumes of each Trade. Manga is not a big item for me….I order preorders from Previews and a few other items, but, overall, not the “big thing” that it is in other stores.
CBC: I really liked how the first rack of comics you see when you enter the store is a healthy mix of all ages titles from various publishers. What’s your customer mix like? Old/young, Male/female, etc.
Miller: Yep….that’s my “Kid Section” at the front of the store. I try to order any books out of Previews that are suitable for the younger readers….trying to develop the steady group of parents who bring in their “under 10” kids, and can find a comic for them. The Classics Illustrated Jr. reprints that are coming out now are a great example, plus all of the kid-friendly DC books that have come out for a long time. Marvel is just now realizing the benefit of marketing comics to the young kids; you have to read comics as a kid in order to appreciate them as an adult. I see more of a variety in comic customers these days…the movies are doing their job, in that respect, and are drawing more ladies, and more folks in their thirties and forties into stores.
CBC: Cynical NYer that I am, I was also impressed to see that you had a pretty solid selection of indies, something sorely lacking at another shop I visited in your area. Generally speaking, are your customers receptive to them? Which are your most popular titles?
Miller: Indies are essential to the existence of comics and comic book stores. I am in awe of the big city stores that can sell 100 copies of Eightball or Black Hole. I try to carry lots of indie companies, including Slave Labor, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, Alternative Comics, and many, many others. My personal favorite is Adhouse Books, located right here in Richmond. Check out their Project: Superior, an anthology just out!!
CBC: How do you determine which titles you order? Besides Previews, where do you find out about comics buried in the back of the catalog?
Miller: Ah….another answer to an earlier question. One of the worst things about the job is Previews….a rather daunting monthly chore, for me, akin to shaving….you have to do it, but it’s a real pain!! After 18 years of working with the book, I still find neither ryhme nor reason in trying to figure out the thing. I read lots of indies, so I try to order in terms of what I would want to pick up. Other than that, I try to reflect MY demographic and customer. What I would purchase may not work in Denver or Sarasota.
CBC: Are you participating in Free Comic Book Day this year? At what level? For you, is it primarily about exposing existing readers to different comics, or bringing in new readers? What kind of marketing are you doing to get the word out?
Miller: The best thing to happen to comic book stores…..ever!! As a gold level sponsor, I have ordered an extra (1,000) books this year to donate to 2 different Middle School programs in the area. Quite a bit of my advertising budget goes into FCBD. Last year, the store had a record number of people come thru the doors, and I hope that this year is even better. FCBD brings in past customers, current customers, and, most importantly, guys and gals and KIDS who have never been in a comic store, or, who may have had a bad experience in a darkly lit dungeon of a store. Props to my friend, Eric Hanson, who, once again, will bring his “Free Sketches For Kids” sign to the store and draw until his right hand gets numb.
CBC: What other kinds of events do you host? Creator appearances, gaming, etc? What’s the most popular?
Miller: Another facet of the comic business, to me, is having a secondary source of revenue, in this, the, uh, thriving comic industry. I support the gaming side of the business. I have regular groups that meet for Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Heroclix, Vs System, WWE Raw Deal, and Pirates of The Spanish Main. And there will be a demo crew for each of these games in the store on May 7th, for FCBD!! Stuff to give away to folks who take the “demo”…something for them to remember the week after the event. I run tournaments and host leagues, so Friday thru Sunday is becoming a busier time than Wednesdays in most weeks. I try to have creator appearances, drawing on local talent….costs a lot of money to fly someone in from NY or CA, so the budget does not allow for a lot of that sort of thing. Another advantage to running a store in one of the marquee cities….
CBC: What’s on YOUR pull list?
Miller: Right now, at the top of my list, Powers, Fallen Angel, Fables, Y: The Last Man, Usagi Yojimbo (best storytelling in comics, Stan!!), Planetary, Black Panther, Astonishing X-Men, Plastic Man and Gotham Central.
Richmond Comix is Richmond, Virginia’s best source for comics (new and old), Magic the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon and HeroClix. It is located in the Ivymount Square shopping center in Midlothian, VA, just south of Richmond, 6 miles west of Powhite Parkway.