In September, Micheal Fitzgerald, the owner of Tacoma comics shop Destiny City Comics, announced his store would be closing. Destiny City enjoys a wonderful landlord and a healthy sales base, says Fitzgerald, but the closure “boils down to problems with the distributor.” Frequent “severe shipment issues” with Diamond Comics, the only distributor to comics shops nationwide, have frustrated Fitzgerald to the point that he said, “I’m just done doing business with them.”
Diamond has been the only national comics distributor since the mid-1990s, after Marvel Comics bought and tanked Heroes World, Diamond’s foremost competitor, in a dramatic boom-and-bust cycle that nearly wiped out comics retailing nationwide. Since then, the industry has swayed between small spurts of growth and worsening attrition. The local comics retailing industry has suffered its own string of closures over the last few years, from downtown’s Zanadu Comics to The Comic Stop and The Dreaming in the University District.
This isn’t a niche problem. Ingram, the top distributor to bookstores nationwide, purchased its main competitor, Baker & Taylor, earlier this year. Fitzgerald believes that independent bookstores are about to confront the same behind-the-scenes distribution frustrations that led him to give up.
But Destiny City’s story has a happy ending: Immediately following Fitzgerald’s announcement, Tacoma pro wrestler Matt Nebeker, who performs under the name Ethan HD, announced that he was starting a crowdfunding campaign to take over ownership of the shop.
And while Destiny City hovered near death, one Seattle comics shop was doubling in size. Phoenix Comics and Games at 113 Broadway E on Capitol Hill took over nearby retail space and, after a month of construction, the bright and airy new store is nearly 3,300 square feet. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a customer at Phoenix since it opened in 2013.)
Phoenix owner Nick Nazar, who has been in the comics business since 2000, agrees that having one distributor with no regional warehouses “is a problem,” particularly when snow over the Snoqualmie Pass keeps the entire region from getting new products for days at a time. But he says Diamond’s bookkeeping and invoicing system are clear and accurate. “I think Diamond has a really thankless task of getting us our books on time and undamaged every week,” he says. “They have done their job very well.”
So how is Phoenix able to double in size at a time when the rest of the industry is shrinking?
Nazar cites a variety of factors working in the store’s favor, including increased foot traffic from the nearby Capitol Hill Link light rail station. The store has also expanded its stock to meet the interests of the neighborhood’s customer base — both the children’s section and the LGBTQ comics section have grown since Phoenix opened.
But, Nazar says, “the biggest reason that we’ve been able to expand is the fact that we aren’t just a comic book store.”
In addition to their shelves of monthly comics, collected graphic novels and handmade minicomics by local cartoonists, Phoenix is a well-stocked game store. They carry popular board games like “Pandemic,” role-playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons,” and collectible card games like “Magic: The Gathering.” Much of the shop’s expansion has been given over to tables where people can gather to play their own games, or to try out sample games supplied by Phoenix.
“The diversity of our clientele helps account for more revenue than we could deal with comics alone,” Nazar says. “Our comic-book and graphic-novel revenue accounts for a little over 50 percent of our overall yearly revenue, and then the rest of it comes from the gaming side of the business. Without that, we probably would not have succeeded.”
Other local comics shops have done well by occupying multiple niches. Nazar says Fremont’s Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique, which sells clothing and costume materials for cosplayers who dress as their favorite pop culture characters, should be an example for aspiring retailers.
In the end, at a time when e-commerce is extending its tentacles into every aspect of the retail experience, a shop will live or die by its employees. Nazar, who employs a staff of four, says “the biggest thing that we have to offer is our expertise,” in the form of personalized recommendations. Phoenix also hosts a feminist comic-book club on the last Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m., plus pickup game nights every Monday and Thursday at 7 p.m., where newcomers can join teams and try out new games.
Now that the expanded Phoenix has been open for a month, how does Nazar think it’s been going?
“I know it’s early days, but I’ve started to get a lot more calls and questions from people wanting to use our space.” In a neighborhood where apartments are shrinking, Phoenix’s customers are excited to have an expansive and inviting space where they can spend hours geeking out with friends.
For gaming fans looking to get into comics, Phoenix Comics and Games owner Nick Nazar recommends “The Adventure Zone” series, written by The McElroy Family and drawn by Carey Pietsch, which is “the comic book form of a podcast starring three brothers and their dad playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons.'” The book “retains the feel of the tabletop D&D experience” through humor and action, says Nazar.
Phoenix customers love “Shout Out,” a comics anthology that Nazar calls “a great bunch of queer- and trans-friendly stories” that appeal to a broad audience. “I would feel comfortable giving this to a 10 or 11-year-old,” Nazar says, adding with pride that the anthology marks the first mainstream publication from Phoenix customer Molly James.
On the more mature end of the spectrum, Nazar has been enjoying “Sunstone,” a “sex-positive” series by Stjepan Sejic. Nazar says the book “does a really good job with dealing with issues like consent and safety,” which rarely are covered in comics.
When Nazar falls for a book, he falls hard. His latest infatuation is a recently completed contemporary fantasy series, “The Wicked + the Divine,” written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McElvie. Nazar says “the idea is that every 90 years, 12 young people are chosen to live as gods for two years. They’re loved, they’re hated, and at the end of those two years, they’re dead.” The book, which has been a bestseller at Phoenix for years, is about “how we cope with our mortality and how we try to become immortal despite ourselves.” Nazar says the book strikes a deep emotional chord with readers: “I keep rereading the last issue and I keep tearing up.”