Friday, 1 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Three)

ii) Adventures in Comics Retailing

A comic shop seemed the most obvious choice for a venture into the world of self-employment. I knew a damned sight more about comics than I did anything else and anyone could run their own business, right?

It wasn’t as easy as I expected. April 1988 was a positive month, but it would be 18 months before I opened my own comic shop. It would be a tough 12 months, followed by a stupid 6 months and even then, my attempts would have been greeted with a report card that would say ‘could have done so much better’...

I might have had a few thousand comics split between my house and my brother-in-law’s bedroom, but I didn’t have anything like the stock required for a shop; I didn’t have any premises and I didn’t really have much of a clue. It wasn’t like I’d paid much attention to comics shops, regardless of the number I’d been in. They had been, for the best part of three years, a place for me to escape to and spend money I didn’t have in. I might have believed that I could do so much better than Lee at Blitz Comics, but the reality was that he was doing it and I wasn’t.

The wife made a very good point by the time the summer of 1988 came around; I needed to get a job because we were penniless again. I think she also realised that me getting a job that I’d be happy doing was akin to finding a needle in a universe of haystacks. Fortunately, an old school friend of mine called Toby came to the rescue. He was actually doing what I wanted to do, he was starting his own business – a burger van situated on the edge of a burgeoning industrial park and he was struggling to make it work on his own. He had all the enthusiasm, but none of the nous to make it work. I offered him two things; the ability to cook and the ability to cook under pressure. It would have been unfair to suggest Toby couldn’t cook, but not unfair to suggest that once orders exceeded two he started to panic. He was in danger of going out of business because he couldn’t deliver on time. I stepped into the breach and for 9 months, we slowly built up his business and turned his little burger business into a going concern.

We were ambitious; we tried different things and most of them worked. Toby liked the idea of using top quality products, which meant cutting the profit margins, but offering the punter something so good they wanted to use us. Instead of using cheap shit, industrially produced pap, we used the best ingredients and charged fractionally more for them. Our burgers were made from real beef, our bacon butties had good quality bacon and on top of all the excellent food we were serving, we developed an impressive double act behind the counter. Toby’s brother-in-law, who often came out of his way to buy bacon butties from us, reckoned it was the reason people came to us – we could serve crap and they’d still come along because we brightened up peoples’ days.

Unfortunately, Toby had keepers. His brother (now a Liberal councillor in Corby) and his brother’s business partner had financed the operation and had purchased the wagon on the proviso that at some point in the future Toby would start to pay off the wagon and also pay them a percentage of the profits. The problem was he also had a young child, a demanding partner and me to look after. It wasn’t like he even paid me a lot; I got about £70 a week, which effectively was about double the going rate for unemployment benefit in those days, yet I was at work for 6am six days a week and often didn’t finish before 4pm – I was doing long days, but enjoying them and while I could give the wife £50 a week, we were at least keeping the wolves at arm’s length. Once Toby’s financiers stepped in, we needed to rethink things and that created more problems because the guy who gave me this job still couldn’t cope on his own.

Over the current last few years I’ve suffered with a bad back; from about 2006 to now I’ve struggled to exist at times and it seems that these problems I now have might have been linked back to a cold morning in the January of 1989. I was cooking the bacon and sausages for the breakfast run when I did something to my back. I was to learn later that I trapped a nerve, one of my sciatic nerves and subsequently Toby’s personnel problems were solved for him. The injury meant that he had to run his business on his own, I was incapacitated. The doctor signed me off of work for a minimum of three weeks – which turned into 6 weeks – and by the time I was fit to return to work, business at the wagon had tailed off to such an extent Toby was considering calling it a day. He struggled to cope, wasn’t prepared to compromise and eventually people went elsewhere. It was March 1989 and I was unemployed again.

Fortunately, during the time I worked for Toby, I had managed to continue to build up my comics stock. Except, what I was doing now wasn’t just going to shops and buying what I wanted, I had put adverts in the free papers, in newsagents’ windows and wherever I could touting for business. If anyone had any old comics, I’d give them the best price for them (if I wanted them) and this was proving to be a lucrative little exercise. Oddly enough, it was while I was doing this that sparked my eldest brother into considering doing the same thing; especially when he learned how much some of the comics I was buying for a pittance were worth. By the time the summer was drawing to a close, I had my eyes on a shop; I’d got some friends to work on a self-designed shop fitting project and I failed to see the nose in front of my face.

With hindsight, I find it quite ironic that the very first photograph of me to appear in the local paper, as a promotion for the opening of Wellingborough’s first (and only) comics emporium, was one of me grinning maniacally, like the Joker, over the top of a Batman comic featuring said Master of Mirth. The Joker, for those of you who don’t know, is quite mad and I must have been quite mad to open the shop away from the main town of the county. But I was impetuous, like the Joker and I would suffer later, like the Joker.

Comics were big business in 1989. Batman had been a phenomenal success and comics were very much the latest ‘in thing’. People had them scattered on their coffee tables and around the lounge. Those responsible for this revolution in peoples thinking were many from the list of names mentioned earlier. Comics had conquered the middle classes and had been riding the crest of a wave of increasing sales for a couple of years. That wave would last for only a couple more, but even by the time I opened my shop it was showing signs of faltering in some areas.

The success of Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t the only reason that comicbooks suddenly became in vogue. Batman had been at the front though. Not only had Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns been reviewed in the New York Times, but also Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke had made serious critics sit up and take note. Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen had been talked about in literary circles as one of the greatest pieces of comics fiction ever undertaken. Comics were being taken seriously by the outside world, films were being made with big budgets and people were returning to their childhoods and buying not only Batman comics but anything they recognised from their youth. It was promoted as a good time to be into comics and to be honest, it felt that way.

I threw my net out and hoped to catch a little bit of that wave. I opened my shop with about 10,000 comics in stock and all the latest releases on specially manufactured display units. I expected to be a millionaire within 10 years (I was being conservative in my estimates). My initial customers were either comics fans who couldn’t believe their luck, mildly confused locals who wandered in off the street and middle aged men who wanted to regain their youth.

At the same time as the shop opened I purchased my first computer. It was one of those Amstrad word processor jobs, with a built-in Scrabble game. I intended to use it to produce a mail order catalogue to complement the comic shop. I also rediscovered my love for writing. I started to produce a weekly newsletter for the shop’s regular customers. It featured gossip, news, info and opinions about what was good or not in the shop. It was popular. It was also very raw and undisciplined, but it was honest – something I have always suffered with.

Let’s also get another thing clear, this was 1989 and although my knowledge of comicbooks was of absolute nerd-like proportions, I actually knew very little about the industry from a retailer’s point of view and even less from an insider’s position. I had plenty of experience working in a retail outlet having done it when I left school, but to succeed in comics you needed something extra and I was in for a crash course in comicbook politics. I call it a crash course, it actually took about 4 years in total, and by the time I knew everything that was needed about running a successful comic retailers, I wasn’t doing it any longer.

The opening months of Squonk!! (the two exclamation marks were important) was an enjoyable eye-opener. You could not fault me for my enthusiasm; I went out of my way to be as accommodating as possible, even if that meant I ended up, temporarily, out of pocket. The first few months were tough; I would sit at my till for hours on end and do no business and then 10 minutes before I was due to lock up and go home, I would get a flood of customers in, spending huge amounts of money and making the day worthwhile. I have imprinted on my mind the amount of money I took on the opening day – £186 – which seemed like a lot of money; two years later a grand was the average on good day. But in the early days I had to realise that being open 10 hours a day didn’t mean anything when my big spending customers were actually working and wanted to have access to my shop after 5pm. The thing was they didn’t just want access to the shop in the half an hour where I would be considering winding down; they wanted access to me. I began to realise very quickly that it wasn’t just the comics my nerds wanted, they wanted me too.

By the spring of 1990 I was growing moderately successful and rapidly shrinking the overdraft – I obtained the loan for the shop in the April of 1989, yet didn’t open it until the middle of October. It would be fair to say that I ended up blowing several grand on living instead of planning and spending it on the store; subsequently corners were cut – not that the customers would have noticed, but I knew. Interest rates in the UK were atrocious - averaging 14% - and had they been better I probably would have been able to actually make money rather than just tread water. At the same time as my overdraft was shrinking, I had reacquainted myself with a person from my past – one of the people on the list of Brits in comics shown previously. With hindsight, I had a man who would become a short term partner in Squonk!! to thank for the meeting. One of my regular Saturday customers had been regularly reading my weekly newsletter and had been so impressed by it, he sent copies to London and they obviously made an impression with the Stan Lee of British comics, because Dez Skinn called me up and offered me the chance to write for his new comics magazine!

Within a few weeks of that first phone call I was working on writing the column for him. We met again for the first time in ten years, but he didn’t really remember me, but that was hardly a revelation or a matter for concern, he knew that I had been on the edges of that group of people – his group – and we knew the same people by association. The fact I was now in my late 20s and not some snot-nosed kid also added weight to the situation.

When I had first met Skinn, I was one of seven people who shared a joint with him. It was the first time I’d ever smoked anything stronger than a Rothmans, so it obviously made an impression on me. This had been in London in 1978 at one of the capital’s first comic conventions. I was editing Media at the time and had felt that I was perhaps on the verge of stepping up another rung on the ladder. We had talked at times as well, to me this man was one of the important people in British comics and you didn’t just wander over and have a frivolous conversation with the likes of him. You needed to make sure that you could impress him. I didn’t get the chance to impress in the Seventies and by the time I met him again in 1990 I’d been through a lot of life and cottage industry celebrities didn’t cut the same ice with me as they once might have.

We talked, had a beer, talked some more, reminisced about things we both identified with and eventually I offered him the comics industry’s first real gossip column. My relationship with Skinn had begun – for better and for worse.

My crash course in comics was about to begin. I was both apprentice and vessel.

Next time: The False dawn of DG Skinn and a lesson in hard luck stories.

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