Tuesday, 21 June 2011

My Monthly Curse (Summer Special)

June 2011
It dawned on me several days ago, while re-editing recently published sections of this, that while I spend a good quarter of its entirety talking about retail and giving character studies of the people who were important during the 3 years Squonk!! was open and examining all the pitfalls of retailing comics, I haven't really talked about what it was like to run a shop, especially one like mine. There's snippets, but it isn't anything like as detailed, considering it was, by and large, a happier time.

It's been over 20 years since I opened it; a lifetime for some of people and my memories of it are fitful at best. In the intervening years, people I've met have never been surprised that I was once a comicbook retailer. For some people it's what they remember me for; a reader of this serialisation was a customer at Squonk!! and never really knew that I had a career in comics long after the place became a kebab shop. Squonk!! was a time that never can be replaced...

I'll celebrate 25 years of marriage in September, yet I'd only been married three years when I told my wife that I was going to borrow £20,000 on the mortgage to open a comic shop. She was remarkably cool with the idea; but she'd been with me six years by then and had a good idea of the kind of man I was. She never doubted it would be a success and for that I'll always be in her debt. She accepted the months we couldn't pay the mortgage with good grace and while she was quietly cracking up under my strain during the final months of Squonk's life, she held her belief in me. A fantastic achievement considering my patchy - at best - employment history since I'd met her.

It was even more remarkable considering the fact I spent a lot of time hiding from the world and getting an assortment of characters to cover for me.

Life at Squonk (we'll drop the astericks for now) initially started with a 9.30 opening and a 5.30 closing, six days a week. Within three months, I'd realised that Thursdays were dead; I took less than a tenner some Thursdays and it was just pointless opening. It cost me less to keep it closed. So I announced to the world that we would have a half day on a Thursday. I opened at 9.30 and shut at 12.30 and took £3.50, so opted for a 1.30 opening and a 5.30 close. The shop took marginally more, but still not enough to warrant the electricity; so we shut on Thursdays and every week I wondered if someone was going to turn up to spend £100 and find us closed and would never come back.

I soon realised that it was pointless opening before 10.00am, apart from Saturdays and by the time I'd been open a year, I only went in before 12 to do the paperwork, tidy the shop and generally get things done that I couldn't when we were busy - it was open but I rarely saw anyone. Except, we were never really busy, at least not on weekdays. Saturdays were crazy and we'd take more money in a day than we would have for the entire week, sometimes as much as five times as much, which prompted one of my friends to suggest I got a part time job and open on Fridays and Saturdays only.

That idea scared me shitless. I was my own boss because I didn't want a job; not a real one.

During the first year, Matt DeMonti spent so much time in the shop, for free, that I could quite easily have taken more time off; but I hated being away from the shop. I'd even go down there on Thursdays, for a few hours, to make plans and think. I liked being in the shop, even when it was closed.

I spent hours reading back issues; reading new issues; becoming encyclopaedic about the things my customers wanted. As soon as I had any spare cash, or had any cashflow I could play with, I was upgrading the displays. The interior of the shop was horrendous as modern shops (in general) go; it was wooden battening, plywood shelving, and massive cupboards with rows and rows of comic boxes on them. I wish I had more photographic evidence of the interior; but if you imagine an oblong box then the shop was similar to the dimensions of that, but obviously larger. It had back issues as you walked in and new stock, displayed on shelves towards the back of the shop; the right hand side as you walk in was the till and the majority of the other things I sold - computer games, books, models, T-shirts and peripherals. Anything to improve the shop was a priority.

However, the place was always a tip. It was a tidy tip, but it looked like it had been thrown together by a drunken builder and his colour blind friend. The walls were bright blue; the shelving painted red, the ceiling yellow and the carpet was also blue. I'm surprised we didn't have any green, but it might have made people sick. There was always plenty of things to do, which is why I let Monty come in and do it. I did all the fun things, he did all the donkey work and he reminded me of this about 6 times a week for nearly two years.

Year two saw us bring the overdraft down to zero. We started to make money; not a lot, but enough to make the bank manager relieved and the wife happy. Takings were exceeding £1000 a week and I needed to take £900 to break even. We ventured into mail order, the arrival of Comics International meant we had somewhere to advertise and despite writing a column for nothing, I had to pay for my ads. By the spring of 1991, we were taking £1500 a week and attracting a good percentage of the Northampton comic shop's business, as well as people from Milton Keynes and Peterborough. Being in Wellingborough, on a mainline train station - just up the road - was beginning to look like a risk that paid off.

There were some drawbacks, of which you will read about over the next few weeks, some massive highs and some unbelievable lows; but it was the 2nd year that will stay in the memory as the best, if only because it was working. I had to suffer Iain, but that was price worth paying.

1991 was a hot summer and the weather hit the business for a month; people just weren't coming into town as temperatures hit the 90s for days on the trot and then, on one of the hottest days, one of my customers brought me a newspaper with the announcement that Midland Road, my road, was going to be shut for traffic for 6 weeks for vital gas, electricity and road repairs - it was decided that all three would be done at the same time to minimise disruption and I discovered, quite remarkably, that a lot of my business was passing trade. Not in the literal sense, but in the way that if they can't get to me, they weren't going to park up on the other side of town and walk to me. I told you about loyalty, didn't I? Well laziness plays a part as well.

I took £500 less during that first week and when I complained to the Chamber of Commerce, I was told that it was just one week and it could have been a fluke. Week two saw a drop in takings of £450 and I went to my local MP. I estimated that inside two weeks - a month in total - the £2000 I'd lose in takings would take me back into the red and I had X-Men #1 coming, followed quickly by the bill.

Peter Fry, my then local Tory MP, did a wonderful job for me; he got Midland Road reopened inside 4 weeks, but the damage had been done. We lost 10% of our standing orders. I still look back and wonder how the road closing could have such a detrimental effect. I believed my customers would walk barefoot over broken glass to get their comics; but I'd misjudged it completely. By the beginning of September, I was so far in debt I couldn't pay my distributor. When this happens, a comic shop's life is usually measured in days rather than years. It was one of the few things that would happen in the 1990s where I would be grateful to Dez Skinn. He was the person who explained the logic of selling what I had for whatever I could get for it and how I had to go to the big London comic mart and sell everything I have at cut down prices. The story is told in the main book, but it got us out of whack and back on an even keel for another six months; to the point where Diamond paid us a visit because they were impressed with how I'd turned things around - they looked like they were about to give me better terms.

Then it just seemed to die. Post Christmas 1992 everything just dried up. I was sitting looking through the standing order folders and counted up over £1000 worth of merchandise that wasn't sold. Luan, my then assistant, spent weeks writing letters, phoning people, passing messages to all the people who had unclaimed mounds of comics; but we just didn't hear from that many of them. It was a bad economic time; interest rates had been at their highest ever for a while and the country was in a recession. I wasn't the only victim; many of those shops that had just about survived X-Men #1 were also falling by the way. Between January and the May we closed, I locked myself away in the basement, sitting on a heater, smoking my self senseless on Thai Sticks and chewing my nails to the wick.

I was only paying Diamond by March. My landlord had not been given his rent since Christmas; my rates weren't paid; I was being hassled by incidental costs; a courier company was trying to sue me for not taking delivery of a shipment of duff comic bags I'd ordered from a plastics factory who basically got the order wrong and the bags were all the wrong size. My own mortgage had not been paid for six months; I'd run my credit card to the max and I was smoking £50 a week worth of cannabis, I couldn't afford. I was also going slowly mad.

One Saturday, I decided to paint the toilet. I only had red or white paint, so I mixed the two together and created a magnificent dayglo pink - I painted everything apart from the basin and the bowl of the loo. It was like a camp toilet gone mad. People started to ask to use our loo more; I think they didn't believe the story.

For a while, the only person I'd socialise with was Tim Abbott. Tim had wandered into my shop on the lunchtime of my first Monday; he wasn't interested in comics in the slightest, but was attracted by the music playing on the shop stereo. We got talking; he was 16 and at a training centre for unemployed kids. I liked him and we're still friends today. He was my weekday gopher; he went and got my lunch, made the tea and in return he got to hang about the shop for his lunch hour, drink tea and listen to my eclectic taste in music. He especially liked REM. So much so, he has made a life out of the band.

With Luan working for her bed and board and some pocket money - I really could not afford her, but I couldn't really run the place without her by this time - I spent more time in the shop but unavailable. My mind wasn't in it; my heart was, but my head was away with the faeries. By this time, Tim was working at a wood yard, quite a way from the town, so he didn't get in as much and was no longer my lunch gopher - I stopped eating lunch. He didn't smoke, still wasn't interested in comics, but used to come and see me; it was like he knew that I actually relished his visits; they helped me forget the mess I was plunging into. Talking for half an hour about music, beer or the latest misadventure with his psycho best mate was a relief.

The fateful decision to close is detailed in the main story, but the week before I finally took the plunge, I was in the empty shell of the old head shop, long gone, with all the other small shops that sprung up, burned brightly and died quickly inside my little emporium, looking at the turnover and beating myself up about owing so much money. I should have made myself bankrupt there and then, but I held on until 1995 and don't believe people when they tell you it goes away after 3 years; it's at least 5 and then you'll struggle to get anything for years more. 16 years after my bankruptcy and 13 after I was discharged, the Official Receiver is still trying to get half of an old insurance policy. Whatever plan I came up with to rescue the business involved needing about £5000 to pay the bills and keep the wolves from the door. I discovered a few years later that someone had been interested in buying the shop, but I went out of business before he got to me. That's touched on briefly in August.

On the penultimate Saturday, we held a raffle. We'd been giving away tickets when people collected their standing orders - as an incentive - and the three prizes were £25 worth of stock, £50 and £100, plus my then partner's Platinum Spider-Man #1. The big prize was won by the youngest of three brothers who had been coming to the store for the last six months. They were only ever allowed one comic each a week and the boy who won was a Spider-Man fan. You should have seen his face; even after he burst out crying when he realised he had won the platinum Spidey. £100 worth of stock was like the entire world to this 8 year old; he shared it out with his brother and they took home stacks of comics; so many, their bewildered mother gave me a look which was a mixture of love and hate.

I rented out the cupboard under the back issues for three months to a homeless teenager. He was a good lad who I had got to know through the shop and he lived in it for a while. He never abused the privilege; he never had friends in; never made a mess or stole anything - there was always a £20 float in the till and the drawer was always open at night - less likely for a thief to break in, believe it or not. I charged him £7 a week and £3 for any tea, coffee, milk or hot water he used. He was also useful as someone to look after the place, as it proved when we had our only attempted burglary.

Homeless boy rang me at home at 2:00am one morning to say that he'd been woken by someone breaking the window at the back of the shop; he had woken up and shouted at them, scaring them away, but he thought that the guy who broke the window had grabbed a handful of books from a shelf before making off. It turned out the books were a pile of Stray Toasters by Bill Sienkiewicz that I hadn't sold. Quite possibly one of the the strangest things to ever appear in print and not a superhero or bit of spandex in sight. The books turned up in the second hand shop the other side of town; the owner came and saw me and we identified the kid who sold them to him as the same kid who had swapped a £10 Thor comic into a bag marked 50p shortly after we opened.

I recovered my sanity enough after the closure of Squonk!! to travel the country, with Luan, doing comic marts for almost a year. Selling the stock and trying to eke out a living from weekend warrioring. I've been to comic marts in England that have been so dead, we've left the tables unattended, gone to the pub and come back to find we've taken 50p. One such time, in Stoke, in 1993, we left my mate's wife in charge of just about every table in the hall, apart from my brother Ron's. They watched over the mart as eight comics dealers and their mates went for a couple of pints in the pub down the road. We weren't all selling rubbish and no one wanted it; this was a comic mart that had less than 20 people attend, yet we were still charged for our tables, the organiser was not responsible for the number of people who turn up.

I don't know how we would have survived if I wasn't whoring myself to London five days a week to dog's body for famous comics entrepreneurs.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

There are some funny stories on their way; about fans, comics readers, nerds and geeks; but kicking it all off are my business partners...

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