If ifs and ands were grains of sand...
If that pan idiom was applied to comics this would called... The What If Scenario.
We've been using a rickety old time machine to swan backwards and forwards from the late 1980s to the early part of the 21st century. It maybe hasn't been the most linear story, but that perfectly illustrates the complexities of the comic book 'industry'.
Comics deal with fantasy (by and large), so what if we applied a fantasy scenario to my history. What if I could get into that time machine and go back to a pivotal point in my past, but blessed with the gift of hindsight?
Would I have gone back to 1972 and just ignored the comics rack and gone straight for Engineers Weekly or Pig Farmer's Digest? Would I have gone back to 1977 and beaten Justin Ebbs at his own peripherals game? Or would I have gone back to 1989 and attempted to run a comic shop in a different way? Or would I have just got a job as a shelf stacker when Squonk!! went out of business?
I think, to give myself a fair crack at success, I would go back to May 1989 and this is what I would do with 22 years of future experience in my head...
I think the first thing I would have done was get a job. One of the major contributing factors of Squonk's troubles was I'd run out of cash by the time it opened. I was already living on the business's overdraft facility before I'd taken a single penny. The £5000 start up I had was frittered away on living. You could argue that this was the single most important thing that led to my ultimate bankruptcy; but the fact I was operating in profit by the middle of 1991 probably negates that. Had I just had a part time job, I wouldn't have spent 'shop' money on living and I would have had enough money to make the shop's appearance look less... bohemian.
The first thing I should have done was scrap the idea of opening the shop in a town the size of Wellingborough. Comics were not the new video shops; there wasn't a willing and able mass of people queuing up to buy comics, like they were video players and that month's new blockbuster releases. Comic shops were and still are marginal; the kind of thing you'd expect to find on a back street rather than in a major shopping centre. it is a niche market, so therefore you really need to be in the most populated places. Had I been patient (and having a job meant I would have been), I could have bought or rented a far more suitable premises in Northampton - a town with over 150,000 people and a large catchment area, which included Wellingborough (which had a population of 50,000 and arguably as big a catchment area, but not central).
Yes, it would have meant that a few of my excellent regular customers may never have made the 12 mile journey to discover Squonk in a new town; but arguably there would have been potentially more reckless spenders in the county town. For every J 1, 2 or 3, there would probably have been J's 4, 5 and 6; maybe even a 7 and an 8. I could also have cut a deal with Northampton Borough Council for a council owned store front and in the late 1980s, the local council were offering deals on new business rates; to encourage growth in an ailing town centre - Wellingborough was and always has been a penny pinching bunch of short-termists. Anyone driving through Wellingborough in 2011 will see every third shop either closed or in the process of closing. There is no quarter given by the council and if you fall behind on your rates, they pursue you relentlessly, even underhandedly, to get their money.
A year after I shut Squonk and was considering making myself bankrupt, Wellingborough Council got wind of this and contacted me. The first thing they told me was that if I made myself bankrupt, I couldn't include the council's debt in the final figure. I was told by a clerk that council's are exempt from being included in bankruptcy settlements. The Official Receiver informed me that Wellingborough Council repeatedly told people in financial problems that they couldn't include the debt to them in bankruptcy hearings. this, it proved, was a load of bollocks. If the Inland Revenue isn't exempt, then a local council has a much chance of reclaiming money owed as Manchester United have of winning Baseball's World Series.
So, with this knowledge, I'd avoid WBC and the entire town like the plague.
With a shop opening in Northampton, I would have started to go to auctions - there is, ironically, an auctioneer in Wellingborough that specialises in selling off the contents of bankrupt businesses. A couple of trips there and I would have procured some good display racks and proper shop fittings, probably for a fraction of the price. This would have saved me money in the long run, because with less than two weeks before I opened Squonk in Wellingborough, I still had an empty shop.
As these two photos perfectly illustrate, my final display units at the shop were adequate, but very homely (everything was made of wood). They were all hand made and needed constant tinkering with across the years I was open. The picture on the left, with me on the phone, has a rack on the right hand side of the picture; that was added after about a year. I ended up having to fill a lot of the wall with new racks, because, quite simply, the amount of product coming out warranted display or you'd be pissing it away. Comics is a visual entertainment and people need to judge the book by its cover.
So, not only would I have found gainful employment prior to opening, I would have bought proper shop fittings and relocated it to a bustling town. I would have kept the name, because even if it conjures up images of post-Peter Gabriel Genesis songs, it was and still is the kind of word that makes people do a double take. A friend suggested I call it the Comics Hall, which quite quaint was about as exciting as having a conversation with a fig; it was also something that people would probably forget, very quickly. I would also keep it despite the fact that a squonk is a mythical North American creature, which when confronted with adversity dissolves into a pool of tears - which is essentially what the shop did. But, I like the name, so there.
I think I did a good job at getting free PR and I did enough advertising to attract people; but I maybe would have waited a few months before really going for it. I'm pretty sure that I would have some serious collectors visit the shop in the opening months; but, in reality, it had been almost a year before I was really happy with the levels of stock; the quality of my back issues and the diversity on the shelves. I championed independent comics, even if there maybe wasn't much of a market for them. but the job of a retailer is also about persuading your customers that a change is as good as a rest. The upshot is, don't attract the aficionados until you have something worth showing off - it makes better fiscal sense.
We went into mail order as a last resort; we should have started with it; offering customers the chance to receive their orders through the post without having to come into the shop. I would also have set up a Standing Order system that would have worked better than the one I used. For starters, I would have offered people taking SOs out a discount - 5%, 10% and a max of 15% if they ordered more than £50 a month. The discount would only apply if they kept their SOs clear; anything not bought or returned would negate the discount. I would also have preached, in a nice way, to these regular customers, about the importance of communication. Comic shops are not major supermarkets; discounts, offers and deals are actually damaging to a shop's turnover and cash flow; so they need to be earned. A comic shop can go out of business because of its customers taking the piss; but equally it works both ways and I would have communicated with my customers the same way I wanted them to communicate with me.
I always said that I made a great manager, I was just a crap owner and trust me, the two things are different and I think the stress of the two jobs was detrimental to my health - mental and physical. I would have looked into either my wife handling the things that I used to hide under the mat, or paid Roger, my accountant, to be a kind of business manager for me; to make sure that I concentrated on the owner's duties with a little more pragmatism. After all, I actually had a bunch of really trustworthy staff; I was happy to let them run my business while I sat in then cellar smoking myself into oblivion. I would have made an effort to be a better owner.
I also wouldn't have tried to spread myself so thin. It's true that the computer game companies looked after me far better than the comics publishers; but I needed tens of thousands of pounds to stock a proper games shop and I didn't have that kind of money, ever. So, I ended up with a small display of shit games which did nothing for my reputation. I wouldn't have even tried to sell T-shirts and posters; because while some shops might sell loads; back in 1989, I shifted bugger all. By the time I shut the shop, I still had 70% of the T-shirts I began with (in fact, I still own an Akira T-shirt, which is over 20 years old now and still being worn) and I ended up using a lot of the posters to decorate the shop. They ended doubling up as POS and trust me they've never been cheap!
The thing was, as I said all through the retail section of this book; a lot of retailers are just fans with a redundancy pay out or have re-mortgaged their house to do something they've always fancied. I actually had retail experience; I worked in a number of shops after I left school, even making it to assistant manager a few times. I was good at retail sales; but I never ever had the pressure on me that I had when a sale suddenly became considerably more important than just a bit of profit. I can probably, accurately, say that anything I learnt from retailing was barely applied to my own business; so how would someone with no experience of retail manage to survive?
But probably the most important thing I would have done differently, if I could do it all again, would be to be more of a business than a community centre. Over the course of working on this entire comics history, I realised that I allowed the shop to be something it should never have been. It should have been a shop; a friendly place with amiable staff; but it should have been run as a business rather than an excuse to have a load of like minded people hanging around with me. Ultimately, had it been in Northampton, it probably would have been like that; but there are intense periods of boredom when you run a niche shop and the company breaks up the day - the sense would have been to balance it right; encourage them at known quiet times and discouraged them from coming in at busy periods by being unable to chat and keen to keep them away from such places as the till or the new comics racks.
I really wouldn't have had people hanging around the till or the area where business in conducted. Too often, because some comics fans are bereft of social skills, you'd end up scaring a potential customer away because the existing customer who is hanging over your counter is sending out all the wrong signals. It has often crossed my mind that a coffee shop would be well placed in a comics shop; even if it's just a percolator and an honesty box. Designate an area for fans to sit and chew the fat; emphasise that the shop isn't a library and make sure this area is as far away from the front of the shop as possible. Fans pay your wages, but they can also be detrimental to whether or not people will be attracted to your shop. The number of times over the last 20 years I've heard ex-retailers complain about hangers-on has been amazing; you'd think that we should all have seen it without the use of hindsight.
Northampton has had a comics shop now for 23 of the last 25 years. That's quite amazing, I think. It started with Blitz and the one there now is a new venture born out of the two previous incarnations. Apparently the owner is a good guy and has plans to expand without over-stretching himself. Best of luck to him; he'll need it. Had I opened in Northampton, I'm big headed enough to think that I might be there still. Maybe I would have opened a different branch in Rugby, but hopefully for all the right reasons. I think I could have made it a success if I'd had the knowledge that I have now. This is why I've always believed that conscientious ex-retailers should have a position in comics, even if it's just consulting; because no one knows the business better than someone who has failed and has spent the subsequent years analysing what went wrong and where they could have done different.
Personally, I've had more sleepless nights beating myself up about the failure of Squonk than just about anything else in my life. I was reckless, immature and stupid to think that a business that needed working at could have succeeded with so little acumen being displayed. However, I can't lay awake in bed at night playing alternative scenarios out because the only person that failed was me. I have laid in bed at night and plotted revenge against certain ex-employers - but when you have no one else to blame but yourself (I know I blame X-Men #1, but that was just one of many straws that helped break the camel's back) all you do is analyse the mistakes and berate yourself for not seeing the bleedin' obvious. Also, it's pointless planning revenge on a distributor; there's nothing personal, it's their job and you agreed to their terms!
There are things about the years running the shop that I am actually acutely embarrassed about, despite it being one of the happiest periods of my life.
Next time: back to me slagging someone off, probably...