Monday, July 16, 2007
Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.
“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
To see more Pure Hero shirts, go here.
Here is is 9:30 and the line is forming.
We had a sidewalk sale of quarter comics and 5 for $20 books. They have been uncovered, and the crowd goes into a feeding frenzy.
Keep your arms inside the booth until the buying comes to a complete stop.
I got went inside later to snap a few photos.
Back once more into the breach.
Here's me and my friend Mark Arnold who helped out.
My wife Connie, and my girls Hannah and Sophie came by to lend moral support.
Here's a couple of customers enjoying the 5 for $20 graphic novels.
Hey, wha'dya ya think dis is, a Library?
Thanks again to all who attended the sale. Make sure to make plans now to attend our 50th Anniversary Sale on Saturday July 10th 2032!
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
In this final installment we will look at the circumstances that led to my leaving Palo Alto, and nearly leaving the comics business as well.
I used to like to get together with friends and play a board game called Risk. I was pretty serious about it. If you win the game, you take over the world. In my head, I approached the comic books business as if it were this game. In 1990 I bought a giant map of Northern California. I put flags on it where all the other comic book stores were, and flags where my stores were. I also put up flags were I was planning on putting up new stores. My next plan was to open stores in San Jose, and San Francisco. Like in a game of Risk, I was going to get solid control of my base and then continue expanding from there. I had made trips to far outposts like Milpitas and Fremont to survey the territory in advance of conquest. They would be mine soon, as well. I would wear the crown of comic retail King, and rule from a sullen perch on my bloody throne of Diamond Comics shipping boxes.
A new store every 5 years seemed like a good plan. I started my first store in 1982. The 2nd store was started in 1987. So far, so good. After that, I moved my original store twice, but haven’t managed to open a 3rd location. Now I’m not even sure that I want to expand further, or if it’s even possible. My map of Northern California domination sits sadly, rolled up on a shelf in my garage, collecting dust. Things have changed a lot since I started, and it costs a bundle to move a store, let alone to start a new one.
THE PALO ALTO COLLECTION
There is a new generation of comic dealers coming up the ranks these days. Many of them do not feel the need to buy and sell vintage, collector’s comics in their stores. I like to think that I’m a modern comics dealer, but I part company with the new dealers that eschew back issues. Let me tell you, old comics have saved my store on several occasions. I would not still be in business if not for several timely acquisition of terrific collections. Here’s the story about one of the best such collections to come my way.
In 1999 a former soldier came in to my store with several boxes of high-grade comics that he sold to me. There were 449 comics in this collection. All of them were from the years 1950 to 1954. He had purchased them from another soldier in the 1970s. He had sealed them up in boxes and plastic bags. The original owner had purchased them new off the stands, and had not read many of them, instead deciding to seal them away in his footlocker.
These comics were in extraordinary condition. Many of them looked like brand new books, even though they were 50 years old. They had white pages, glossy covers, tight spines, and sharp corners. I had been dealing in comics for many years, but I had not seen the likes of this collection before. The titles included Batman, Classics Illustrated, Haunt of Fear, Mad, Marvel Tales, Superman, Suspense, Tales From the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, Vault of Horror, and Weird Fantasy.
I had heard a little bit about “Pedigree Collections” before. Previously I was a little dubious of the whole idea. After seeing the quality of this new collection, I changed my view. The price guide lists Golden age books all the way up to Near Mint in grade, but for the most part, they just don’t exist in this grade. If you find one, you likely have something that is one of a kind. To get a whole collection with many books in such great condition changed my view.
At this time, I was planning a 3rd store, so my thought was to sell the collection through an expert who could market them for the best possible return. I had a location staked out for my 3rd store. It was to be on the corner of Blossom Hill and Snell in South San Jose at the old site of Critter’s Corner (Now Payless Shoe Source). Although I had been selling old comics for quite a while, I had never dealt with a pedigree before. I decided that my books collection needed a name. I decided to call them the Palo Alto collection because I was based in Palo Alto. I had grown up there, gone to school there, and had my main office there. Chuck Rosanski had purchased the greatest Pedigree and had dubbed it the Mile High collection, after his hometown Denver Colorado. I figured that I, too, would name my collection after my hometown. If you dig deeper, you find that Palo Alto means “High Stick”, or tall tree.
My fist thought was to offer them through Sotheby’s auction house. I called Jerry Weist who was in charge of comics acquisitions for the company. I described the collection to Jerry. He asked for sample photocopies of certain comics from the collection. I sent out the ones he requested including the front, back, and interior pages of a Batman #62, that was later graded 9.2 by the CGC. He agreed that the collection was everything I said it was. For reasons I was unclear on, he passed on the collection. I then showed the collection to several dealers. None of them were willing to pay my asking price of $20,000 dollars for the collection. By guide, they went for $30,000.
I’ve generally been a pretty stubborn guy. This mindset has had advantages and disadvantages for me over the years. Once I get an idea into my head, it’s hard to talk me out of it. I felt strongly that these books were exceptional, one of a kind books. I decided that it was time to take matters into my own hands. The plans for store #3 would have to wait. At the San Diego convention the previous year I was selling next to All-Star Auctions who were doing a simultaneous ebay auction. That seemed like a good idea to me. By using Ebay, I would get a large audience for my auctions, and I would not have to pre-qualify the bidders. I didn’t want to set up my own auction house.
I graded all the books by my standards. I created a catalogue with images of all the books. I was able to get a delightful painting commissioned by one of my favorite artists, Jack Davis, to use for the certificate of authenticity. I placed ads in the Comic Book Marketplace, and The Comics Buyer’s Guide, announcing the date of my auctions. At the last moment I decided to send in a number of the books to the CGC, the 3rd party grading service that had just started up. I felt that it would be a good idea to have an outside source backing up my claims of extraordinary grade on these books. From the 449 comics, I culled out the most valuable examples, and the highest graded items. I sent in 72 books to be graded. Many of these books remain the highest graded copies to this day. The CGC agreed with my designation of the books as a pedigree, and the Palo Alto Collection was the first CGC approved Pedigree. You can read more about the Palo Alto Collection and other pedigree collections here.
I started all my auctions at Overstreet guide price. There were 449 golden age comics in all, all on ebay at the same time. That represented nearly half of all the golden age comics being listed on ebay at the same time. There were a total of 300 CGC graded books being offered on ebay at the time. Of those, 72 were Palo Alto books. The auctions ran for 10 days. I started them just before I went to San Diego. When I got there, I showed off the books. I had a computer set up there so people could log on and bid on the books right there if they wished. It was fun watching the auctions. It seemed like all the big collectors came forward to bid, Steve Geppi was my largest single bid winner. Jim Steranko contacted me to purchase some Atlas comics. I emailed him back, and we began a warm friendship that continues to this day. Robert Roder from Pacific Comics Exchange purchased the CGC 9.2 Batman #62, which at that time, and for many years was the highest graded copy, and a Near Mint Action #150. Other winning bidders included Bill Hughs of Greg Manning auctions, Dallas Stephens, EC historian Grant Geissman, Richard of East Coast Comics, Metropolis, Chris Foss of Heroes and Dragons, and Rob at Capital City Comics.
Even after the CGC expense, the ebay expense, the catalog printing, the certificate printing, payment to Jack Davis for the certificate, the cost of going to San Diego, the ads for the auctions, I made many times more profit than the 20k I was willing but unable to get from any dealer. I banked a large sum, and had my war chest all set for a real estate purchase, or new store. I learned that I can market and sell a world-class high-grade collection just as well as anyone else can. If I get a collection like this again, I won’t bother to call the big name auction houses. I won’t need their services.
BEWARE THE LANDLORD, MY SON! THE JAWS THAT BITE! THE CLAWS THAT CATCH!
In 1990 I signed a 10-Year lease on my El Camino store in Palo Alto. My Landlord was a gruff, bull of a man with hams for hands. We got along very well. I was always on time with my payment, kept the premises clean, and never caused him any trouble. I could tell he enjoyed dealing with me, and I never had any trouble with him. The few times I called him with a problem regarding the unit, he always responded quickly.
After I auctioned off the Palo Alto collection, Lee’s Comics had a nice war chest in the bank. I had purchased my home in 1996, and it had proven to be a much better investment than the stock market. I also realized that by owning property you could build up equity for yourself instead of the landlord. After you owned the building you could keep working forever if you wanted to, or just walk away and lease out the building and live very comfortably. By owing your building outright, you would have the freedom to do what you wished. In 1999 I had one year left on my lease. I started looking for a location to purchase. By now, my competitors in town, Comics and Comix, and Heroes had both closed down. I was the only comics store left into town standing.
My Realtor told me that my building was on the market. It was a half a city block in size. It included my store, and 5 other businesses. It also included an apartment on the roof. It had a parking lot behind it containing 70 parking spaces. I was very interested in buying the building. I worked very had to try to obtain it. I was willing to put my own house on the line, plus all my savings. The sellers wanted 30% down, which I am told, is fairly standard for commercial real estate. The building was going for over 2 million, and I didn’t have nearly enough of a down payment. My Realtor set up meetings with numerous bank managers, to try to get me a loan. We got turned down all over town. While I was trying to get funding, someone stepped in and bought the building for the asking price. Unlike me, he was able to come up with the 30% down payment.
The new landlord was a fellow by the name of Sal. He owned properties in Palo Alto exclusively. He came and met me right away. We had dinner at a restaurant that he owned downtown. I told him that I was a little worried because I only had a year left on my lease. He told me not to worry, he knew I was a good tenant, and besides his son shopped at my store. He assured me that he would renew my lease. He told me not to worry about it.
Time went by and soon it was 2000. The year 2000 happened to be the height of the dot com boom. I was in the epicenter of it. At the time, venture capitalists were pouring insane amounts of money into all kinds of half-baked Silicon Valley schemes. Everyone around me seemed to be on the verge of striking it rich on the next big thing. New companies were springing up right and left. These new companies wanted office space in retail areas so their workers would be surrounded by plenty of nice shops and restaurants. These offices started to supplant the shops and restaurants, as they were willing to pay more money. They were paying as much as $5 square foot for properties that were going for less than half that much a couple of years before. Some landlords asked for and got a small percentage of the company, in addition to the high rents.
My lease was getting closer and closer to the point of expiration. I had heard nothing from Sal. I called him numerous times. I visited his office. I sent letters. He did not communicate with me at all. I was hoping to open up store #3, but I could do nothing because my lease was up in the air.
Finally at the last moment I heard from Sal’s office. Actually it was from his layer, telling me that my lease was up, and I had to get out. That was it. No negotiation at all. I was a little peeved. I called the papers. They put me on the front cover of the Palo Alto daily news. They quickly convened a meeting of the city counsel, and I was asked to speak there. Suddenly I was the poster boy for the destruction of Palo Alto retail by the dot coms.
I wasn’t going to wait around and live on the hope that the city would step in to help me, or that the landlord would sprout some decency and humanity and actually talk to me. I believed that it was imperative that I was open continuously without interruption. I could not afford to close up for a period of time. If I was in limbo while I was between locations, it could put me under. I feared that many of my customers would find a new place to get their comics. I didn’t want my fate to be uncertain. I had to take immediate action. I was peeved at the landlord. I felt that I was a good customer, and he was treating me like dirt. I think he felt that this was the beginning of a new golden era. Perhaps he thought that he would get huge rents for that property he bought, and he had no need for a lowly comics dealer in his grand scheme.
I saw the economic conditions of the moment to be a bubble. I felt that it would soon burst. One thing that I knew for sure was that my new landlord was the worst ever, and I didn’t want to give him one cent more of my hard earned money. Frankly he didn’t deserve it. I began looking for a new location right away.
Oh, and that landlord that was in such a hurry to get me out of there? My location stood empty for 6 months. Finally a store that sold cut-rate computer equipment and assorted other items and services opened for a while. Ironically it was called “Action Computers”. That place in turn closed down and stood empty for some time. Now there’s a shoe place in there. I wonder how long that will last. The building has been partially empty ever since I left. The landlord was so toxic, that almost all the old tenants left as soon as their leases were up. I believe that had I been able to purchase the building I would have been able to work with the tenants, and keep the building full. The lesson here is that if you are renting, you have no power. Even if you have a great landlord, don’t get too comfortable, you can loose them at any time. You can get a new one that will jack up your rent when your lease is up. They can just throw you out completely with no negotiation at all. It’s their land, and they have all the power. If you want power over your destiny in life, you need to own the land you occupy. At this point in life, I would rather own the land for 1 store than to lease 10 of them.
I looked all over Palo Alto for a new location. There were very few vacancies. What few were there were terrible locations, or ridiculously expensive, or both! Each store that I had opened had been bigger and better than the last. I had observed how Comics and Comix had moved to an inferior location, and had suffered in sales and prestige because of it. I wanted to find a location that was superior to my last one. I was forced to make a change, so I wanted to make it a change for the better.
There was one location that I had my eye on for a while. It was in Mountain View, 3 miles away. It was in a large regional center that included a Costco, an Office Max, and a Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Across the street was an In-and-out Burgers. This was a clean, modern facility with 1,500 parking spaces. There was a vacant building in that location that had once been a brewery. I talked to the landlords about remodeling the premises for my needs. Unlike the previous landlord that didn’t value my business at all, the new landlords were very happy to have me as a long-term tenant. I signed a 10-year lease with a 10-year option, and they got right to work in fixing the place up to my needs. They poured a new concrete floor, and put in tile flooring. They put up walls, doors, and air conditioning. They put in lighting and offices for me. They spent over 100,000 in renovations to make the building ready for me. The new building was ready for me before I had to leave the old one. I never missed a day of sales. I had several weeks to refer customers over to the new location. I had a 1-week cross-over period where both stores were open at the same time.
Sales had been climbing for me every year. We had passed the million-dollar mark for the two stores combined in 1993, and we were nearing the 1 million mark for a single store. My Mountain View store was going to be double the size of my Palo Alto store. It would be 3,200 feet instead of the 1,600 feet that my previous one had been.
On April 28 2001 the new store had it’s grand opening. I promoted it heavily with newspaper and radio adds. We had a grand opening sale and celebration. I arranged for members of the Stanford Marching band to appear there unannounced and play. The event coincided with my 40th birthday. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate it.
I had a full roster of special events planned for the year to kick off the new store. It was a great venue. The store was huge, and there was plenty of parking. Before I even got started, Clinton left office after 8 years of prosperity. We got a new president, George W. Bush. The stock markets that was heading down before the administration change, continued down. The dot com bubble bust. The NASDAQ stock market that was heavy with tech stocks centered in Silicon Valley lost half its value in a few short months. Jobs were disappearing all over the place. The economy was in the tank. Then something even worse happened. 9-11.
Connie woke me up in the morning. She told me that the World Trade Center had collapsed, and the pentagon was on fire. I thought “Right! What kind of silly thing did she think she saw on TV?” and got up reluctantly to debunk whatever foolishness she had bought into. I few moments later, we both stood transfixed in front of the TV screen. The realness of the horror set in.
9-11 took a bad economy and made it worse. I don’t mean to make too much of how the event might have hurt my comic book business. I’m very lucky. I live on the West Coast. I didn’t lose any friends or loved ones. Comic books aren’t exactly a necessity for daily life. The event did have many smaller ripples. In my case, it took a lot of the air out of my attempts to promote my new store. I had an event with Brian Bendis and David Mack planned for September 22nd that had to be canceled.
The extra sales that I was hoping to get from the new, larger space never materialized. Sales actually decreased from our peak in Palo Alto, which had been humming along like a well-oiled machine in the late ‘90s. Soon I had spent my entire war chest on trying to get the new store open and running, and I had to start borrowing money. The new location, with double the square footage, was expensive. We had to start cutting expenses everywhere we could. We cut the stock down, and eliminated the lines that were not performing as well, such as videos. We cut the selection of shirts down, back issues were trimmed without mercy. We cut out role-playing games. We trimmed out hours back. Advertising went away. We stopped having custom merchandise bags made up. Staff was trimmed down. We reduced lighting. The increased rent was getting harder and harder to pay. From our peak in 2001, sales went down every year. This was quite a reversal in fortune, as sales had been heading up each year since the beginning in 1982. We were going further and further into debt. It was getting very discouraging, and I was near the point of just giving up, and closing down for good.
Finally some good news. We were able to reduce the size of the new store. A new restaurant, Goldilocks, opened up next door. They wanted a larger store, so they were willing to take a portion of our footage off our hands. We cut down the size of the store from 3,200 square feet to a much more affordable 2,000 square feet. We were still larger than our old Palo Alto location had been at 1,600 feet. The trouble was, that people perceived that we had downgraded. Even though downsized 3 years ago, I still hear people come in and say. Hey, you’ve gotten smaller. One customer said, “I mourn the loss of your larger store.” That one stung. If not for the loss of the larger store, we would be mourning the loss of Lee’s Comics.
When we first moved into Mountain View, I could have taken my current size of 2,000 square feet right off the bat, and it would have been a grand store, but I insisted on the huge size. I believe we would have weathered the economic downturn and 9-11 much better, had we stayed a bit smaller and leaner. For years, everyone had been telling me that we needed more space. We moved out of the tiny Alma Plaza to the larger El Camino space. After a few years we grew into it, and started using every inch. Being tight for space can be good for a store. It forces you to use every inch to its maximum advantage. Sometimes when you have a lot of space, you just waste that space with stuff that you should have marked down and eliminated long ago. You also make the displays larger, just to fill up the space. I am really enjoying my current Mountain View store. I believe that it is the perfect size for the ultimate full-service comic book store.
As I said earlier, it had taken me about 5 years to get any comic book store going, including just moving an existing store. You can get 90% of your old customers to follow you over, but still need 10% more new customers to get back up to speed. Then you need an extra 10% more on top of that to pull ahead. The margins are tight in this business. The difference between living comfortably and going broke can be just 10% in sales. I’m happy to report that we have reached profitability at last in Mountain View. After 5 years of declining sales, sales were slightly up in 2006. Sales continue to grow in 2007. We are now reacting offensively instead of defensively. If you study war, (and remember that business is very much like war in many ways) you will note that war cannot be fought defensively. Remember that the French tried that in WW2 with disastrous results. In business you must always lead the charge rather than sound the retreat. We are now building up our stock instead of cutting back. We are getting into new lines, and new ways to sell and display. Our displays of new comics and graphic novels have never been more attractive or more comprehensive. We are promoting the stores with an advertising campaign again. I am trying lots of new things again, and most of them are working. Optimism has returned. The old Lee is back! I’m out in front of the troops, leading the charge, and I could not be more pleased!
The next step in the near future will be to improve the San Mateo store. We have taken that store for granted for quite some time, and I feel it needs a re-model. After San Diego, I intend to spend a lot of time there, and study it, looking for ways to improve it. If you are a San Mateo customer, your feedback will be most welcome!
We aren’t completely out of the woods yet. I still have a considerable dept to pay off, but it’s much better to operate with optimism in your heart, rather than despair. How will we do in the long haul? Stay tuned. I intend to stick around for another 25 years, capping out a total of 50 years in this experiment of creating a comic book retailing empire.
It I continue to survive, I’ll post more reports at the milestone years. Through it all, I hope to remain your friend in comics.
Now let’s look at some of the pictures:
The new Mountain View store’s grand opening in April 2001, with the Stanford Marching Band.
Here’s the inside of that huge store. You can see Richard Garcia helping a customer.
Here’s another view of the store. You can’t get it all in one shot.
Here’s the front of the new store once we got our sign up.
Our new store was a finalist that year for the Eisner award. We came in 2nd. It was a real pleasure to have breakfast with Will that morning.
Alex Ross and Paul Dini made 2 visits to the new location. This picture is from their most recent visit in 2003, where they were joined by Chip Kidd. On the left is James from Heroic Fine Art, the leading dealer in fine Alex Ross reproductions.
Here’s the Ross-Dini line from the back.
Here’s the Ross-Dini line from the front.
Here’s a composite picture of the line. I could live to be 100 years old, and I would never tire of looking at this!
Alex Ross produced a full color art print for his last 3 signings here. They are highly prized by collectors. This is his most recent one.
We were fortunate to get a signing with one of my favorite artists, George Perez. I would love to get him back again.
Here's Terry Moore of Strangers in Paradise fame giving a talk at his appearance in October 2001. He was hesitant to come, because like many of us, he was rattled by 9-11. Luckily he changed his mind and came. It was a great event. We had rolling fixtures. For author events we moved them out of the way and brought in chairs and a sound system. Note the glass window that looks into the neighboring coffee shop. It was really quite a comic book store while it lasted!
Here we rolled the fixtures away again and made room for 9 independent comics artists at our SPICE event. That's Small Press Independent Comics Event. The artists were Madison Clell, Roberta Gregory, Dan Clowes, Renee French, Donna Barr, Rafael Navarro, Serena Valentino, Howard Cruse, and Richard Sala.
Here's my friend David Mack. He's one of the nicest and most talented guys in comics. I had the pleasure of meeting him when he was just starting out in comics.
Shown here, J. David Spurlock, Michael Chabon, and Jim Steranko.
Here's one of the best events we've had. I have a very small comics collection these days. It's the complete silver age comics work of Jim Steranko. He's my favorite. It was a real pleasure to host him here at Lee's Comics. We had a very special event. Michael Chabon had just won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The main character was a comic book artist, and escape artist that was based on Steranko himself. These two legendary creators met in my store for the first time for a panel discussion with award wining pop-culture historian, artist, writer and editor J. David Spurlock. After that, Steranko uncovered a brand new full color art print that he created just for the event! Everyone there got a free copy signed by Steranko and Chabon. It was an incredible event that was covered on the front pages of all the papers in the Bay Area.
Here’s the cover of the Metro.
Here’s the spectacular print that Steranko created for the event!
Here’s a look at one of the Palo Alto books. You see how nice this looks. It’s only in fine! You should see the near mint books!
Here’s the certificate to this with artwork by the great Jack Davis!
In 2004 we get small. We chop the store in half.
Here’s what the inside of the Mountain View store looks like these days. You can see my friend Chris J prowling the isles.
Here's another shot, taken in the middle of the store moments later.
Here’s Lee’s Comics rock, and secret weapon, the ever steady Dave Chin taken recently at our San Mateo location.
That finishes out the report. Next week, I’ll post a plethora of bonus features, and director’s commentaries. There are tons of great items that we just couldn’t jam in this time. Stay tuned!
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
I tried to give great service to each person who walked through the door, and I built up the stock and displays as well as I could. Soon I got some help from my first worker, Mark Crane. He worked even harder than me, and the store started to improve. In the late 80s Mark decided to serve his country by joining the Air Force reserves. While he was gone I was able to hire other workers such as Shawn Tracy to keep up the high quality service. After a while a lot of my regulars liked Shawn better then me. I was happy about this because it meant that I would be able to expand beyond being a one-man show, although part of me still wanted to be the most popular Lee’s Comics worker.
Lee’s Comics made a giant leap in quality when I was able to hire Cindy Okumoto. She was very intelligent, and a super-fast worker. Her high standards helped grow Lee’s Comics into the successful chain that it is today.
In the summer of 1987 I was going for a ride with my friend (at the time) Marc Margolies. We were driving around in his car looking for CDs. We were in San Mateo on the El Camino near a store called “The Vinyl Solution.” I saw a “For Rent” sign, and I asked Marc to pull over. I looked through the window, and copied down the phone number. Two weeks later my 2nd location was open for business. It remains in that location to this day.
Like every other important enterprise that I have attempted in life, opening up a 2nd store was incredibly difficult. Finding good staffing was hard, especially with Mark Crane still in the military. I scuttled around to both stores. I worked shifts at both locations. I still ordered all the product, and drove to Hayward to get it on shipment days.
At 1,400 square feet, the new San Mateo store was double the size of the Alma Street location. I felt that we would get more business as it was much more visible then the Palo Alto location. I put in a good selection of Graphic Novels, Comic Books, Back Issues, and Novelties. I put in decent fixtures, and the new store looked much bigger and better than the first one. It still took a while for sales to catch up with Palo Alto. The customers still had to be won over one at a time. By now, I’ve started up 4 stores. Each one was very difficult to get off the ground. Each one almost proved to be my undoing. I hope that everything in your life is easy and pain-free. For me, retailing has always been a hard and bitter struggle for survival. If you want to be a retailer you have to be able to take a sock to the jaw and keep on swinging.
In San Mateo we had a competitor, Tibor of Peninsula comics, on the other side of town. When I selected the location, I tried to smooth things over with Tibor, but I was not successful. He was offended that I had opened on his “turf”. I could relate to Tibor being a bit jealous of the competition, because I’ve been like that in the past. I never really took it personally. Over the years, I stopped by his store from time to time and chatted with him, sometimes for hours. One time, he even suggested that we form a partnership,
Tibor attempted to make it hard for me to gain a toehold in San Mateo by discounting heavily. He gave 25% off on everything for several years, but our business kept growing. Unfortunately he ultimately discounted himself out of business.
I knew that I could not compete with big discounts without losing my shirt, so I tried instead to maximize the service, selection, and layout. I tried to advertise and promote the stores as much as possible. We also had nice long hours, and we were very religious about keeping them. The hours, service and layout of our competitor were much more spotty. I was firm in my belief that our more modern store would win out, but it took several years of tough sledding for us to finally pull ahead. In business and war, you never know how the battle is going at first. Only later, does it seem inevitable that there would be a clear victor. Our eventual success in San Mateo was definitely hard-won.
By 1990 we were in good shape. Our Palo Alto store in Alma Plaza was still 2nd banana in town to Comics and Comix, but we were gradually making gains. Business was steady there. The San Mateo location was starting to pull ahead. We were winning over the customers in that area little by little.
PALO ALTO VERSION 2
My original Alma Plaza location had been in a nearly empty shopping center when I first opened there. The rent started off at a meager 300 dollars a month. I was the first person foolhardy enough to attempt a retail store in that back alley. Other people had tried offices and manufacturing plants. As I mentioned, I had no money, no plan, and no clue. I just had this ridiculous notion that I could succeed in any enterprise that I attempted.
My efforts at retail in Alma Plaza helped to inspire new business people to try their luck back there. The most prominent one was Videoscope movie rentals. At first, I believed that they were doomed, and didn’t have a clue. Like I had done, they stuck with it, and eventually had a thriving business. Other businesses such as “Bob’s Doughnuts” and BJ Bull Meat Pies came into the center. Soon the center was better, and it was full of successful tenants. More customers knew about it, and were shopping there. Now more business people wanted to start stores there. The result of my hard work was that the landlords tried to triple my rent. I have found that most landlords are soulless scum. If you are in business, you are working just for them. If you improve their property, and promote and advertise to bring in new customers, you will ultimately be rewarded by a huge rent increase at the least, or being tossed out on your ear at the worst. Do you think I’m exaggerating? Keep reading. I want to point out that I have had decent landlords, too. My current San Mateo landlord is very nice. The fact is though, if no matter how good your landlord is, they can sell the property at any time leaving you with a new, very bad landlord.
Because of my efforts and the efforts of the other tenants, Alma Plaza had improved greatly. We were all being faced with steep increases in rent when our leases were up. My lease was up in 1990, and they were trying to triple my rent. They also wanted to give me a short lease, with no options. Continuing in that center seemed like a bad idea to me. The center was still out of the way. I talked to the other tenants, and they said they were all going to stay put and pay the increase. They figured that they had been there for years, and if they moved they would lose business. They figured that the landlord had them over a barrel. I didn’t go along with this way of thinking. I figured if I was going to have to pay higher rents, then I should be getting a better location. I figured the location was only good because I had helped build it up. I would now find a better one to build up.
I started looking on El Camino, which was just a couple of blocks away. On the corner of Curtner and El Camino was a store called H and R video. This was at a lit intersection, so cars would have to wait at the light. The driver would inevitably get bored and look over, making him aware of the store. There were 20,000 cars traveling along that road each day, so the visibility was a dream. It seemed to me to be worth the rent just in free advertising. I already had a store 15 miles to the North on El Camino, the same long street. Within 1 mile of each location was a Tower Records. At the time, Tower was all-powerful. It was great to be near them, as the customer crossover was huge.
This H and R video store was in the process of being run out of town. They had represented themselves as a general video store. That’s what they told the city and the landlord. They lied. It was an adult video store. The place was open for business for a total of 2 weeks. An angry lynch mob of soccer moms gathered out front to picket the place with their kids every day. The landlord was a bull of a man with hands like hams. He was roiling mad. The Palo Alto city counsel was in a tizzy. Hasty meeting were called. The newspapers were a twitter with lurid headlines. These vile smut merchants were soiling the fair city of Palo Alto.
I checked out the business one morning before work. I felt a little trepidation as I stepped in. I don’t usually frequent such establishments, but I figured that my constitution was tough enough to muddle though it, for research purposes only, of course. Now keep in mind that the place had only been open for a few days, and would close for good a few days later. I had been in business for 8 years, working ceaselessly to promote my business. It was 10:30 in the morning on a weekday. My store would not open for another half hour. This was the place that was universally hated by all, or so I thought.
I timidly walked in. I immediately saw just about every man in town shopping there. The store was very attractively lit and laid out. The videos were tastefully displayed on grey slatwall fixtures. Everything was first rate. Those videos weren’t cheep either. I noticed that they were selling for upwards of $50 a piece. They had them all broken down by category. There was a built up stage area in the back of the store. On that stage they had placed 2 checkout counters with cash registers. There were long lines of customers, all men, waiting at each register. One line was for cash, and the other line was for credit cards. Many of the customers had huge stacks of videos teetering in their arms. I was shocked by the level of commerce that this place was doing. For a store that seemed to be universally hated and unwanted by the community there sure seemed to be plenty of willing customers.
Soon H&R video had been driven under. Soon after that, a “for rent” sign went up in the window. I called the number on the sign. I negotiated a 10-year lease on the property. The former tenants had spent a small fortune on improving the store. It had good lighting, air conditioning, new carpet, an office, and slatwall all around. Unlike San Mateo, there was plenty of free parking right behind the store. The store was lager than my San Mateo location. I finally had a location that could effectively compete with Comics and Comix.
Because of the notoriety of the spot, I got prominent articles written about me in all the local papers. The community saw me as a hero that had come along to save their fair community. The soccer moms brought their kids back for a positive protest outside the store. They were holding signs such as “We’re Happy About This Corner Now”, and “Honk if You Love Comics”. The great reception I got from the townspeople really lifted my spirits.
Those greedy landlords from Alma Plaza didn’t get to see the boom they were hoping for. The famously persnickety Palo Alto residents fought every measure to change or improve the buildings. Almost all of the other merchants eventually saw the light and packed up for greener pastures. My old haunt, Alma Plaza has been a ghost town, and a dry, dead shell for 17 years now. I visit the place now and then to remind myself of my humble beginnings. Looking at it now, it’s amazing that some of us were able to breathe some life into the place for a while. Even the grocery store is empty now. There is talk about some new buildings going in there. I’ll believe it when I see it.
I was sure that the plan for the new Palo Alto store was sound, but as always making the dream turn into a reality took a large measure of sweat and blood. The San Mateo store was starting to do pretty well. The new Palo Alto location was superior, but it still took a while to get sales to reach their potential. We needed to sell a lot more stuff to pay the increased rent. By 1993 everything gelled. The San Mateo store was going strong, and sales in the new Palo Alto location were rising. We enjoyed our first year of sales over the 1 million dollar mark. At this point I believe that we began to equal Comics and Comix in sales. They moved from their downtown Palo Alto location to a larger but not quite as prime a location on California Street. Richard Garcia was the manager of the California Street Comics and Comix for several years. He was a tough competitor, and would match me, move for move. I admired his ability to run a competitive store so much that I hired him for Lee’s Comics after he left Comics and Comix.
Soon the brains behind Comics and Comix, John Barrett and Dick Swan, were forced out of the company. Even though the place had always been very impressive, I found out later that it had constantly lost money. They grew too quickly, and bit off more than they could chew. From what I understand, the controller Mark Crittenden was handed the company for a dollar, providing that he could pay off the investors, including Distributor Bud Plant, who was owed a large sum. Mark was able to do this, but unfortunately he was not a comics reader or fan. He lacked the vision and fire of the original partners. Comics and Comix, once the towering giant of comics retail in the nation, began to wither on the vine. In each market newer retailers supplanted them as top dogs. In Berkley they were soon eclipsed by Comic Relief, in San Francisco by Comix Experience, in Sacramento by A1 comics, and on the peninsula by Lee’s Comics. Their Palo Alto location was moved again, this time to a more out of the way spot half the size, and around the corner. They began to wither more. After a while Mark Crittenden had strip-mined Comics and Comix so much that he was no longer to generate his nice 6-figure salary from it. It was at this time that he sold it to Ross Rojek.
I had known Ross for a while. He started a distributorship and a store in Sacramento called “Beyond the Pale”. He made a handshake deal with me. I would order all the graphic novels that he was stocking, and he would give me a very favorable deal. The day I found out that Comics and Comix changed hands I set about to find out who had purchased it. Nobody at the stores knew. Eventually I found out that it was Ross, and arranged to meet with him. He came to Palo Alto, and we spent several hours together. He told me that the Palo Alto store was losing money and just didn’t fit in with his plans. I was interested in working out an arrangement to get the subscribers moved over to my store. I just bided my time and waited. At the end of the day he made his pitch. He asked me if I was a corporation. I said yes. He asked me if I owned all the shares. I said yes. His proposal was to trade me the failing Palo Alto Comics and Comix store for a portion of my Corporation. I tried not to show it, but I was outraged by this offer. I declined, telling him that I didn’t want any partners. He went on to say that he could easily open a bunch of stores up and down the peninsula and run me under. I thought “I’ve heard that before from better men than you”, but didn’t say anything. As soon as he made the offer, and I declined, he took off abruptly. This was the moment that my esteem for Ross Rojek went right into the basement. I made sure to avoid any further dealings with him. He lost my distribution business that day.
Soon that store burnt down under mysterious circumstances. When I heard that Comics and Comix had burned down I drove right over. I saw Ross, who up until that time, I had only seen in jeans and a t-shirt, standing in front of the store dressed in a fancy suit. He was well groomed with jell in his hair, and was wearing plenty of cologne. He was talking on his cell phone. I parked my car and walked over. Ross showed me around the ruins of the store. He treated me like on old friend. He told me that he had been woken up at his Sacramento home at 6 am in the morning by the fire department that told him his store had burned down. I asked him why he was wearing the suit. He said that he had some kind of business meeting later on. I found it very curious. I have been awaken by several emergency calls over the years, and have had to travel to my store on several occasions. When this happens, I put on overalls, a work shirt, and steel toed boots. I don’t think I would style my hair, and put on my best suit if my store burned down. Very curious. The fire was ruled an accident, and Ross collected a sum of money from the insurance company.
He opened and closed stores, and tried his hand at a number of enterprises. I was more than a little suspicious, but to my regret, lots of people seemed to buy into them. It seemed to me that he was skating on very thin ice, but he got away with it for a long time. Eventually he was indicted for creating a phony corporation that purported to make face recognition for homeland security. The whole thing was a shell company, and he had bilked investors for millions of dollars. In 2004 he was sentenced to 6 years in federal penitentiary. For the sake of the comics industry, I hope that we have seen the last of him. Soon after Ross Rojek was sent up the river, the last of the comics and Comix stores was shuttered.
Someone pointed out to me that the name Rojek is an anagram for Joker. It’s an appropriate name for the villain of comic book retail. For more information about Ross Rojek from comic book industry consultant Mel Thompson, go here
By the mid 1990s, Lee’s Comics had become the leading comic book dealer in the Bay Area, a position that we have enjoyed for over a decade. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I never would have surpassed Comics and Comix if they had stayed strong. They had to weaken for me and the other dealers of the Bay Area to rise up. A study of marketing texts reveals that the leading company almost always stays on top. This is rule #1 of the 20 immutable laws of marketing. Take the example of Coke. The first one is the leader, and it stays there. Disneyland is another example. Comics and Comix was the first, and had they stayed strong, and stayed in business, they would likely still be the leader in every market. Luckily some of us that didn’t know marketing so well came in as 2nd bananas, so we could be #1 when the leader faltered.
Now lets look at some images from back in the day.
Here’s Dan Plock at our San Mateo location. Dan was a very personable guy, and worked at both stores. He started a number of rock bands including the Rise and The Birdwatchers. We became good friends. That’s my Honda civic parked out front. It was a small car, but the back folded down, and I was able to get the comics shipments inside.
Here’s a shot of me at the back of the store. Originally there was an office that we used as a bargain hut. In both of these photos of San Mateo you can see the Gabriel racks with new comics on them. You still see these old fixtures at some comic book stores, and at conventions. Bud Plant and Comic Relief use them at shows. I still have mine, and use them at the APE.
Here is a picture of the new El Camino Store in Palo Alto from 1994. If you look below the wall books on the left, you can see that the stage that the adult video store put in is still there. After a while I got rid of the stage. It did give good visibility, but I felt bad about putting myself and my staff above the customer. I’m already 6 foot 4. Later we moved the register near the entrance.
Here’s another shot from the same time. You can see Clay Ikler working up on the stage, near the register.
Here’s another picture from 1994. You can see that we carried a lot of cards and novelties. Pogs were a craze at the time. You can see a big display of them. Even though we carried a lot of novelties, I tried hard to carry a complete line of comics and graphic novels. I believe that we still have the best selection of comics and graphic novels on the Peninsula.
Here’s a shot from later on. You can see that the wall books are now spread all around the store. You can also see that people are lining up at the counter, which has now been moved to in front of the door. By now we added slatwall everywhere in the store, floor to ceiling. You can see the great amount of window space that we had in the store.
We dove into Japanese Anime video whole hog. We carried a compete selection, and did well with it for several years. Eventually business started to diminish, and we started to lose money on them, so we got out to concentrate more on our core lines of comics and graphic novels.
Here’s Cindy Okumoto. Cindy had much to do with the rapid increase in quality at Lee’s Comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When I last heard from Cindy she was working for Dark Horse comics at one of their “Things From Another World” stores. She’s up on the sage in the Palo Alto store ringing up a sale. It’s Halloween, and she’s dressed like Death from Sandman. We used to have Halloween parties in the store each year.
Speaking of our Halloween parties, here’s Steve Parmley in his cool Flaming Carrot costume. His son is in a great Thing costume. Steve’s talented wife made costumes for the whole family.
I was a big fan of alternative comics. Two of my favorites were "Hate" by Peter Bagge, and "Eightball" by Dan Clowes. I was fortunate to be chosen as a stop for their “Hateball” tour in 1993. It was my first really successful event. All the elements fell into place perfectly.
My event was the cover feature of that week’s Metro newspaper, that had a major 5 page article about Peter Bagge. A lot of people thought that Peter was the big star of the two in those days. They should have kept their eye on Dan, who went to co-create 2 movies, "Ghost World", and "Art School Confidential". You can see a big stack of the metro next to Peter Bagge. In addition to getting that fabulous press coverage, the entire event was simulcast on Foothill College radio station KFJC. You can see Robert Emmet interviewing Peter Bagge.
Here Robert Emmet interviews Metro writer Richard von Busack. Richard is one of the best movie and pop culture reviewers in the country, and he loves comics. Richard’s articles appear in each issue of the Metro to this day.
Here’s the line. We had a great turnout. Bagge and Clowes told me that this was the most successful event that they had done up to that time.
Another successful event from 1993 was our Vertigo signing with Grant Morrison and Jill Thompson.
Here’s another shot of Grant. Grant and Jill were both really interesting people, and it was fun to meet them.
Here’s young Max. He is very happy with his Sandman drawing that Jill Thompson gave him. Don’t miss a chance to meet your favorite artists!
Here’s the Lee’s Comics van when it was new. It was a roving advertisement with images of super-heroes all around. You may have seen it at conventions. It finally died. We had it hauled away last year.
For quite some time I was kicking around the idea of putting on my own convention. I finally took the plunge in 1994, and put on my show called “Comic Book Show and Sale”. My guests included a virtual Who’s Who of alternative cartoonists of the day including Mary Fleener, Richard Sala, Bill Griffith, Adrian Tomine, Mario Hernandez, Donna Barr, Tom Tommorrow, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Frank Stack, Diane Noomin, Dennis Worden, Jim Woodring, Dennis Eichhorn, Roberta Gregory, Pat Moriarity, Jr. Williams, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, and many others.
We promoted the event heavily with television, and newspaper and radio ads.
The convention differed from most, as I didn’t allow other dealers to set up. I was the only dealer there, so we would make all the sales. We had numerous racks filled up with books by all the attending artists. We also had a huge bargain area. We made enough on ticket and merchandise sales to turn a small profit on our first convention. It was also our last one. It was so much work, and took up so much of my time that I haven’t done another one since. The next year, the APE (Alternative Press Convention) debuted, and went on to become the premiere small press comics convention in the country.
Here’s Tom Tomorrow, artist of the great “This Modern World” strip at my convention. You can see the crowds behind him shopping in our bargain room.
In 1996 we were very fortunate to get a signing by the massively popular artist Jim Lee, who had just re-launched Fantastic Four for Marvel. Inker Brandon Choi is on the left, I am in the center, and Jim Lee is on the right.
Here’s a sight a comic dealer dreams of. Crowds of eager comics fans stretched down the block.
Here’s the view from the front of the line.
Jim Lee was very nice, energetic, and terrifically entertaining. He made each person who came to the event feel special. You can see Dena Drake to the left. She worked for Marvel at the time. She was previously with Capital City Distribution. She helped me get the Vertigo and the Jim Lee signings, and I will always be grateful for that.
Here’s a very happy customer who won a free Jim Lee drawing at the event. Mark Crane looks on in delight. In-between talking to the fans, and signing, Jim was drawing pictures. He would then have us go down the line and ask for something like a paper clip. The first person who had the paper clip won the drawing. Jim Lee’s amazing creativity added another level of fun and excitement to an already spectacular event.
Here’s Paul Dini, me, and Alex Ross from their first appearance at Lee’s Comics in 1998. Alex and Paul would subsequently appear exclusively at Lee’s Comics for every one of the five big books they did for DC. Alex created the new Lee’s Comics logo. He produced 3 exclusive full color prints that were given away for free at his appearances. It has been a real blessing to be associated with this amazingly gifted artist over the years.
That wraps up our look at the middle years of Lee’s Comics history.
Observing the decline of Comics and Comix over the years I developed the belief that a business needs to constantly improve. If you just stay the same, if you just tread water, you are actually losing ground in the marketplace. Your customers deserve the best, and you should be the one to give it to them. I have opened 4 stores over the years, and each one was better than the last. I poured everything I learned into each new location. Each one was bigger and better than the last. This policy would almost prove to be my undoing, as we’ll see in the final chapter of Lee’s Comics History. Stay tuned.
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