2020 was a year that no one expected. With everything that’s happened in the last six months, no one has been hit harder in America than the small business owner. Unfortunately in the comics industry the vast majority of comic book shops are small businesses, and the lockdown from the beginning of April to end of May was a roller coaster. Thankfully it appears we’re coming out of it, but that doesn’t mean that comic shops are out of the woods. We got the opportunity to talk to one shop owner to get his take on it.
I’ve known Greg Gage for years. His store, Black Cat Comics in the Sugarhouse district of Salt Lake City, was my favorite shop in town, despite the fact that I lived hours away. Even though I wasn’t a Wednesday warrior, he always recognized me and made a point to chat for a few minutes whether I was dropping into the shop to pick up an issue, Free Comic Book Day, or one of the local conventions.
Fast forward to a few years later, and after years without a pull list, I decided it was time to start one up. I instantly thought of Greg and Black Cat. I’ve been visiting nearly every Wednesday since, until April 1, 2020. With the lockdowns, I was unable to visit the shop, but Greg and I chatted over social media and email. Over the course of that time, we chatted about what he was going through and the changes to the industry.
Tony Thornley: Hi Greg! What’s your origin story as a comic fan?
Greg Gage: I’ve always loved the comic world. One of my best comic book memories was my parents bringing me a copy of Uncanny X-Men #94 home from a vacation they went on. I read it and thought how bizarre these characters were, but somehow got them, even at the tender age of 4! That splash page of Professor X reflected back in the mirror along with the rest of the X-Men just blew my mind and I knew this was my thing.
I then started reading Batman by Neal Adams, never even imagining I’d know him later on in life. That’s kind of one of the things about the comic world. It’s a huge multi-billion dollar industry that’s one of the smallest, most close knit communities I’ve ever seen, and that’s amazing.
TT: How about as a retailer?
GG: As far as retailing goes, I quit my very well paying, misery inducing cubicle job and began working part time at a shop that is no longer around. That gave me the bug of being on the other side of the counter, and it was just a natural progression into being a store owner. I’m very lucky to be one of only a few thousand people in the whole country that is able to turn their passion into a career. I still sometimes can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to do this.
TT: I think I first met you back in 2008 but how long have you owned your shop?
GG: We reached our 16th year in May. We unfortunately had to postpone our anniversary signing and party this year due to obvious reasons, but as soon as I can arrange it, I’ll announce the updated info.
TT: Black Cat Comics is kind of unique as the shop’s stock is about 90% comics, trades and graphic novels while so many shops diversify with toys, games and trading cards. How did you land on this business model?
GG: Honestly, that’s all I know. When I opened, I tried to make it a place I’d like to walk into. I’m passionate about comics, but I really don’t know about games and cards. We do stock toys, but they’re pretty much all complimentary to the comics. I figure I’ll leave the games and cards to somebody that knows what the hell they’re doing with them. I sure don’t!
There are a lot of fantastic game stores around the Salt Lake Valley and they do a great job. I just figure not doing that gives me the chance to only concentrate on one thing, which allows me to maybe stock some smaller press books that some stores that have diversified don’t have the luxury of doing.
TT: So outside of the obvious (especially with the DC changes which we’ll talk about shortly), how has the pandemic affected day to day operations of the store?
GG: It’s been a challenge. We’ve expanded our mail orders to a huge degree. We’ve also instituted a curbside pickup, like many other stores. Any given day is a surprise. I think the biggest challenge was the signing we had a few weeks back with Clayton Crain. We prepped the store and the sidewalk with markers to enforce social distancing and strongly suggested wearing masks.
Everyone complied and was great, and what I thought was going to be a challenging day turned out to be smooth as glass. Clayton was fantastic, the customers were all wonderful, and everyone had a great time!
TT: Have you had any struggles with safety procedures? What sort procedures have you had to put in place to protect yourself, your employees and your customers?
GG: All employees are required to wear masks. Every day we clean and disinfect. The counters, the door handles, the cash register, everything. We’ve instituted a “no touch” credit card policy where we have the customer insert their credit card into the machine, then we skip the PIN entry, sign with their consent, and do our best to keep everyone safe.
We have a sign on the door asking to please wear a facemask. If you don’t have one, we had a customer very kindly make over 50 masks to be handed out free of charge. I think we’ve gone through more disinfectant spray in the last two months than we have in the last two years!
We do take cash, but every time an employee touches cash, they are required to use hand sanitizer, which is available on request to our customers as well. There has been one incident where someone has had a problem with our policies. Only one. Our customers are an incredibly loyal and wonderful bunch, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
TT: That’s fantastic! So alongside that what have you had to do to protect the store financially during Diamond’s shutdown? Has it changed your approach to day to day operations?
GG: We were spotlighting some older trade paperbacks and issues during the shutdown as well as utilizing our vast back issue selection. The great thing about comic fans is that they’re always hungry for content. We have such a large inventory that I always have a lot of books that people have maybe not been exposed to due to the usual deluge of new product.
I looked at it as a great opportunity to maybe expose people to a new series. You like Deadpool? Cool. Have you read Deadpool Team-Up? Ed Brubaker fan? Have you read 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank? Cross pollination of books is key to survival, I think. There’s not a single person, myself included, that has read everything. There’s always something new.
TT: Did missing Free Comic Book Day have a significant impact on you this year?
The biggest impact is disappointment. Virtually everyone understands that it’s just not a feasible thing this time around, but people are sad. We have signings and live music from School of Rock every year. We usually have coffee from Watchtower Coffee. We have giveaways. We generally have a party. I miss that.
TT: I know I missed coming to see everything! Have there been any positives you’ve seen coming out of the pandemic?
GG: I think the biggest positive I’ve seen is the comic community coming together. There have been things that have literally brought tears to my eyes. We have an incredibly customer that I call the Black Cat Saint that only identifies as the “Fairy Godmother” that has poured an amazing amount of money into the store with the caveat that we use that money to buy customers’ holds that may be in a tough position that doesn’t allow them to pick up books.
They mainly focus on the LGBTQ+ community because of the obvious struggles right now, but want to help everyone. We’ve had customers buy gift certificates for themselves, that they’re holding onto until the industry stabilizes. We’ve had publishers step up and do incredible things to benefit the store. We’ve had creators go out of their way to support us. It really helps to reaffirm my faith in the comic world, and the world in general.
TT: That’s really fantastic. I’ve heard so many great stories, and these are just fantastic. So changing subjects a little bit. How have you had to change operations with the DC Comics/Diamond split?
GG: Make no mistake. I think Diamond’s monopoly, whether it be an aggressive one or a natural one, is a problem. I think that there needs to be competition. That can only help. I don’t think, however, that this is the way to do it. There’s an incredible amount of added work involved with what DC has done. I don’t blame DC per-se, but rather the higher ups at AT&T.
They don’t know comics, and they don’t care. The only thing they see is the bottom line. I liken it to buying a comic grab bag. Sure, you get some awesome books at a great value, but what do you do with the few you don’t read? I think DC is the equivalent of the random book with them. They have no idea what to do with it. It’s obviously a business that doesn’t make the kind of money they want, so what do you do? Try to fix it. But you can’t fix something that you don’t know the internal machinations of.
I actually feel bad for the DC staff. They’re putting up with an insane amount of criticism, most of it valid, some from myself, but they’re not at the vortex of the decision making. They’re being told what to do, what to say, how to act, by people that have no idea how this industry works. That being said, it’s a mess. It’s doing nothing but hurting local comic shops, and only benefitting large chains and online deep discount stores. As a comic shop owner, I feel abandoned.
TT: I totally see where you’re coming from there. Has this changed anything with how you order and stock DC monthlies?
GG: 100%. The shipping has increased, so our profit has decreased. We’re partnering with other stores in the valley to combine our orders in an attempt to lower those shipping costs. I have to give a shout out to Dave at Dr. Volt’s, and Roger and Charles at the Nerd Store for being willing to work with us on this. As far as stocking is concerned, I’m ordering mainly for holds and prepays now.
Big DC titles like Batman and Dark Nights: Death Metal will have extra copies on the shelf, but books like Teen Titans, Metal Men, and Amethyst are simply not viable enough financially now to have more than a few extras roaming around. I’m encouraging hold customers to add what titles they want on their lists and regulars without holds to either start a hold or prepay for the titles they want.
That way they’re ensured the books they want to read. At the end of the day, it’s about the customer. I want to be sure they get what they want. They’ve kept me in business for the better part of two decades. It’s the least I can do.
TT: There’s a lot of talk about DC’s new distributors being a competitor, are you concerned about that?
GG: Absolutely. The analogy I use is that if you own a corner store and one day someone comes up to you and says, “Hey. You now have to get a large percentage of your inventory from Walmart,” how does that look? Not to mention the fact that they now have all of our order information, our Diamond account numbers, our tax ID numbers, and so on. They’ve assured us that they won’t use our own information against us, but taking into account how this whole fiasco has been handled, I’m not sure I believe that.
TT: Has this affected your approach to any publisher?
GG: Without question. I’m done promoting DC. I can’t in good conscience push a company that is actively harming my business and the businesses of my friends. I see this as a great opportunity to shed light on smaller, creator owned books. Smaller publishers. Independent creators that don’t even have a publishing deal yet. There’s no shortage of incredible comics. It just takes a shop spotlighting those books to open the eyes of readers to something new.
TT: That’s fantastic. I love that approach. Do you think that the industry as a whole is set up to weather this storm? Will we see any big changes with smaller publishers?
GG: I certainly hope so. Diamond is losing a lot of business due to this. My fear is that that business will harm Diamond to a point that they can’t continue to operate. If that happens, say goodbye to most of the books you see on the shelf. I’m afraid for smaller publishers and those creators that work for them. I don’t want to see them get lost in the turf war that DC and Diamond have going.
That hurts so many people’s livelihoods and is a very bad thing for the industry as a whole. Diamond says they’re okay right now. I have to trust that, because the alternative is too much to think about. Diamond is not a perfect company. Far from it. They’ve had a stranglehold on the business ever since I’ve been open. But this is simply not the way to do it.
They should’ve been retained as an option for DC. That’s a real choice. What they’ve done with their actions in trying to dismantle a monopoly, is to create another one. There is only one distributor I can use for DC. And it’s another store. That’s just not right. I love comics so much, and really hope this isn’t a harbinger for the end as we know it.
TT: I completely understand that. I’m glad that the shop has been weathering things well despite this though. I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and talk with me about it all!
Black Cat Comics is on the web at https://blackcat-comics.com/ and via all the usual social media channels. If you live in or are visiting the Salt Lake City area, you can visit the store at 2261 Highland Dr, Salt Lake City, UT 84106, or call Greg and his team at (801) 461-4228.