Comickaze bookstore struggles to survive in pandemic and amid industry changes – KPBS

Speaker 1: (00:00)
Comicon special edition happens in person this Friday through Sunday, the event focuses on comics and pop culture. So to kick things off this week, KPBS arts reporter, Beth Armando, Amando wanted to talk to a comic book store to find out how it’s been impacted by the pandemic. She speaks with lucky Bronson of kamikaze comics on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard in San Diego.
Speaker 2: (00:25)
So lucky I want to get a little background on kamikaze. So give us a little recent history on kamikaze.
Speaker 3: (00:31)
Robert Scott was the original owner and he’d been in San Diego for almost 30 years, created a community of comic lovers. And in the end of 2019, December, 2019, he passed, uh, because of medical condition. After that his wife, Denise helped us keep the store around and, and going. And so we were kind of in survival mode until the beginning of the 2020. We closed down our, uh, point Loma store and, uh, then the pandemic hit, which turned out to be a good thing for us. At least the shutdown was, um, it let us regroup, pull ourselves together as a store and, and kind of bounce back because we didn’t have to deal with new product and paying for new product constantly. And we could focus on selling the product we have, which is a lot of stuff. It was interesting going through that transition and into, um, the pandemic or the shutdown, I should say, because, you know, like when everything’s going, well, you can talk about community and we’re a big community, but when faced with possibly closing our customers, our family and friends, they stepped up and started, you know, buying stuff and keeping us open.
Speaker 3: (01:45)
And that’s when, you know, you’re part of the community is when you’re at your lowest and people show up and, and helped us stay open. And so, so yeah, because of what Robert built, as far as a community in San Diego with kamikaze, it allow us, it allowed us to survive the pandemic because people wanted us to stay around because they recognize that we were, uh, important to them in their day to day and in their lives and stuff like that.
Speaker 2: (02:16)
Now for a bookstore that specializes in comics, you guys do have something that probably helped you during the pandemic, which is people do anticipate certain things coming out on a regular basis. So was that part of what, um, helped keep you going with some of the orders and mail orders for, you know, weekly comics?
Speaker 3: (02:37)
No. And the reason for that is because our main distributor diamond comics completely shut down and they said they were not shipping any new product until the lockdown was over. And I’m sure a lot of that had to do with staffing issues on, on their end, um, which caused a really big disruption to, uh, the comic industry as a whole, because they were the main distributor for Marvel, Marvel comics, DC comics, image comics, uh, basically everything that we needed to be to run as a store. And so, so that was a wake-up call for, for diamond and for the industry as a whole. And what was interesting in that time was that DC comics decided to BR uh, and their contract with diamond and go to another distributor. And so the shutdown caused a lot of disruption. A lot of, lot of comic, a lot of the comic industry had to recalibrate and kind of figure out how they’re going to survive.
Speaker 3: (03:36)
And so, so did we, as, as a local store? Yeah. So we had to deal with a lot of disruption and a lot of rethinking of what the comic industry was going to be. Uh, at least on the retail level, it was always like the, the companies with the least amount of resources were the ones that stepped up the most to try to help the stores. For instance, uh, Robert Kirkman’s company. Skybound, uh, he also created walking dead and invincible. They, they published a comic, sets it to us for free a new walking, dead story that no one expected published it for free sets it to us for free so that we could sell it and, and, you know, make some money while, while this whole thing was going on.
Speaker 2: (04:17)
How are things going now in terms of new product coming in and what you’re able to actually offer to customers?
Speaker 3: (04:24)
It’s starting to get back to normal. It feels like it’s back to normal. Our weekly people that come in Wednesday mornings are back in full force, but yeah, everything see everything’s back to normal, but we’ll see because of the paper shortage, right. And supply chain issues for us right now are our big issue is getting supplies like comics, collectors, like to keep in bags and boards, right. To keep them protected and, and boxes that are designed for comics. It used to be that we can order put in an order and get stuff within a couple of weeks. Now we’re waiting up to four to five months before we can see that product in.
Speaker 2: (04:59)
So it was something like a paper shortage. What kind of problems do you foresee that that could have on you? Is this something where your publishers aren’t able to print or aren’t able to do reprints? How does that affect them?
Speaker 3: (05:13)
I mean, after they announced the, uh, shortage, the paper shortage publishers decided, or they announced that they weren’t going to do second printings. Um, but right now it’s a wait and see what’s going to happen, but what we’re anticipating or what we’re hoping for is that the publishers take a minute and reevaluate how they’ve been publishing comics. And what I mean by that is for instance, Marvel and DC will do variant covers, right? So the interior is the same, but they put a different artist on the cover to entice people, to either spend more or buy two copies of the same book. So the market has narrowed down to people who can afford comics as opposed to just being a disposable entertainment. So what I’m hoping is the publishers stop and go and figure out what’s important for them to publish and what we can sell.
Speaker 2: (06:02)
And at this point, what are you seeing as kind of the biggest challenges to, you know, keeping the business running
Speaker 3: (06:08)
Challenges for us is dealing with these companies. And because they don’t always, they don’t always listen. Like some of them treat us as employees as opposed to partners. So the frustration that’s, I think it’s been around for awhile is these companies don’t want to spend any money on advertising to bring in new customers. They keep advertising to the people that come into the stores. So the pie is going to keep shrinking the more, you know, the higher the prices on the comics go. So that that’s part of our frustration. Otherwise, as a store, it’s just, you know, paying the bills and keeping the store open and keep the product on the shelves. Um, stuff like that.
Speaker 2: (06:48)
You know, you talk about trying to get some of these publishers and companies to recognize the needs that the comic book store has. So do you have an ability to work with other comic book store owners to kind of increase your notice or increase your ability to kind of get your needs known to these larger publishers?
Speaker 3: (07:07)
Yes, there’s, there’s a couple of forums. There’s a couple of Facebook forums that allow comic shop owners just to communicate with each other and let each other know what’s going on. And what’s interesting is that a lot of that, I think I believe came from something that Robert did. Robert Scott did the original owner, which was created. He created a forum called the CBIA, which allowed, uh, retail, retailers, publishers, and creators to communicate. Right. Because for a long time before the internet, it was just what you knew that locally and whatever they got in the fax machine. But now because of, uh, the changes in the technology because of Facebook, yeah. We communicate with other retailers and we see what it’s bothering them, what product comes out that doesn’t sell ourselves. And we see where, where the communication seems to break down between retailers and publishers. Um, but yeah, keep, uh, there are avenues for, uh, retailers to communicate with each other. All right.
Speaker 2: (08:06)
Well, I want to thank you very much for talking about kamikaze and comic books. Oh,
Speaker 3: (08:10)
Thanks for having me.
Speaker 1: (08:11)
That was Beth. Amando speaking with lucky Bronson of kamikaze comics located on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard in San Diego.
Comic-Con Special Edition happens in person this Friday through Sunday. The event focuses on comics and pop culture. So to kick off this week, here’s a look at one comic book store and how it is faring through the pandemic and changes in the industry.
The Comickaze story
When you walk into Comickaze Comics on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, you are immediately struck and a little overwhelmed by how many books there are. Books crammed into shelves, spilling out of boxes and tempting you from spinning racks.
There are walls of DC and Marvel comics but you can also find a graphic novel on classical pianist Glenn Gould or on how God is disappointed in you, or on how to become a billionaire or on history of the Black Panthers. There are books on how to draw manga, how to break into the comics industry or how to mix a Lovecraftian cocktail.
Like a good library, Comickaze is a place you can spend hours in and just get lost in the enticing diversity.
But Comickaze has been through a lot recently. Its original owner, Robert Scott, had been running the store for three decades and worked hard to make sure he stocked not just the big DC and Marvel titles but a vast array of small press and indie titles as well. But in December 2019, Scott died suddenly of health related issues. His wife, Denise, had to close the Point Loma Liberty Station store but worked hard to keep the original Clairemont Mesa Boulevard store open.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing most businesses to close their doors to in person customers. The bookstore was in survival mode but surprisingly the forced closure gave the business a moment to catch its breath.
“At least the shutdown let us regroup, pull ourselves together as a store and kind of bounce back because we didn’t have to deal with new product and paying for new product constantly and we could focus on selling on the product we have, which is a lot of stuff,” explained Lucky Bronson, who is now the store manager. “And it was interesting going through that transition and into the shutdown because when everything is going well, you can talk about community but when faced with possibly closing, our customers, our family and friends, they stepped up and started buying stuff and keeping us open. And that’s when you know you’re a part of the community. It’s when you’re at your lowest and people show up and help us stay open because of what Robert built.”
Surviving the pandemic
At first it might seem that a comic book store, which caters to people who buy weekly comics, might be in a good position to survive the pandemic shutdown. But no one anticipated how the pandemic was going to affect the supply chain.
“Our main distributor, Diamond Comics, completely shut down and they said they were not shipping any new product until the lockdown was over,” Bronson said. “I’m sure a lot of that had to do with staffing issues on their end, which caused a really big disruption to the comic industry as a whole, because they were the main distributor for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Image Comics, basically everything that we needed to run as a store. And so what was interesting about that was for a long time, retailers felt Diamond was a monopoly and didn’t always take our concerns into account because who are we going to go to? So that was a wake up call for Diamond and for the industry as a whole. DC Comics decided to end their contract with Diamond and go to another distributor. And so the shutdown caused a lot of disruption. A lot of the comic industry had to recalibrate and kind of figure out how they’re going to survive.”
What was interesting was that it turned out to be smaller distributors and not the comics industry giants that tried to help retailers.
“For instance, Robert Kirkman’s company Skybound, he also created ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Invincible,’ they published a comic — a new ‘Walking Dead’ story that no one expected — published it for free, sent it to us for free so that we could sell it and make some money while this whole thing was going on,” Bronson said. “But Marvel was just crickets. So Marvel, you have all this money, you have all these resources and influence, no advertising from them, nothing. And so it was that wake up call made us kind of change our priorities and want to support the smaller press. People like Boom, Aftershock ,TKO. TKO, for instance, if our customers ordered from them through the shutdown in 2020 through their web store, they would send a part of those profits to us, which wasn’t a lot but it was nice because Marvel and DC being the biggest companies, talk about us being partners, but they really treat us as employees, whereas the smaller publishers do reach out to us and hope that we do partner with them and promote and support their stuff, which through the pandemic, that made a difference.”
Current challenges
There are other issues that retailers have to deal with. Ordering things like the bags and boards and comic book boxes can now take months rather than weeks, and a paper shortage may impact printing of comics.
“After they announced the paper shortage, publishers announced that they weren’t going to do second printings,” Bronson said. “So right now it’s wait and see what’s going to happen. But what we’re hoping for is that the publishers take a minute and re-evaluate how they’ve been publishing comics. For instance, Marvel and DC will do variant covers where the interior is the same, but they put a different artist on the cover to entice people to either spend more or buy two copies of the same book, which has been frustrating for us because the price of comics has been going up past what we’ve seen as inflation. And so the market has narrowed down to people who can afford comics, as opposed to just being a disposable entertainment. So what I’m hoping is publishers stop and go and figure out what’s important for them to publish and what we can sell as a product.”
This Friday Comic-Con returns to an in person show with what it is calling Comic-Con Special Edition. There will be no Hall H and only about half the number of people expected to attend with numbers estimated at about 60,000.
Comickaze has not been an exhibitor at Comic-Con for decades but Bronson appreciates what it offers pop culture fans.
“It’s funny that in my experience, portrayals of comics fans, geeks, nerds, is that they are introverts and that they don’t want to socialize with people,” Bronson said. “But with Comic-Con, we see that’s not true because they might not want to socialize with you, because they don’t want to have that small talk that doesn’t interest them. But at Comic-Con you see there’s hundreds of thousands of people there for one thing, and they’re all happy about it and to talk about it.”
But Bronson does wish that the nonprofit would make more of an effort to help small comic book retailers and do more in terms of partnerships with them. Comic-Con does highlight stores through its annual Will Eisner Retailer Award for which Comickaze had been nominated at one point.
As more things are opening and more in person events are happening. Comickaze is seeing things returning to almost normal. There is still a lot of uncertainty on the horizon and running a small business is always a challenge. But thanks to Robert Scott and Bronson, Comickaze Comics has established itself as part of San Diego’s pop culture community and hopefully it will continue to do so for many years to come.

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