10/21/20: The Very Beginning…
I first remember seeing comic books in a spinner rack in a 7-11 that I could walk to from my apartment. I was fascinated with the stories and art and became condition sensitive almost immediately. I did not have access to a comic book store in the early days and so I cut freezer bags and sealed the bags with scotch tape. That love of pristine comics has remained with me to this day. Fast forward a few years and like most boys, my interest in comics waned as I discovered cars/girls. I sold all but a handful of them for $300 in 1977 to purchase my first car, a 1970 Volkswagen.
I dropped out of college in 1982 and bounced around a couple of years before starting a career in floor tile. I worked in retail and briefly in wholesale for 12 years before I fulfilled my dream of owning my own comic book store. I opened The Vault Of Comics in 1994 and like many retailers, I was sorely undercapitalized and even worse, I didn’t know how to run a business. Color Tile (the retailer I first started with) had a policy of promoting the best sales people to become managers. There was very little training other than breaking down a P and L. At the end of the day, I was reasonably equipped to manage a sales team, inventory, etc, but all with a cookie cutter template managed out of the home office. In other words, I could manage a piece of someone else’s business reasonably well but was hardly ready to become an entrepreneur. I spent many 60+ hour weeks in that comic book store and learned some painful lessons (life is a great teacher if you’ll listen!). I believed in the future of on-line sales and actually had a website in 1995. But dial up service, combined with data requirements for all of the scans, meant a very cumbersome experience for the customer. That said, I’ll never forget walking in one morning and having an order from a guy in Japan. And I never spoke to him! This was revolutionary stuff back then. Couple all of that with the state of the direct comic book market post Valiant crash and you had a recipe for disaster.
My passion was always vintage comics but most of my time got sucked up with getting the Diamond order ready and pulling books along with trying to find alternative streams of revenue (Thank you Pokemon/Beanie Babies). As great as those couple of years were I knew they were unsustainable and my comic sales just flatlined nearly 3 years into the business. I received a job offer in 1997 and ultimately chose to go back into floor covering (this time exclusively in wholesale) as I had 4 children under the age of 8 at the time. Two of them, Alex and Austin, work with the business full time now and worked trade shows with me from high school through college.
I was extremely fortunate to be promoted into a marketing position and had the opportunity to run several product lines. I also had the good luck to work for an extremely hands off boss (Thanks Bob!) who told me “get me from A to B”. He once called me to see if I wanted to get lunch. I said, “I’d love to but I’m in Belgium touring a fiberglass mill”. He was like “OK, maybe next week”? When I say hands off, I mean hands off! I thought I’d finish my career there. The pay and benefits were great and we were all like family. If you’ve ever worked in a company like that you know what I mean. Regrettably, the company was purchased by an investment group in 2008 and merged with a much larger wholesaler that lost money hand over fist, right before the housing bubble burst. As you might imagine, flooring is tied to the hip with housing and the market contracted violently. Our company went bankrupt just 2 years after being acquired (highly leveraged) and I moved around to various manufacturers of floor covering before landing at one of the biggest, a Fortune 500 company. There I worked for a guy that used to be my peer at the old company. Let me tell you something; working with someone is a lot different than working for someone. He was the exact opposite of Bob, a micromanager control freak. As you probably guessed, this did not work out well.
I played in a softball league and fate would shine down on me although I couldn’t fully appreciate it at the time. A friend of mine who owned a comic book store played softball and one day after a game he asked me “are you still into comics”? I hadn’t thought of comics since I closed the store a decade earlier but the prospect of it immediately ignited that old passion again. So I said, “not really but what’s up”? He turned me onto a lead from a guy just north of Baltimore. 10,000 Golden, Silver, and Bronze Age books and the ask was $25,000. I drove home after looking at them and talked it over with my wife Ginger. Now here’s something else about the story. When Ginger and I met, I had sold the store, and all of its contents, 6 years earlier. With her two boys from a previous marriage, we had 6 altogether. It was a happy house but it was a busy house. And so the subject of comic books (I didn’t have one to my name), and my old store just never came up. Ok, back to the collection. I came in excitedly and say “I just got this lead and I think we can do it part time and maybe put some money away for retirement”. We were doing fine but still, when you go through a divorce and have 6 kids to take care of, we weren’t exactly rolling in it. She said something like “that sounds great, how much is it”? $25,000. “How much”? came the astonished reply. To her credit Ginger supported me in this and so we bought the deal and began processing and pricing 10,000 comic books.
Remember, we were both working full time so this was happening after dinner usually until 10:30-11:30 and most of our free time on weekends. Then it was up again at 6:30AM Monday to start a new work week. We could only do local shows at the time but I clearly remember being crushed at the Baltimore Comic Con. We were getting picked left and right by all of the veteran dealers. I didn’t even know what pressing was. I distinctly remember selling an Iron Man 55 that probably ended up in a 9.6/9.8 holder for $60. We probably had a grand total of 40 slabs in our inventory. This was all happening while the day job, somehow, was getting even more miserable. In the meantime, we were struggling to keep up with mail order now working until midnight most nights. Alex and Austin were still in college. I came home one day and said “Let’s give this a shot. Give me 2 years. If it fails I can always get another miserable job working for another miserable boss”. Ginger thought I was out of my mind. In other words, our burn rate was high. This was not the ideal time to launch a business (or maybe it was? More on that later).
Anyway, with some trepidation Ginger said “go for it”. I will be eternally thankful. Walking in and quitting is what I imagine it might be like to be released from prison. It was incredibly exhilarating. I felt joyous. I felt free. And I was scared to death. But I was motivated. I didn’t know if or when housing would recover and I didn’t want to have to find a job in a field that was, at the time, contracting.
There were a lot of things different this 2nd time around. Broadband speed was sufficient to build a first class website. I wrote a business plan and understood basics like turn/earn index, how to build a brand, etc. I recall a friend of mine who also ran his own business saying, “before you quit, call every credit card and ask for credit limit increases while they can still verify your income”. This was incredible advice that I’m glad I took. Remember, timing is everything. The Fed ushered in quantitative easing to prevent the complete collapse of the banking system and soon the country was awash in cheap money. I was offered 0% offer after 0% offer and had a spreadsheet to keep track of when the promotional rate was over all the while praying for another 0% offer. They kept coming.
The business was experiencing rapid growth but I believed that to continue to garner market share we needed to achieve a critical mass of inventory. We weren’t even close, so my need for capital was intense no matter how many books I sold those first couple of years. I bought large deals on time payments spread out over many months. My first big one was a $200,000 buy, $10,000/month for 20 months. The Brooklyn Collection, more on that later but you can read some about it here. I was also still working by myself (well, my erstwhile canine companion Cassie was there) during the day at this time, although poor Ginger would come in after a full day and pack all of the mail order from that day.
That would soon change as Alex was about to graduate from college. I remember driving with him the summer after he graduated to Wizard World Chicago and thinking sadly, that this would be our last show together. That “real life” was about to get in the way and he’d soon be teaching history. But I reached out with a job offer and basically said, “if you ever wanted to get outside of the box, this is it. If you hate it, you still have your teaching degree to fall back on”. Somewhat to my surprise, and to my absolute delight, he signed on. At the end of every year, I do a “state of the union”. Our first year we carried $450,000 in debt. Ouch! However, our inventory was higher quality than when we’d begun and we were solvent when accounting for our inventory on hand. We were building something, and with Alex on board, our ability to process material literally doubled. Ginger and I actually had nights free again (for awhile. stay tuned). But make no mistake, juggling the cash flow was a no fun zone. I actually entertained selling a chunk of the business because I was so tired of chasing dollars. We started traveling further and expanding our customer base. It was exhausting but it was a thrill ride. Fast forward 2 years later, and once again we couldn’t keep up. Lucky for us Austin was about to graduate.