At the end of business today, The Underworld, which up until recently was my LCS of choice, will close its doors for the last time.
Earlier this year I rather publically aired on this blog the reasons why I was dissatisfied with the changes that the store was making and was thus taking my main comic buying business elsewhere (although I still continued to shop there from time to time, especially for gaming needs). I suspect that I wasn't the only one. Although the reason given to me by the manager for the closing was that the landlord was hiking the rent and they couldn't afford to stay in their current location nor could they find another suitable place in town for a reasonable price, I suspect also that there was a downturn in business due to their eliminating the subscriber discount and cutting back on the breadth of comic offerings.
Back in the boom days of the early 90s, there were four comics stores in Ann Arbor, with two more in neighboring Ypsilanti. For years I had been a loyal customer of Dave's Comics, but when they suddenly closed their doors (due to the landlord raising rents past their ability to stay--I'm sensing a pattern here...) I switched over to The Underworld. With the closing of The Underworld today, that will leave just one comic store here in Ann Arbor (the rather good but very inconveniently located indy-focused Vault of Midnight*) and another in Ypsilanti (the front-of-the-catalog Stadium Cards & Comics).
Of course, the big change is that bookstores these days have a wider manga & graphic novel selection than most comic stores. Ann Arbor is the home to the Borders book chain, and we have two Borders stores and a B&N as well, plus several independent bookstores and a plethora of used bookstores (I read somewhere once that Ann Arbor has more bookstores per capita than anyplace else in the world). Bookstores are now the outlet of choice for the casual comic reader, leaving comic specialty stores to fight over the constantly dwindling pool of hardcore comic buyers. (There's also a store in town that specializes in Japanese pop-culture merchandise that caries a healthy stock of manga titles.) While it's sad to see yet another comic store close, I see it as yet another indication fo the shift to a bookstore-oriented GN/collection based consumption model of comics in this country. It used to be that when a comic store closed in an area those comic consumers would be left in a lurch, but with bookstores and the Internet picking up the slack it's no longer the tragedy it once was.
So what course for a local comic store these days? To compete, a comic store has to offer quality service and a deep & broad selection. Ordering from the front of the catalog and sitting around playing Magic (or Yu-Gi-Oh or whatever) all day isn't going to pay the rent. Good comic stores will survive by being the place where those readers who encounter comics in libraries and bookstores will go to find the things they can't get elsewhere, and receive a level of service from a knowledgable staff which knows more about comics than the clerk at the local big box bookstore chain.
But back to me...
Like a buzzard circling a soon-to-be-carcas, I stopped by The Underworld yesterday to pick over their everything-must-go sale. Non-Marvel/DC GNs were going for 80% off, so I picked up about $375 of product for about $75, most of which will either get given away as gifts or donated to the library collection. It's amazing the stuff that I'm willing to buy at 80% off, and equally amazing all the stuff which I wasn't willing to buy even at 80% off.
(* for anyone wondering, our library has been buying the majority of our comics for our new collection through Vault of Midnight.)