On Shaw Avenue in Fresno, CA, just off the exit from Highway 41, sits Heroes Comics. In business for almost 30 years, Heroes has been my comic shop of choice since moving to Fresno last year. The store’s inviting, well-organized, and staffed by a knowledgable, friendly owner: Dave Allread.
In the interest of learning more about Allread, the industry, and how comic shops are doing this year, I recently stopped by to talk with Allread. We chatted about everything from what Dave’s reading right now, to how sales have been in 2018, to how the current glut of variant covers prevents stores from trying some of the many, many new titles that are coming out each month.
(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Matt Reads Comics (MRC): To start, can you tell me a little about the history of the store? I know you guys had another location, right, before you came here?
Allread: Well, as of August 1, we’ll have been in business for 29 years. But yes, for the first 10 years we were in the shopping center next door, and I had a store in Clovis. When this space became available I moved them both in here.
MRC: What led you to make that decision? Was there an analysis of the pros and cons of having that store in Clovis?
Allread: At the time, there was no competition to speak of, so I was basically paying double on rent and employees in a market where people would drive to us if they had to. Clovis was always pretty good, but not as good as the Fresno store. When this space became available, it provided a little more exposure.
MRC: Yeah, you’ve got the big sign out front now.
(Dave briefly steps away to help a customer who’s looking for She Could Fly, though the customer calls it The Girl Who Could Fly. Dave knows what the customer’s looking for and points him in the right direction.)
MRC: You mentioned August is your 29th year, which means next year is 30 years. How has this year compared to other years for you, so far?
Allread: The industry has been noticing a decline, but we’ve actually been pretty steady. This year, we’re actually up a little bit, which is kind of beating the norm. And we don’t do a whole lot of collectibles or games or that kind of stuff. We’re basically comic books.
MRC: Yeah, outside of the Magic stuff you guys do, which is not much, you’re basically all books right?
Allread: We have a little bit of toys, a little bit of t-shirts and hats, but mostly comics. So we’re kind of bucking the industry right now, the way it’s going.
MRC: Is that a decision you thought a lot about, or is it just down to the amount of space you have, or is it just that comics are what you know, so that’s what you do?
Allread: Yeah, it’s basically a little bit of all that stuff. I didn’t think I could devote enough space … I really like … I think we sell more books because you see the full covers on our shelves. Especially the way we display our graphic novels, you don’t just see a spine. You see something that might catch your eye.
MRC: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the layout of the store. When you come in, you have some kids comics up front, and then you walk people through and have the quote-unquote mature readers stuff over in the back, off in its own area.
Allread: And we have all the new releases laid out across the back wall, just like when you go to the grocery store and the main thing you’re looking for, the milk, is in the back. Or if you go to an auto parts store, the oil’s in the back, so you walk by everything else to get there.
That’s basically the way we laid it out. And we put the aisles at an angle partly to be different, and partly to get longer rows in that we could see down. That’s basically the “why” of why everything’s laid out the way it is. Everything makes you go toward the new books.
MRC: Yeah, everything’s pushing you toward those shelves, basically. Have you always had all the new comics in their own section like that?
Allread: Not always. There was a time, at our other location, that we had them in with everything else, alphabetically. But it seemed like they didn’t sell as well. Even with signs that said New This Week, people would miss stuff.
Now, people can just go to that one area, and they know that’s what just came out.
MRC: Do you have mostly a Wednesday Warriors crowd?
Allread: Yeah, I would say 40 percent of our weekly business is that one day of the week. And there’ll be a line when we open, there’ll be twenty people every Wednesday waiting.
MRC: My wife and I came down here on Free Comic Book Day, and you guys had a line out the door that day too, which was cool to see. And you guys had Derek Fridolfs down here. How’d that day go overall?
Allread: Good, good. Free Comic Book Day is kind of a funny industry thing. I think it was much more successful in its first five to eight years than it has been the last eight to 10 years. People have gotten used to it. It’s almost like a Wednesday.
We give away more comics each year, but sales-wise … that used to be the best day of the year for us, but not anymore. We get more people that day than any other day, but it’s probably our fifth or sixth best day of the year.
MRC: What has been your best day, sales-wise, this year?
Allread: This year, it was July 4.
Allread: Yeah. We were open limited hours, but it was the product. Batman #50 came out, the wedding. Captain America #1 came out that day, Catwoman #1. So it was product driven, and people were off work. That was nuts, that day.
MRC: I saw a video online where you said you’re a Captain America guy –
Allread: Yeah, I am a Captain America guy.
MRC: Did you read the new issue?
Allread: I have not read it yet.
MRC: Ah, I was gonna ask you your thoughts, but …
Allread: We sold out of it; we just got some more back in. So I’ll read it this week.
MRC: So you sold through your copy? That’s not a terrible problem to have.
MRC: How often do you sell stuff from the wall behind you? The more expensive back issues?
Allread: Every day. Every day. Saturday, the wall was full.
Allread: Yeah, it was totally full. So between Saturday and today (Monday), we sold a dozen or so.
MRC: Do people typically know exactly what they’re looking for?
Allread: Most of the time. And most people, now, they use their phones. There are some apps where they can put their whole collection on there, and they’ll skim through their list and say, “Ok, I need that one and that one.”
MRC: That’s cool, that that does a little bit of the work for them.
So we talked about July 4 being your best sales day, and that leads into the question of what’s the number one thing that’s going right, right now, in the comic book industry? What do you look at and say, “This is good.”
Allread: It’s a good thing Marvel is kind of switching their direction. Their sales were down. They’re the reason, I think, the industry was down a little bit. And now they’re kind of relaunching and kind of doing what DC did [with Rebirth]. I mean, everyone loves Marvel’s characters, but the stories just were not focused.
So I’m kind of hoping this is a turning point for them, comic book-wise. Y’know, movie-wise, they just kill everybody.
MRC: Yeah, but I know at least anecdotally, the movies’ success doesn’t translate into people coming into shops.
Allread: Not anymore. It used to. When the first Iron Man came out, we sold Iron Man comics and graphic novels like crazy. But now, it’s getting more and more to the point that, if people wanna know who Thanos is, they’ll just grab their phone and look him up.
Guardians of the Galaxy was probably the last movie that brought people in. People wanted to know about Groot and Rocket Racoon. That was probably the last movie that really drove people into comic stores.
MRC: I could see that, because there wasn’t a lot out there about those characters, or at least not at the time. So that maybe drives you into the store …
Allread: And each year, Amazon … that’s just the way the world is. Comics are gonna sell more and more that way, y’know.
MRC: Yeah, what are you thinking about as far as staying competitive with bigger retailers or the other avenues people have for getting comics these days?
Allread: There’s not a lot you can do to compete with the Midtowns or the Mile High Comics or those kinds of stores. And then you look at Amazon … a lot of times they can get their books quicker than we can get books from our distributor. We can’t just say we want, y’know, this one Batman trade. You have to order a whole bunch to get the distributor to ship it, and then you have to pay more to get ’em to ship it fast. It’s kind of a weird deal on our end, compared to ordering something through Amazon, where you can just order one book and it’ll come right to your house.
MRC: So if you guys want to order, say, the first Rebirth trade of Batman, the first Tom King volume, you guys have to put in an order for how many?
Allread: We have to order $250 worth of stuff to have it ship over ground right then. If you order less than that, the books will come with your usual order two weeks later. So you have to order $250 worth of stuff, or your order’s not gonna come for two weeks.
MRC: And that’s all through Diamond. Are you a pro-Diamond guy, an anti-Diamond guy, a pros-and-cons of Diamond sort of guy?
Allread: I’m pretty much down the middle. I understand their hardships, but they’ve put themselves in this position as the sole distributor of comics. The Big Four publishers (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse), Diamond doesn’t make a whole lot of money off them. Diamond’s more of a broker; that’s how they got around the monopoly thing. They’re just the broker for the bigger publishers, who handle their own stuff through Diamond. Diamond’s just almost like Amazon, is basically what they are.
So their percentage is down. That’s why they’re trying to do their own toys, their own shirts, their own things to make a little more profit. Because, yeah, I don’t see how they can survive.
But then again, they are very … backwards in the things they do in this day and time. Like having to order that much stuff. We put two or three re-orders in a week, but if you walk in the door and I tell you it’s going to be eight to 10 days until a book comes in, or if I put it in with my regular order it’ll be 14 days, you’re just going to go home and order it from Amazon.
MRC: Yeah, so that leads into the other end of my question. Which is, what can publishers, creators, and people in the community who want to make sure stores like this stay open do to help you out?
Allread: That’s hard. I think, the community, yes. The publishers, Diamond … sometimes I feel like if they could sell digitally, themselves, it might be easier for them. I think, publisher-wise, publishers might want to break off and do their own distribution. And some do.
MRC: Is there a good example of a publisher that does that right now?
Allread: Fantagraphics, which is a big indie publisher. Zenescope sells both direct and through Diamond. Everyone’s trying to get that piece of the market.
I think the system won’t change as long as there’s just the one distributor, as long as Diamond has no competition. And when comics, digitally, become cheaper than they are in print, you’re probably going to see a whole sea change.
MRC: I know, a few months ago, people were starting to get upset because Marvel was doing those .99 cent trade sales. Did you guys notice that, and do you think it actually affected anything?
Allread: A little bit, but not that much, no.
(Allread steps away, briefly, to ring up the customer who bought She Could Fly.)
Allread: I think what’s holding this industry back a little bit is all these variant covers the publishers are doing. I think they’re going to end up hurting the industry dramatically. DC will just do a regular cover and a variant cover for a lot of their books, but Marvel and other publishers will do multiples. Tony Stark: Iron Man #1 came out, and we had 20 different covers for the same #1.
And some people liked this one, and some people liked that one. On the publisher’s side, they’re selling extra copies just by putting a different cover on the same issue. So it’s boosting their sales. But long-term, I don’t think it’s healthy for stores or consumers because people are just going to say, “I’m tired of it. It’s just too much.”
MRC: How do you, as a store owner, even know how many copies of each cover to order? Because you order by the cover, right, unless it’s a weird thing where they allocate you a specific amount?
Allread: So, I think the Fantastic Four relaunch is going to have at least as many covers as Tony Stark did. And that’s not counting all the ones they make you jump through hoops to get.
MRC: Some of which are tied to how many copies you ordered of a book that’s not even related to the variant, right?
Allread: Yes, that’s Marvel. I don’t jump through any hoops. If the ordering’s not easy, like I can order 20 of these and 10 of these or 10 of these and 40 of those, I don’t try to play that game. Because all they’re doing is trying to boost their numbers.
And I don’t know if Disney/Marvel, if they care about this. But if you think about it, comics are just the fingernail of the whole monster. I mean, to Disney, the comic industry is so small to them that even if they do exploit it, it’s not gonna make a big difference in their big picture.
MRC: Are you at all worried about that, as everything sort of gets more conglomorized?
Allread: Yeah, pretty soon it’ll just be Amazon, Disney, Apple, six companies running the whole world.
MRC: Yeah, and part of what makes comics great, to me, is that they get to be off-beat and edgy, in some cases. And there are a ton of publishers doing that work that aren’t DC and Marvel obviously, but –
Allread: That’s where I think these variants are hurting this industry. So many stores are trying to cater to the bigger companies, and order all these different covers, that if they only have a certain amount of dollars to spend, they’re missing all that edgy stuff because they’re not ordering it. Because they’re having to put their money into –
MRC: – 20 different versions of Iron Man.
Allread: Yeah. So they’re missing out on all the edgy stuff that could be the next hit or could be the funnest book you’ve ever read. And each publisher, all they look at is their picture, so they don’t care if you order just Marvel and you don’t order anything else. I think that’s hurting the industry, especially if you’re a small publisher trying to get your foot in the door. That’s crazy.
MRC: Let’s say you’re doing your ordering for two weeks out from now. Is placing that order more of an art or a science?
Allread: (Laughs.) It is a little bit of crystal ball and a little bit of paperwork. Just trying to see how a book did in the past, if it’s an existing book, or how those creators other books’ have sold for new books. And then just crystal ball trying to guess. Because what any store orders, they can’t return. So if you order 100 copies of a book and you sell 13 copies, 87 of ’em are what you’re having for dinner.
MRC: That’s a picture.
(Allread answers the phone and talks to a person who has some back issues for sale. Allread explains that the shop is buying only issues from 1979 and before at this time, but it seems like the person on the phone might have something worth buying. Allread gives them directions to the store.)
Allread: So if you’re a small publisher trying to break in right now, it’s got to be so hard to make yourself different, to get noticed. To get your stuff on the racks.
MRC: It seems like some publishers are doing it. I don’t know if you’ve been ordering stuff from Black Mask or Aftershock …
Allread: Yeah, we have. Both had a couple hits early on, so that kind of exposed them so stores will try other stuff they’re putting out. The one publisher who has done that before, but now I think is hurting, is Image.
Image has been known as where indie creators go, but they’re putting out so much stuff right now that there’s no way to know what’s going to sell and what’s not. They’re really kind of stretching that limit on retailer dollars.
MRC: Are they in the same ballpark as the Big Two, in that they’re maybe asking for too much space on your shelf?
Allread: Yeah, I think so.
(Allread steps away to ring up a couple guys buying the first two volumes of Nightwing: Rebirth and an issue of Nightwing: The New Order. After discovering the customers have not read Grayson, I recommend they do so in the future. Because Grayson is the shit.)
Allread: And, y’know, each publisher is just trying to … each store is different, and each store only has so much money, so much space. The publishers are all trying to vie for that space. But I think Image is pushing it.
And I see it from the customers. There was a time, let’s say a year and a half to two years ago, where if Image put something out, my customers would try it. Because the number of titles out there wasn’t that much. But now, Image is putting out so many titles that, unless the book has a known creator and this is their next new thing, I don’t see a lot of it.
And there could be gold in there and you just don’t know.
MRC: Yeah, as a reader it’s tough to tell. There was that period where everything Image published was just the next big thing.
Allread: And it was fresh. This one’s horror, this one’s this, this one’s that. Now they’ve kind of muddied it a little bit.
MRC: And it’s not like any of it’s bad stuff. Like the stuff starting up now is as good as a Saga or whatever …
Allread: The good thing about Image is they’re bringing in new and different talent. It’s not just always the same guys like at Marvel or DC or at Dark Horse. They’re bringing in new talent, but it’s still so hard to sell the books, especially when they’re four and five bucks. The price just limits what some people try.
MRC: Yeah, the price bump on individual comics, and then the price bump on trades in relation to that, is that something you’re tracking, too?
Allread: Yeah, a little bit. Image still does some of those $9.99 first trades –
MRC: Which I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do that.
Allread: Yeah, exactly. The other publishers could afford to do that. With Image, the creators are taking a little bit of a hit to do that. But it’s a smart thing.
MRC: I’ve tried so many Image books, just based off the first trade being ten bucks. I don’t understand why other publishers aren’t following suit.
So what are the things that you personally and your shop are working on for, say, the end of 2018 into 2019?
Allread: We’re gonna have a few more signings. We’ve had two in the last week. We’ll do a few more of those because our customers seem to like to interact with different creators, no matter whether they’re small or they’re big or whatever. We’ll have our anniversary party coming up.
Besides that, I don’t think we’re going to branch out into too many new areas. Like y’know, we’re not going to add games or any of that. I’m just so reluctant, with the amount of titles coming out, and listening to the customers talk, about trying too much. And we’ve got more competition around now, so y’know, you just gotta stay on your toes.
Rumor is there’s two more stores gonna be popping up … I don’t know if this market can handle it, but we’re gonna find out.
MRC: And I guess, personally right now, what books are you reading? What titles are you excited about?
Allread: I jump all over the place, depending a lot of times on what customers will say. I’m reading The Flash right now, which I read on and off. This latest storyline‘s been pretty good. I read Batman all the time. Mister Miracle.
To be honest, I don’t read too much X-Men stuff. Avengers is my thing. It always has been, since I was a kid. When all my friends were X-Men fans, I read Avengers. But I’ll jump around. I read the new Catwoman, read the new Justice League. I read Saga. That’s one that I didn’t read for a while, and then a young lady came in here and she was telling me, “You gotta read it. You gotta read it.” And I finally read it, and I was like, OK.
MRC: So you take customer recommendations?
Allread: Oh, yeah. Especially if I see something that’s selling well or is not selling well, then I can read it and adjust my orders for the next book that correlates. A lot of it is customer recommendations. I read Death and Glory from Image and thought that was kind of fun. That was a customer recommendation.
MRC: Quick tangent, how’d you feel about the Batman-Catwoman wedding stuff [in #50]?
Allread: I kinda thought that was the way it was going to go. Even though Batman’s not as noble as Superman or whatever, he was not going to marry a criminal. Not that she’s totally bad, but that was not going to happen.
MRC: That’s interesting. I was in for it. I was ready for the wedding, and my heart was broken.
Allread: The one I felt worse about was Colossus and Kitty Pryde. Poor Colossus has been through everything, and then they were up there and Kitty said no. And Rogue and Gambit got married.
MRC: At least you got a wedding in that issue, though.
Allread: Yeah, but poor Colossus, he’s been through everything.
MRC: Is there anything else you want to talk about, or anything else you want to say?
Allread: Just that I still feel that, even in this time and age of movie-driven comics, comics are still, to me, number one. Just because, if I read the same story you read, I might get a different feeling or emotion than you do. Whereas if they spoonfeed it to you in a movie, we’re just both going to say, “Oh, that just happened.”
Whereas in a comic, you might say I think this went this way, and you might think that went that way. That’s what I like about it.
Heroes Comics is located at 110 E. Shaw Ave. in Fresno, CA, right next to a fantastic beer and brat place at which you can read your newly purchased comics.