Happily Ever After...?

In last month's column, I told you all about the experiences I went through in opening up the first Mile High Comics retail store. I wish that I could say that after my initial struggles that it was all a "happily ever after..." story. Nothing could be further from the truth. Realistically spoken, owning a comics retail store during the early 1970's was an exercise in masochism. For starters, new comics only sold for 20 cents during the month that I opened (9/74), rising to a whopping 25 cents in the month following. While that incredibly low cover price was a wonderful boon to individual collectors (in those days it cost less than $15 per month to purchase every Marvel comic and magazine being published!), it also meant that new comics generated the least in operating earnings of any area of our store. We were only receiving a 40% discount from our distributor in those days, so after everything was said and done we earned a whopping 10 cents per new comic sold. That ridiculously low figure makes even paying a $95 monthly store rent pretty darn hard.

So how did we get by? Well, for starters, just barely. During the first year of operations, I frequently had to skip lunches in order to contribute some of my $240 monthly living stipend for attending college into paying store bills. We also scrambled to carry an incredibly broad spectrum of collectibles products, including used books, posters, portfolios, prints, T-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers, used Playboy magazines, used LP's, and anything else we thought we might be able to sell. Underground Comix were also a big contributor to our sales in those days, with far higher cover prices than conventional new comics. In the end, however, what really made the difference between life and death for Mile High Comics were our back issue comics sales. Without the relatively high earnings generated by our extensive back issue inventory, we definitely would have been forced out of business.

While times were tough for us, the same was equally true for many comics retail store operators during the early 1970's. Even the famous Comics & Comix chain of Northern California, which one of the leading pioneers of the popular culture marketing concept, relied heavily on the bonus earning they were able to generate from several large back issue collections that they were blessed to discover. In point of fact, I do not know of a single comics shop that was able to rely solely on the meager earnings provided by new comics sales as their primary source of income until well into the early 1980's, when cover prices (and available distributor discounts) rose dramatically with the advent of the Direct Market.

While none of us were making any money to speak of, almost all of us had this gut feeling that we were on to something that was going to eventually become very big. Almost everyone that I knew who was in the comics retail business in 1974 was eager to stake out additional potential markets ahead of the coming "boom." As a result, we engaged in sometimes catastrophically stupid behavior. In my case, with my brand new Boulder store just barely meeting its bills, I went ahead and opened a second store just five months after opening the Boulder location. At the time, like many very dumb ideas, opening a second store seemed well warranted. First, I was in a rush for territory. There were already four independently owned comics shops in Denver (a very high number for a single city in those days), and the Colorado Springs market had two, so my opportunities to grow my business were already severely constrained in the two main metropolitan areas of Colorado. I had managed to lock down the Boulder market, which ultimately proved to be the most lucrative in the state thanks to the presence of the University of Colorado and it's 20,000+ students, but the rest of the state was quickly slipping away. The only three other towns with a population above 50,000 in Colorado without a comics specialty store in 1974 were Fort Collins, Pueblo, and Greeley. Of the three, Ft. Collins was the closest, and also had a university (Colorado State), so it seemed like the most promising candidate for my next store location. Motivating me even further were the facts that I had a surplus of back issues and other merchandise, and an assistant manager at the Boulder store who professed that he really wanted to run the store for me in Fort Collins. Given my eagerness to expand, it seemed on the surface that this new location in Fort Collins would be a relatively easy way to go.

Well, in the end "easy" turned into a train wreck. First, the Fort Collins comics market proved to be far smaller than Boulder's. While the University of Colorado is one of the leading liberal arts and scientific institutions in the country, CSU was far more of a vocational college, with many students studying agriculture or veterinary science. As a result, our customers originating from the university were far fewer in Fort Collins than in Boulder. It only took us a few weeks to figure this all out, but having signed a three-year lease, we were stuck. Then, in the first of innumerable disappointments I eventually faced during my career after placing my faith in the promises of other people, the assistant manager from Boulder who was so eager to open the Fort Collins location decided to relocate to the West Coast just three months after we opened, leaving me with a store 60 miles from my home, with no one to run it. Arrgh! Things then went from bad to worse, as succeeding managers either didn't work out, blatantly ripped me off, or simply worked the 90 days required to file for unemployment benefits. Without any doubt, opening that second store in Fort Collins greatly dragged down my ability to grow my profitable Boulder store, and ultimately caused me so many problems that it damn near put me entirely out of business.

As crazy as it sounds, my reaction to this dreadful turn of events was to open a third store. In this case, however, my decision made at least a little sense. In the fall of 1975, the Middle Earth portfolio publishing empire that was based in Denver was crumbling. Co-owner Jim Allen had succumbed to back cancer at the age of 21, leaving his partner Dennis Wakabyashi to run the two-comics/paraphernalia stores they had opened during their boom period. Given that Dennis was already preoccupied operating several of Denver's largest adult bookstores, he had no time for what was left of the Middle Earth comics business. So he offered me a deal by which I could obtain their retail store on East Colfax in Denver for free, if I would just purchase their 30,000 comics back issue inventory for $3,000, in time payments to be spread out over one year.

What Dennis didn't know at the time was that my financial condition was awful. Fort Collins had been steadily draining me of cash flow, so badly in fact that by the end of 1975 I was darn near insolvent. Once I got control of his fantastic back issues, however, I was back in the game! Before his death, Jim Allen had been advising Dennis to make a slew of adroit investments in new comics featuring the art of Berni Wrightson, Michael Kaluta, Jeff Jones, and Barry Smith, as well as several other artists from the "new" generation. As a result, I ended up with many thousands of great books from the Middle Earth deal, including large numbers of multiple mint copies of early Conan, Shadow, and Swamp Thing issues. Those were very hot sellers in those days, so I was able to convert them into cash at conventions far faster than my payments were due to Dennis. That cash flow helped me put my finances in far better order during 1976.

In what I think is an interesting sidebar to this story, that Middle Earth store in Denver that I got for free as part of the deal turned out to be yet another money-loser. But it still made for very good appearances for me to be able to list three (!) Mile High Comics retail locations in the phone book. Especially when the Edgar Church collection came on the market in January of 1977. As I've written previously, I wasn't the first dealer offered that legendary deal, but when it eventually came to be my turn, I'm absolutely certain (especially considering that I was only 21 years old at the time...) that being able to say that I owned three comics stores, in three different cities, greatly assisted me in my efforts to establish credibility with the Church heirs. In the end, it may well have been that owning two useless, money-losing stores was the factor that put me over the top in being able to close one of the biggest comics deals ever done in the entire history of fandom. Sometimes, life's ironies are simply beyond all telling.

To be continued...

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221

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