Editor’s Notebook: Working wizardry in niche retail
Linn ParishJune 16th, 2016
Being the father of a 9-year-old super hero fan, I’ve spent more time—and money—in comic-book shops during the past year than I did in the previous 44.
Typically, we’ll end up at Merlyn’s Comics & Games, in downtown Spokane, where I pace the aisles while my son Ben peruses the art-laden pulp, often times in search of a story about an obscure super hero or villain.
Because of this, I read with greater interest the news that Merlyn’s owner John Waite agreed to buy Auntie’s Bookstore, the picturesque—if not Spokane-iconic—bookstore in the city’s core, just a few blocks from the comic shop.
Located in the Liberty Building at the northwest corner of Main Avenue and Washington Street, Auntie’s has operated independently under one ownership pair—Shannon Ahern and Chris O’Harra—for nearly 40 years, supporting authors as much as readers with a full slate of readings and other events.
Selling books retail, as most can imagine, has become more challenging during the past decade. Amazon.com has taken a share of the market, and many readers now download books onto mobile devices, rather than buying printed pieces.
Both online sales and e-reader markets have matured, and it’s possible that independent operators have sustained most of the losses at the hands of those market dynamics that they’re going to sustain. In other words, perhaps that damage is mostly done. Regardless, the local book sales pie is smaller than it was at one time.
Arguably, that makes it a good business for a hobby store owner to assume, one who’s accustomed to tight margins and keeping costs under control while serving a small segment of the population.
Even though I hadn’t stepped foot in Merlyn’s before Ben’s interest blossomed, I was familiar with the scene: a no-frills store with a lot of products that mean nothing to most people and a great deal to some. I collect sports cards, and the hobby shops I’ve frequented through the years are similar, with clusters of people—surprisingly diverse in age and background—brought together through an avocation that, for one reason or another, sparks a special interest in them.
The folks who run those shops typically do so because of a passion, not a big profit or potential for growth. Do they make a living? The successful ones do. Do they get rich? Not that I’ve ever seen.
I don’t know Waite, but after spending time in his shop, my guess is that he’s similar to card shop owners I know. And while Auntie’s draws more people with a broader range of interests, it could be a good fit for a niche comic-book guy. In many ways, those of us who prefer an actual print publication in hand have become a bit of a niche, in our own right.