I am pretty sure you can count the number of comic book shops that have been in business for almost four decades on one hand (maybe even one finger!) and if that is a rare breed, Joe Ferrara of Atlantis Fantasyworld in Santa Cruz is rarer still.
This story was originally published in 2014, I dusted it off and cleaned it up after reading a recent Roden Explorers Club on “mastery”, from Craig Mod.
What could you learn if you were in business for forty years?
I had spent the morning trying to find a coffee shop to work at with the right combination of vibe and great coffee-driving all over Santa Cruz-walking in and out of at least six coffee shops. I was wandering around Pacific Ave. like a zombie until I found myself in front of Atlantis Fantasyworld. This is not a dusty, dark nerd-cave underneath a parking garage (well, actually the last part is true), it is bright, well organized and feels, dare I say, upbeat inside. Everything about Atlantis feels intentional and then you meet Joe and begin to understand that every detail has been thought about, crafted and iterated over the last 38 years.
“It started as a hobby,” says Joe who opened the store in 1976. That hobby took him through the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, three years in a temporary tent while the town rebuilt, and into his new location, where he’s spent the last 22 years. Atlantis Fantasyworld has the only logo ever commissioned and drawn for a comic book store by the great Neal Adams and will live in infamy as the comic shop from The Lost Boys (filmed at the original location). As cool as the store is, I sat down to write about what fascinated me about my conversation with Joe, what can you learn about business from doing it for forty years?
In a previous life, I built an e-commerce platform specifically to help businesses like Joe’s be more profitable. I’ve worked with hundreds of Main Street retailers and what I found is most small businesses started with a passion or affinity and the owners just found themselves doing it every day. Often, small business owners are head-down, operating under the idea that if they just keep selling, they’ll survive. Pretty early on, Joe decided that he better figure out how to be a businessman, and you can bet that is why he is still around. Below is a distillation of my conversational master class in retail with Joe Ferrara.
Know the real game
What you sell doesn’t matter the most, it is primarily a means to some consumer need that you’ll never understand at a personal level. Stuff is easy to come by and can be bought anywhere, there are millions of tools, apps, gadgets, and toys to satisfy any need. And everything can be replaced. What are you selling? Yourself, your ethos, an experience, and often a sense of community. Joe shared several stories about experiences with customers over the years that shaped his business practices that can be boiled down to this:
- Treat your loyal customers extra special because they come back and tell others.
- Treat new customers like loyal customers because they may have heard how awesome you were from a loyal customer and thus have high expectations.
- Treat bad customers like loyal customers because if you make them happy, even if they never come back, they will tell others how awesome you are.
The biggest job
Joe gave me a little quiz, “In this whole store, what do you think my biggest job is?”
I quickly responded, “Managing inventory risk.”
He shook his head as my fastball landed just a bit outside and pointed to the two young women behind the counter, “You want to talk about managing risk? I have to leave them with my store and get eight hours of great work out of them!”
Joe talked about the importance of making sure that his employees felt good, confident in their knowledge of the store and empowered to operate the business. “Knowing the real game” means your team also needs to be able to sell you (maybe even better than you do), and deliver the experience you want your customers to have. Magic is made when customers and employees buy into the community you’re selling.
Adapt or die
Forty years of a singular perspective on the evolution of a comic book store is something I could geek out on for a week. Think of it this way, Joe opened Atlantis Fantasyworld in 1976 and the next year, “The gods gave us Star Wars,” as he put it. Not only did George Lucas change filmmaking, like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, he single-handedly changed the economy. We still feel the ripples of this tectonic shift everywhere in merchandise and Joe built a business on the wave. Star Wars made science fiction and fantasy mainstream and with revolutionary merchandising - branching of stories into products and products into stories - everything we experience today in entertainment as a consumer product is still riffing off of Star Wars.
Collectible comics, once the bread and butter of a comic book store’s revenue, have been supplanted by graphic novels and the new, weekly comic selection. Everything else - the collectibles, the merchandise, toys, games, posters - make up less than a quarter of Joe’s revenue. And while online shopping puts a bit of a wrench in the comic book market, Joe said the creation of the graphic novel has had the biggest impact on sales. The previously issue-driven industry can now release a series, collected into a graphic novel, and sell it everywhere, all the time. Not just to people who want to come in every Wednesday for new issues.
The ability to absorb changes in the market, understand how they relate to the customer, and react intelligently (and quickly) to them is the difference between being open for decades and closing up shop. Joe told a story about how he turned the release of The Death of Superman in 1992 into an opportunity to launch his new location, after three years of operating out of a tent post-Loma Prieta earthquake. With a fever-like curiosity over how Superman would die, Joe’s shop rebooted with a line of people down the street.
Perhaps the best point to understand how businesses evolve and how owners lose their way is, as Joe summed it up, “Our greatest enemy is our own inertia.”
Know your stuff
I have a fascination with how businesses manage what’s on the shelf and how that affects their approach to merchandising - bookstores, along with comic book shops and record stores have the toughest go because the product coverage, per square foot, is huge. Take a look at a small bookstore, with most products spine out, even a small shop can have 20,000 books on their shelves, representing over $100,000 of real money. With all that risk in-play at any given time, knowing the real sales, cost and inventory data of your shop is vital.
Joe showed me a spreadsheet he created, and shares with other comic book shops he’s mentored over the years, that calculates and breaks out his weekly costs and sales, projecting what he will need at any given point to reach his goals for the month. This granular view allows him to always see what his cash is doing, how much money is tied up in inventory, and how that relates to overhead.
“That is your life, right there,” I said.
Joe responded, “You are exactly right.”
The more data you have, on as many facets of your business as you can get, the more you can plan and adjust for growth and health, instead of react-and-respond for survival.
Always Be Learning
Joe pulled out a well-read copy of Customer Loyalty: How to earn it. How to keep it and says, “Have you read this?”. I haven’t, but he went on to explain how he got just a little way into the book and called a company meeting to discuss how to better serve their customers. Suddenly, he calls out to one of his employees,
“We need to make a sign for the door for the double Atlantis dollar days to put out every Monday!”
Joe looks back at me,
“It took 26 years to realize that the only way people knew about our double dollar day is the tiny print on the actual dollars, and we should put a sign out on Mondays.”
When my partner and I were building our small business e-commerce platform, we used to say, “suck a little less every day”. It was a bit of a joke, but it is what we are all trying to do with our lists, ideas, and plans. Evolution, not revolution. It was amazing to see the results of that approach on a business that has lived it for thirty-eight years. When you walk into Atlantis Fantasyworld, I guarantee that you will feel it. Joe’s shop is a expresses the harmony of passion and business. The real returns are incalculable - the impact on the community, the other businesses, and students he’s mentored, as well as the values he models for his employees. On and on.
I walked up to the counter and put down a copy of Deadman, a compendium of a series from the late sixties. The young woman at the register says, “Did you know this is Joe’s favorite comic?”
“That’s why I’m buying it,” I replied.
There aren’t baseball cards to collect for the entrepreneurs we admire, but we can participate in the experience they create and take a piece of the ethos with us.