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Nonfiction Writing Sample #2: Laughing All The Way To The Bank

(SAMPLE NOTE: This magazine article was written for a graduate course in the spring of 2009 and never submitted for publication.)

How one company’s focus on pleasing the customer has labeled them “The K-Mart of Comics” by their competition.

Historically, some businesses are not devastated by a nationwide economic recession: health care, cosmetics, ice cream. Add comic books to that list, believes Steve Lubold, fifty, the manager of the Laughing Ogre comic book store in Fairfax, Virginia. He should know; he’s worked at the Ogre and its previous manifestations for the last twenty years. “Comics are pretty recession-proof due to their low cost.”

The Laughing Ogre of Fairfax has existed in its current form since 2003 in the University Mall on Braddock Road. Owned by Gary Dills and Jeff Moen, it is one of three stores in North America to carry the name; the others are located in Lansdowne, Virginia and Columbus, Ohio.

The Ogre vs. The Rest

However, finding the store is not easy. If you’re using Google Maps, the software tells you that it shares the same address with two other businesses; “Phoenix Comics and Toys, Inc.” (its most recent former name) and “BC Comics” (an even older name). Once at the mall, the signage (including the one right above the store’s main entrance) still displays the Phoenix name, even though the name change occurred a few months ago. Such is the importance of signage to a business with long-time return customers who routinely bring new customers with them. Or perhaps the only important word in the title of any comic book store is simply the term “comics.”

Whatever the name, the store itself cannot be seen from either Braddock Road or Ox Road, the intersection on which University Mall sits. The Laughing Ogre and its neighbor, a karate dojo, are nestled within a small, open-air courtyard accessible only from a few entry ways. Walking into this courtyard, the mall roof of old wooden shingles turned grey by time and nature coupled with the dull concrete under foot drains the visitor of energy and enthusiasm. Even in the noon sunshine, it all says, “Go away.”

But even with all of these confusing elements, the Laughing Ogre is in one of the sweetest spots for a comic book store; directly across the street is the main campus of George Mason University, and a few blocks away is the Robinson Secondary School, a combined middle and high school. There is no lack for young people and their disposable income here.

Stepping inside the Ogre, bright fluorescent lighting and aisles of well-organized comic books welcome customers. Action figures, toys, and figurines line the walls above the comics or stand guard in clean glass cases. Light wood paneling covers the walls behind the comics and figures, but it carries only a warm, welcoming memory of childhood sleepovers in finished basements. The aisles are wide and accommodating, with some shelves labeled with the names of prominent writers to help guide patrons to finding just what they were looking for. The faded and bagged used comics occupy only a small section in the rear of the store, tucked away in cardboard long boxes with the few dozen high-value issues hanging on the walls above.

The sales counter, strategically centered in the store, provides the staff with good sight lines to both guard against shoplifters and allow staff to spot a customer in need of a little help in finding the right book. At the counter, Lubold regularly sits in a low chair and cheerily greets customers as they enter. His voice lacks any local accent, but it has a touch of a nasal twang to it. Lubold’s reddish-blonde hair and full beard may conjure comparisons to the “Comic Book Guy” character on The Simpsons, but he lacks the arrogance made infamous by the character (and other comic store proprietors); he is friendly and helpful, never talks down to his customers, and is in better shape. With his twenty years behind the counter, he also has more experience than Comic Book Guy, a character introduced only eighteen years ago.

When she’s in the Fairfax store, Norah Curry, thirty, sits on a stool behind the counter and helps Lubold run the shop. Curry, who looks nothing like the Comic Book Guy, works as the Promotions Director for the three Laughing Ogre stores, and keeps her weathered MacBook Pro open and nearby, in constant contact with the two other stores and the owners, Dills and Moen. Curry is very thin with short, straight black hair and thick, rectangular glasses. She has a very dry delivery, but when she discusses a topic she’s passionate about, her tough-skinned defenses as a woman in a male-dominated environment fall, her eyes brighten, and her tone softens. Both she and Lubold wear black t-shirts emblazoned with the Laughing Ogre crest on the front and the word ‘STAFF’ across the shoulder blades.

While Lubold remarks that the store is successful because of their long history in the area and large customer base, Curry (like a true PR professional) rattles off a list of reasons without hesitation: “We run it like a business. We work really hard at customer service. We keep it clean. We keep it nice. We are involved in the community. We are responsible, small business owners.”

A common misconception is that selling comics is easy. “Many comic fans say to themselves, ‘Hey, I like reading comics. I’ll open a store, put out some issues, sit back, and read them all day long,’” says Lubold. “But it’s a business, and if you’re going to succeed, you need to treat it that way.” All three Laughing Ogre locations embrace the same business philosophy of offering customers a wide variety of material (Curry: “We have more SKUs than Target.”) in a pleasant environment with helpful sales staff.

The company’s community outreach programs also set them apart from their counterparts. Throughout the year, Curry meets with local public library staff to discuss and speak to the public about the comics’ age rating system and to change people’s perceptions of comics; while some aren’t age-appropriate for children, others can be great educational tools. Curry also spends time with local public school teachers and staff to discuss ways to encourage children to read through introducing comic books into the curriculum.

While Laughing Ogre works hard to put a positive spin on comic books in the community no matter what store someone visits, there are certain competitors who resent their success. “Some store owners in the Metro D.C. area think we’re like K-Mart, with our large inventory, bright lights, wide aisles, and attention to cleanliness,” says Curry. “But to us, that’s just good business sense.” Unfortunately, poorly run comic shops dot the American landscape.

You’ve probably seen one, or even been in one. In any reasonably-sized town, there is at least one comic store, usually in a strip mall like the Ogre. But unlike the Ogre, the air inside this shop is stale and musty with the smell of perspiration and mold. It is dimly lit, the brightest light coming through the windows, if there are any. The store is maybe twenty-feet wide and twice as long because rent is expensive, so it’s a tight squeeze between the wall-mounted racks of new comics and the multiple long boxes stuffed with used comics lined up on folding tables. At the cash register, the owner sits hunched over on a stool with a comic in his hands. He is a middle-aged man in jeans and a black t-shirt or a bulky sweater, and may have stubble and greasy hair. It only takes a moment before you wish that you were somewhere else—anywhere else—and, if you weren’t desperate for a comic, you soon leave, frustrated and empty-handed. “These shop owners sit there all day, reading comics, talking to the occasional customer who only affirms whatever comes out of the owners’ mouth because this is all they know,” Curry laments. “It only reaffirms the misconceptions people have about comics, comic book stores, their staff, and the fans.”

The Business

Comics are drawn and written by artists and writers hired by a comic publisher (e.g., Marvel Comics (The Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man) and DC Comics (Superman, Batman)) that owns the rights to the comic book characters. The publisher prints the comics and deals with a distributor to store and deliver the comics. The distributor takes orders from retail stores who sell the comics. New retailers must pay for their orders upon receipt, but those who are good customers may be allowed a grace period of seven days. Diamond Distributors is the largest distributor serving North America and has exclusive agreements with the four largest publishers: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics. Everyone in the line must make a profit. For example (these amounts are representative only), Marvel prints a comic for fifty cents. They sell it to Diamond for one dollar. Diamond turns around and charges a retailer two dollars for storage and shipping. The retailer then sells it for the three dollars cover price to the customer.

Recently, Marvel raised the price on some of their big titles by one dollar, which sounds like a small amount, but in comics, that’s an increase of thirty-three percent on a three dollar price. DC has also raised some of their prices. While Lubold believes the increase is “ridiculous” and that the publishers could cut corners elsewhere to counter operating costs, Curry believes the specific increases on certain titles fits a business model similar to one commonly used in the film industry called “tent-pole programming;” studios put out blockbuster films to make lots of money so that they may take risks on smaller, art-house fare that may not do well financially, but provides them a chance to make films that are attractive to film artists and may garner awards that the studio can consider as their own achievements. “Some of these higher priced comics also have extra content included, so while you are paying thirty percent more than other comics, you may get more for your money,” reasoned Curry. However, Lubold says the increase had the opposite effect on one regular subscriber: “He went through his list of comics and removed the increased ones. While he loved those stories and characters, he couldn’t justify the extra expense.”

Yet in the face of such changes, Lubold and Curry should remain successful. With their professional approach to sales, strong understanding of what makes for a positive shopping experience, and desire to promote comics and reading in general, the Laughing Ogre will continue to draw customers until the publishers stop printing.

Of course, they have no control over what happens outside the store walls. Sometimes, circumstances force customers to stop shopping. “Usually we lose customers when someone gets married or has children,” Curry says, “but if they can continue to buy comics through those two major life events, we’ve probably got a customer for life.”