How a Clintonville comic shop has endured a volatile industry.
To learn how to sell comic books, Gib Bickel needed first to learn to how to sell hamburgers.
Bickel, 56, is one of three co-founders of The Laughing Ogre, a Clintonville comic book shop that opened in 1994 and has survived some drastic ups and downs in comics and in retail. He sold his ownership stake years ago, but remains the store manager and face of the business.
He says his most important lessons for the shop were from his previous job. “I was with Wendy's for 12 years,and it was the best experience ever for running a comic shop because every Wendy's manager every Monday morning does a [profit and loss report] for their store,” he says. “You're taught to lay it out. You know where every penny went.”
When he was at Wendy's, he was an avid comics reader and collector. His favorite character was Spider-Man. The restaurant gave him some business know-how to go along with his passion for the comics medium.
The comics business is a volatile one, with a readership that has long been diversifying beyond a core audience of mainly white men. Demand is rising for comics in book form and falling for periodical comics.
Major publishers, such as Marvel and DC, sometimes look flat-footed in the face of the changes, with some retailers raising concerns that Marvel in particular has lost touch with much of its fan base. The Laughing Ogre's sales were down slightly last year, following several years of record highs, Bickel says. The store did better than many of its peers, with other store owners saying on social media that they were down 5 to 10 percent.
The Laughing Ogre was started by Bickel, Daryn Guarino and Rodney Phillips, friends who had met while working at Wendy's. They remained close after leaving the restaurant chain and decided to start the business together a few years later in 1994.
The co-owners wanted a memorable name for the store and found it through a recurring setting in their tabletop role-playing game. In the game, The Laughing Ogre was a tavern where the characters sometimes would gather.
Comic shops are different from many other retail businesses. The stores buy most of their material on a nonreturnable basis, which means they are stuck with any unsold goods. Most other media retailers can return unsold products for credit.
The comic shop business model was developed in the 1970s when shops wanted to hold onto unsold comics to sell as back issues. Today, the back issue market has dwindled, replaced by, in part, sales of archival comics in book form, but the business model remains. Successful comic shops are often the ones whose wholesale orders come closest to what customers end up buying.
The Laughing Ogre is now on its third owner, Christopher Lloyd, whose main store is Painted Visions in Virginia. He bought some of the assets of the Columbus store in 2015 after the previous owner had run into financial problems.
“It was a huge decision, probably the biggest decision I made in my life other than marriage,” Lloyd told me in 2016 interview for my book Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture.
He said the sale came together so quickly that the deal had largely been negotiated before he had even visited the Columbus store and met Bickel and the staff for the first time. “I was full of butterflies,” he said.
He and Bickel bonded over shared affection for Usagi Yojimbo, a long-running comic series by Stan Sakai about an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai.
Bickel has not been a co-owner since 2006. After that first sale, he remained on staff for a while and then left for a few years to work for CarMax, the national chain of used-car stores. He came back to The Laughing Ogre in 2011 and has been there ever since.
Looking ahead, Bickel takes some inspiration from record stores, which are growing despite the larger transition of the music industry to streaming services and digital sales. Digital comics have been available for years, but their sales have been slow to grow and remain much less than those of printed comics, based on estimates reported by ICv2.com, a website that covers the business of comics and pop culture.
Bickel would not be surprised to see digital comics increase its market share but thinks comic shops have plenty of life left in them.
“I think we'll be fine,” he says.
Dan Gearino is a freelance writer.