The Hero Business

Local comic book stores thrive, despite the economy

Ralph Mathieu seems like a proud father as he gives a tour of his comic book shop, Alternate Reality Comics, which he just moved—after 16 years—into a new retail pad double the size of his previous space.

The new store, about a mile away from the old one, is impressive, and its 2,200 square feet make its predecessor feel like a closet by comparison. Looking more like an indie record store or hip used bookstore, the reborn Alternate Reality is bright and open, with high ceilings and wire comic book shelves organized into genre sections, defying the traditional notion of the “comic book wall” found in most mainstream comic shops. In the face of a sluggish economy—in a state with the worst unemployment in the country—it may seem strange that a business built on people spending their disposable income is doing well enough to double its size and hire new staff. Turns out business isn’t bad, and thanks to Las Vegas’ depressed real estate market—and an abundance of commercial rental inventory—square footage is cheap.

“In April, I was out of my long-term lease,” Mathieu says. “Commercial real estate prices being what they are, this was the best time to look.”

While he won’t specify dollar amounts, Mathieu admits the space is “double the size but I’m not paying double.” The lower cost wasn’t his only motivator for moving to the high-traffic corner of Flamingo Road and Maryland Parkway.

“There are a lot less vacancies here,” Mathieu says. “It’s a little farther from the university than I like, but only about half a mile. And I get the increased visibility and traffic.”

Mathieu’s success selling comic books isn’t rare in Las Vegas, however. Another popular shop, MaximuM Comics, has done so well that it opened a second location this summer in Henderson. MaximuM’s original store, located in a Walmart shopping center at Tropicana Avenue and Fort Apache Road, is much like Mathieu’s old location: about 1,000 narrow square-feet packed with comic books, graphic novels, toys, collectibles and apparel. The new store is triple the size, with 3,000 square feet of retail space.

Jay Bosworth has owned MaximuM since 2006, though he started building a customer base as manager of its predecessor, Dark Tower. Those relationships are part of the reason for his store’s success. He puts people before comics, and looks for the same in his employees. That’s helped him build a loyal clientele.

“I went to other stores and they weren’t very personable,” says Jimmy McGowan, who’s been a customer of Bosworth’s for six years. “I only come here because of Jay. If he would have moved to a different store, I would have followed him.”

Although comic-book sales have drastically decreased since the heyday of the 1990s speculator market, and digital comics have threatened to cut into sales, Bosworth says business has been robust. He feels the comic book industry is not only “healthy,” but also on the cusp of explosive growth.

“The movies are really driving new business,” Bosworth says. “There’s a whole generation I think is going to boom like Iron Man did.”

Another major contributor to MaximuM’s success is Bosworth’s marketing and outreach savvy. He has developed relationships with area schools, keeping their libraries stocked with comics and graphic novels, and he drops comics at beauty salons and doctor offices—with MaximuM’s business cards attached, of course. MaximuM is also known for its special events, both in the store and in partnerships with movie theaters and related businesses such as GameStop.

Bosworth is getting ready for the “MaximuM Opening” party for the Henderson store—also located in a Walmart shopping center, this one on Marks Street at Sunset Road—on Sept. 24, with liquor and beer, catered food and prizes for customers, including iPads, pricey collectibles, hotel stays and store gift cards. He’ll follow up with a family-friendly event the following afternoon at the store.

Derrick Taylor, owner of Comic Oasis, a medium-size comic shop in the Walmart center at Rainbow Boulevard and Cheyenne Avenue (sensing a pattern here?), also counts on events to further engage his customers. His specialty is bringing big names in the comic industry to Vegas, both to his shop and locations such as Brenden Theatres in the Palms Casino Resort. He helped organize the Stan Lee tribute weekend during the opening of Iron Man 2 last spring.

Taylor is a tireless innovator. He is constantly revamping his store, finding new ways to light and display his merchandise. When he tired of receiving weekly comic shipments damaged or delivered late from UPS, he pushed distribution company Diamond to bend its rule on only shipping directly to comic shop owners with two or more stores. Now Taylor receives his shipments a day early and in good condition. And thanks to his efforts, almost every major comic store in the Valley—including MaximuM and Alternate Reality—enjoys the same benefits.

Maybe that’s the most surprising aspect of these stores’ success: They do well not by crushing the competition in a relatively small market, but by building a collaborative community among shop owners and customers. All of the aforementioned shop owners not only share freight shipments, they also refer customers to one another, socialize and collaborate on projects to grow the greater comic book market, such as the annual Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival.

That last aspect is something about which Taylor is most passionate. Beyond meet-and-greets, movie premieres and store fixtures, he has a bigger vision for the future of the Vegas comic business:

“My goal is one day to make Vegas a comic book hub, same as Los Angeles or Portland. We have that type of room to grow.”