A conversation with a local comic shop

Nearly a decade ago, two friends, who had worked in other comic book stores, grew tired of following others’ rules. They wanted to build a store that allowed them to interact with their customers in one-on-one conversations and create a community within a store of their own.

In 2008—the same year “Iron Man,” the movie that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and “The Dark Knight,” which had the late Heath Ledger win best-supporting actor at the 2009 Academy Awards, were released—W. Dale Bush and Patrick Brower founded Challengers Comics + Conversation, 1845 N. Western Ave., Chicago.

The Comixalxy spoke with Bush about how the Bucktown neighborhood comic book store was founded, how the explosion of superhero movies and TV shows have influenced interest in comic books, and how both digital comic books and online sales with Amazon have impacted the comic book store scene.

The Comixalxy: When and why did you open Challengers Comics?

W. Dale Bush: Challengers started on March 31, 2008, both Patrick Brower, who is the other owner with myself, had worked in comic stores for a while. We had reached the limit of what we thought we could do working for someone else. You reach a point where you want to pursue your own ideas and goals. We had ideas on what a store could look like that didn’t match with the people we worked with. So we decided to collaborate on that and open a store and that was almost 10 years ago.


What were some of those barriers that held back your ideas?

It’s not so much barriers. When you’re working for somebody else—[Brower and I] were working for a chain that had eight or nine stores and there were two owners—and those owners basically had a store they wanted to see the people running those stores execute. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you have multiple locations in a business you’re going to want to have one consistent tone for how the business operates and what’s stocked and what’s sold and how it’s done—it just reached a point where we wanted to have a little more autonomy. [Brower and I] wanted a little more ability to say, ‘This is how we want to sell things. These are the things we prioritize in selling comic books.’

You can only really do that if you’re working for yourself. You can discuss, debate and fight with the owners to try to get your vision across, but at the end of the day it’s their name on the door and they’re the ones paying the bills and have a little more right to say, ‘No, that’s not the way we wanted to do things or this is how it’s going to be done.’ And you can either do that or you can leave and we ended up leaving to do our own thing.


How do you run Challengers? What’s your model and focus?

A lot of what we focus on here in the store is de-prioritizing the collectible aspect of comics in favor of comics as an entertainment medium. Something that people can read and enjoy rather than something people will collect and worry about [its future] value.


When did you start reading comics? Do you have a favorite genre or franchise?

Oh man. I started reading comics when I was probably nine or 10. With comics it’s difficult especially when you own a store to pick a favorite because there’s so much good new stuff coming out all the time. Nearly every week there’s a great new series or some creators is creating the greatest work of their careers.     

This year alone, Tillie Walden’s Spinning was her first wide release book and it’s tremendous, it’s an amazing memoir. Month after month there’s books like Saga, Batman and Kaijumax … Kill or be Killed, there’s just so much great stuff coming out.


What is Challenger’s typical customer? Does it have regulars?

We definitely have regulars. We have a subscription service that allows people to keep up on regularly released issues so they can get issues as each installment comes out. So we see a lot of the same people who way; it could be weekly, it could be monthly [or] it could be every couple of months. Since so much comic storytelling is serialized, the collections that come out every six to seven months for every series, we’ll see a lot of people who come in once or twice a year to pick up the next volume in the series that they’re following.

Depending on the day, we’ll get a lot of walk in traffic, sometimes we have entirely just subscribers coming in to get their books, but I think the majority of our clientele is anywhere from early 20s to mid 50s. On the weekends we definitely see a lot more families with kids, and a pretty even split between subscribers and non-subscribers.


There has been a huge explosion of comic book movies over the last decade, has that impacted your business or your model of operation?

I don’t think it’s hugely impacted the way we do things. We have a pretty clear way of how we want to operate even before the first Iron Man movie came out [in 2008], but certainly the success of various superhero movies, and comic book movies in general, has been a huge asset for just familiarizing people to the storytelling conventions and the characters, so it’s not so much of having to explain what a superhero universe is or a superhero character like Captain America or Thor are. People have as much as much familiarity with them as we do. So when folks come in looking for comics that features those characters it’s a lot easier to steer them in the right direction instead of having to take into account that they may not know much about these characters.


Do you often have customers come because they saw a recent superhero movie?

What we’ve noticed over the last 10 years is that it’s more that people see trailers for movies, and then they get curious about it. For example, right now we are in a sweet spot for selling Black Panther collections because Black Panther doesn’t come out until February [and the trailers have been released]. Conversely, Thor just came out and we’ve seen a drop off in Thor-related graphic novels and comics. Once the movie hits that kind of lowers people’s desire to know more about and experience more [of that character]. [The movie] is the culmination of it, not the impotence of their exploration of the character.

Another example, we have the Runaways collections because Hulu is starting runaways on [Nov.] 21, and it’s possible people see the TV show and want to experience more, but really we feel like we’ve reached the threshold of people getting excited about it.


There are large chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble that sell comic book collections, do you think that takes away from comic book stores as well as the communities they create?

The difference between a big box kind of store like a Barnes & Noble and another major nationwide chain and an individualized specialized niche retailer is the same that it’s always been is that in theory the niche, small store experience you’re going to be getting a lot more time with someone who knows what they’re talking about. When you go to Barnes & Noble, they might have a ton of stuff, but the discovery and exploration is really on you as a consumer. You can hope there might be somebody working who might know what they’re talking about, but they have a whole bookstore they have to run and they might not know that much about superhero graphic novels, or science fiction graphic novels, of manga, or whatever specific genre you have a question about.

There very good if you have a specific thing that you want to get and you’ve done the research and know what you want. Their competition seems to be more Amazon, where you made a decision [and] want to make a purchase [and] here are your two options. The store experience allows us to help people more and sort of engage with them more. [Customers will often] say, “I’m interested in this character but don’t know what I’m reading,” or ask “What’s the next thing I should read after this?”

But some of it is once they’ve read it just having a place to talks to someone about it. Just to be able to say “Hey, that last issue of Dark Knights Metal was really amazing. I can’t believe what happened in Mister Miracle. I hear this book is coming out, it sounds really cool.” That’s not something you can do at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, they don’t have that interface for it. So a store allows people to have a continual experience with comic books rather than just an individual purchase. That’s if it’s done well.

And to be perfectly honest, that’s not what everybody is looking for. It’s always weird to have to describe what we do and emphasize the sort of one-on-one aspect of it when in general when I go places that’s the last thing I want. I’m completely the person who goes to Best Buy, knows what he’s looking for, picks it up, buys it, and walks out the door. I don’t need to talk to anyone or ask, “which of these two should I get.” I’ve already done [the research], I want to buy it and leave. But that’s not what most people want, so we have to provide that.


Digital comic books have made it’s way into the industry, do you see that as taking away from the physical copy sales and physical copies surviving down the road?

We’ve heard from a lot of publishers over the last few years that the digital comics experience is more parallel to the print experience rather than something that’s replacing it. Specifically, we’ve heard from one of the top five publishers that in the last year, digital sales have plateaued. They’re not seeing the huge gains they saw [in the past]. It could still expand in the future, it could still go up, but it’s not going up in the leaps and bounds it was a few years ago.

What we’ve kind of had our suspicions about was the digital experience works really well if you live in a rural or suburban place that maybe doesn’t have a good [comic book] store. That person who just wants to get Batman every month, but doesn’t have the ability to go buy Batman every month, the digital marketplace is great for that. They can just subscribe to it on Comixology and every time a new issue of Batman comes out it’s waiting for them to read.

But if you live in a city like Chicago that has lots of great comic shops, it’s a lot easier to go in and browse the racks, ask questions, and get the print edition. For a lot of folks it’s like record stores, a lot of folks want that physical experience. They could get it digitally, they could stream it or whatever, but they want something physical to enjoy, to have, to keep. So in 100 years, yeah, I don’t know if print will still exist [but] I don’t know if human beings will still exist. But I definitely think it’s going to be a few generations before print comics don’t make sense.

One of the things we still see regularly with things like web comics and Tumblr has made getting your work out there so much easier, we have people come in almost every week with their homemade, hand stapled comics that they’ve produced and want to get them on the shelves. Even though you can do it digitally and it wouldn’t cost you anymore time or effort, people still want to make comics, they still want to get something physical out there.


Online book sales on websites like Amazon have exploded, does that also impact your business or is it the same as with digital comics where you compliment each other?

Amazon is a trickier case, in that again there are people who know what they want, and the way Amazon makes it as frictionless as possible in order to get what you’re looking for delivered to you immediately, that’s very difficult to compete with. Certainly when popular books are cheaper [at Amazon] as opposed to what you pay for it in stores, people ask us. People asked us the other day if we price match with Amazon, but we can’t. Mostly because Amazon exists as a business not to make a profit. We can’t run that business model. We have fixed costs, very few employees but we have employees [that we need to pay]. We need to be able to make a certain amount of profit to keep the store running, Amazon does not.

Amazon gets to offer a lot of the same items at lower prices and eat a lot of the costs to make things as cheap as possible for people. That’s great for the consumers, but as a store we can’t do that. That’s one of the reasons why we keep “Conversation” in the name. We want to be known as more than a place where you just go buy your comics and leave. We have signing events, parties, and other social things and on a day-by-day basis we talk to people who come in … to the extent that they want to of course.

But we want to have conversations about the new Justice League movie, or how people are enjoying the Marvel Legacy relaunch, or anything good or bad they want to talk about related to comics. We want to make that experience important for them so they keep coming back.


How do you see Challengers Comics + Conversations future?

We’ve love for it to grow. We’ve had discussions about changing locations or adding a second store. I don’t know that after 10 years I’d consider us content with where we’re at, we want to do more. We’d love to grow the business. Both for ourselves financially but also to reach as many people as possible.


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