Alex Stritar, 30, owner of Zone Comics & Games, said that despite setbacks, business has been stable and in some major ways has even improved during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Zone, the wall is filled with new issues of Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Vampirella, Goosebumps and Archie. A local comic shop like Zone is important to many comic book readers. In today’s retail landscape, comic shops are the only brick and mortar stores where you can pre-order issues of any new comic book and have them set aside for you in a “pull list” box. Comic books are often episodic like a television program. Readers would rather not miss an issue, likely missing part of the ongoing story.
“Whether it’s in an online forum, in person at your local comic shop or at a convention, comic books, and really all fandoms like that, are best enjoyed together,” said Carmelo Chimera, the owner of Chimera’s Comics, a chain of comic shops in Chicagoland. “You want to share your excitement for the things that you love. You want to complain to people who understand when they do things that you hate.”
After COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, Stritar jokingly called himself “the last retailer on earth." Downtown Homewood felt like a ghost town, but Zone was among the remaining businesses with the lights still on.
But Zone was forced to close on March 21 when Gov. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order. On March 23, the comic book news website Bleeding Cool broke the story that Diamond Distribution was halting the distribution of all comics. Fortunately for Zone, this meant they no longer had any obligation to buy new products for the time being.
Part of Bleeding Cool’s headline said, “No New Comics After This Week,” alarming some in the comic book community. They began to worry about the future of the industry and if Covid-19 could spell an end to local comic shops. On March 19, 2020, a Relief Fund for U.S. Comic Book Retailers was started by Mad Cave Studios on the GoFundMe platform, eventually raising $12,964. Zone wasn’t one of the shops that dipped into the relief fund.
Stritar refers to this time period as the “shut down part of the shutdown.” Customers could call the store for curbside pickup, but none was allowed inside. “It was actually a great time to get things more cleaned up and organized,” said Stritar. “I was actually able to get a few projects done.”
During this same time, A-F Comics in southwest suburban Frankfort hosted virtual auctions of comic books, graphic novels, board games and other collectables on Facebook Live. “It didn’t make up for not being open to the public, but it really was instrumental for us during that difficult time,” said Lori Gentile, the owner of the store.
For decades prior to the pandemic, Diamond Distribution had a monopoly on the distribution of comic books. After Diamond halted distribution in the spring of 2020, DC Comics, owned by Time Warner, began distributing comic books through Lunar Distribution instead. This meant there was a pressure for Zone and other shops to start buying new comics again. It also forced Diamond to begin distributing again. Zone and other shops had to maintain a Lunar account and make separate orders, increasing their workload.
“Diamond wasn’t delivering. That's kind of why DC did that whole thing – the whole get-their-own-distributing-company' thing. We weren’t actually getting more stuff in,” said Stritar.
“DC Comics screwed it all up with selfishness and corporate greed,” said Chimera. “They didn’t do anything during the pandemic. They didn’t have any increased discounts. They didn’t have any returnability. They did nothing. They remained silent until Diamond refused to ship comics, and then DC said ‘Oh, wait a minute. We can’t lose any money. God forbid.’”
Today, Zone and most other comic shops are fully operational with new DC comic books coming out every Tuesday and all other new books coming out every Wednesday.
Despite these initial setbacks, Stritar said sales of comic books and gaming products have improved since the pandemic. “I think people just kind of want a bit of escapism,” said Stritar. “Business has actually been a little better since the pandemic because more people kind of want that stuff, you know.”
Graham Crackers Comics bills itself as “Illinois' #1 comic book store” with 12 locations and an online store. They echoed Stritar’s statement about improved sales of comic books. “We’ve seen a growth in readers over the year and into 2021,” said Luis Barajas, the manager of Graham Crackers Comics’ online store. “With less to do activity-wise, people are starting to read comics and falling in love with the medium.”
Chimera also echoed Stritar’s statement about improving sales. “A statistic I’m fond of is that we sold more pianos during the Great Depression than in any other time in human history,” he said. “I think that’s just to show that people need release. People need art. They need music. They need movies. And they need comic books and reading.”
Despite the good news, all events at Zone and other comic shops had to be canceled because of social distancing. In particular, Free Comic Book Day is the busiest day of the year for Zone and most other comic shops. The canceling of FCBD and other events resulted in a loss of revenue they otherwise would've received.
In addition to selling comic books, Zone is a hangout spot for gamers to play Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! and D&D. To prevent the spread of the virus, Zone opened an outside tent for the gamers to congregate, but it has been removed because of the colder weather.
Because of social distancing guidelines, weekly Magic: The Gathering tournaments on Friday night had to be canceled to keep a minimal number of customers in the store at a time. Nonetheless, gamers can still be found sitting at the tables in the back of store, talking, laughing and arguing. Face masks are required, but if you don’t have one, it can be provided to you when you walk in the door.
“I don’t think Magic: The Gathering Online really replaces the physical card game. It’s two different communities,” said Romeo Norman, an MTG player and regular customer at Zone. “When Corona is over, people are still going to play the physical card game. People invested [a lot of money] into the paper game. Why would they stop playing forever? They’re going to come back the moment they get the chance,” he said, speaking on the future of gaming at Zone.