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Biff! Bam! Pow! Pinch?

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(Travis Haughton – thaughton@nwherald.com)
Khalil Moutrie (left) and Cassandra Galarza (center), both of McHenry, browse the comic book selection at Al n’ Ann’s Collectibles, 3819 W. Main St., in McHenry. Also pictured is Jessica Amberg,π who helps out at the store regularly.

Al Armstrong said he felt like the last dinosaur in the tar pit.

The owner of Al n’ Ann’s Collectibles in McHenry is feeling the pinch of the poor economy.

Nationally, the comic book industry has seen mixed results amid the downturn; as a whole, it has weathered recessions in the past. Locally, however, some shops have taken a hit and have been forced to close.

“If we’re struggling and we’re the only place around, anyone would be a lunatic to open in this economy unless it’s a kind of exaggerated hobby for them,” Armstrong said.

Michael Knick owned Overload Comics and Collectibles, with shops in Fox River Grove and Cary. The Fox River Grove location closed first after being open for less than a year; the Cary shop shut its doors in the fall, after about three years in business.

“It was a passion, and I just went for it,” Knick said. “Unfortunately, the market has changed, and it’s gone in a bad direction.”

As many comic shops are locally owned, sales figures are not calculated for the number of comic books sold to customers. But sales to retailers increased moderately in 2008 – about 1.5 percent – compared with a 9 percent increase in 2007, according to online researcher The Comics Chronicles.

“People have looked to see if comic books do better in recessions,” said John Jackson Miller, a researcher for the site. “The record is mixed.”

There are advantages that comics shop owners have when compared with other retailers. For example, comics shops buy their stock outright, he said.

“It’s not like magazines, because [comic books] have a life beyond their initial release,” Miller said. “People want to keep them; people do not want to throw them away.”

If shop owners do get stuck with additional copies, they likely can find a buyer somewhere else, he said.

Armstrong said he was trying to find the right balance in his stock and was watching the checkbook carefully.

“I’ve got a couple of guys that help, and they make sure everything is in order, saying, ‘We should order more of this or less of that,’ ” he said. “There’s a lot of people who contribute to keeping this place open; I can’t do it myself.”

Interacting with customers not only helps Armstrong keep track of what he should keep in stock, but it also helps customers keep coming back, he said.

“Just a simple, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and they go and get their stuff,” Armstrong said. “If he wants to talk some books, we can talk the comic-geek speak.”

It helps to have loyal customers who have come to the shop for years and then bring their children. Armstrong said he had an instant volunteer army to help spread the word when he hosted special events.

Some shop owners also are using the Internet to their advantage to reach customers outside the immediate area, Miller said.

“Increasingly, they have made their shops more insulated because they have the Internet,” Miller said. “They have eBay; they have the ability to sell to other people outside the Chicago area.”

When the physical locations of Knick’s shops closed, he began selling his stock on the Internet to supplement income that he earns working at Home Depot. But his hours were cut there, too.

“I just hope there’s a turnaround at some point soon because it’s affecting even the jobs I got afterward,” he said.

Armstrong said he didn’t foresee closing up shop anytime soon.

“The only thing that will make that happen is if something catastrophic happens,” he said. “We’re established, and we’ve got a really solid customer base. I don’t see us going anywhere.”

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