All American Comics’ Stores Stay Current with Market

WARREN, Ohio -- The timing could have been better for Greg Bartholomew.

The owner of All American Cards & Comics, busy preparing for last weekend’s All AmeriCon comic-book convention that he has staged the past five years, was simultaneously preparing to move his Boardman store to its new location.

“It’s been crazy but it’s gone off without a hitch,” he said.

It’s not the first time timing hasn’t been Bartholomew’s friend. Within a few years of opening his first storefront in 1993, he saw the bottom drop out on the collectors’ market for comics and sports cards.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Bartholomew, a long-time collector, set up tables at comics shows to sell his books, staging two of his own shows after the first Batman movie came out in 1989. One friend who sold sports cards, John Brown, talked him into joining him in opening a shop.

All American opened its first store in May 1993 just a few feet from its present address on Courthouse Square. At the time, interest in comic books and their collectability was high. Just six months before, a storyline in which publisher DC Comics killed off its flagship character, Superman, saw copies of Superman No. 75, the issue featuring the Man of Steel’s “death,” sell more than six million copies.

Other comics that featured attention-getting storylines or embossed, glow-in-the-dark metallic covers were printed to increase collectors’ desire. More publishers entered the market as well.

That interest by speculators banking on the value of the comics to increase resulted in a “significant bubble in the early ‘90s that was really no different than what we saw with Internet and online sales and what we often have seen in commodities,” remarks Dave Hawksworth, sales representative with Diamond Comic Distributors. Diamond distributes comics and related merchandise to specialty shops around the country.            

“Beginning with the first Batman movie in 1989, there was a growth of fans interested in pop culture, comic-related books and merchandise,” Hawksworth recalls. In addition to driving more fans, it also drove more people with an “investment mentality” into the market. That mentality spread with the Death of Superman storyline, Hawksworth says.

“Because of that, the bubble grew and we saw a growth in the outlets that sold books,” he continues.

“By early 1993 the number of comic outlets had doubled since 1989,” Hawksworth relates. “Many of these outlets had growth because of fans buying multiple copies of the same book with the intention of selling it back to a comic book outlet at a profit.”

By 1994, that “speculative realization” came crashing to earth because the comic book outlets couldn’t buy back the books at the unrealistic prices the speculators asked.

Monthly sales of comics dropped. The sports card industry took a hit as well when Major League Baseball players went on strike, a strike that abruptly ended the season.

The dual downturns contributed to industry giant Marvel Comics, which also owned the Fleer trading card company, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Bartholomew survived by diversifying, he says. Unlike many stores that focused on new books, he also dealt in old and vintage issues. All American also benefited from the influx brought by the collectible card game, Magic The Gathering.

“Then in the late ‘90s, when comics were kind of at the bottom,” the Pokemon craze erupted, “which was a license to print money for the most part,” he recalls. “We diversified with the gaming aspect when a lot of the older stores either moved on or closed up.”

Comic books, which have rebounded, today constitute 60% of All American’s business, games the other 40%, Bartholomew, who became sole owner in 1994, reports. Comics buyers tends to be anywhere from  25 to 60 years old, gamers between 10 and 25.

“There’s not much crossover,” he says. “It goes back to what kids are into now. And if we didn’t sell the games, I don’t know if I’d still be here.”

Three years ago, DC opened its archive and relaunched its line of books, offering same-day digital availability of its titles

“People like to read and they like to hold that comic book as opposed to digital,” Bartholomew remarks. For every customer he lost to comics that can be downloaded to tablets and other devices, he estimates he gained 20 traditionalists.

Sales were helped as comics have become more mainstream and more films and television shows are based on them.

“Even ‘The Walking Dead’ was a comic book,” Bartholomew remarks. Many viewers of the hit show on AMC “didn’t realize Walking Dead was a comic book and has been for 10 years because the comic book at the time wasn’t that popular,” he says.

This year, Bartholomew, who actively promotes his store on social media, has taken advantage of wider media interest by setting up tables at area theaters in conjunction with the openings of “Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”

Bartholomew, who once had store in Austintown as well as a kiosk in the Eastwood Mall, opened the Boardman store in 1997. He relocated the downtown Warren store from its original site; two years ago he paid off the mortgage on that building.

Relocating the Boardman store, from a plaza near the township border to just east of the intersection where Market Street meets U.S. Route 224, was driven by the need to expand.

“We just ran out of room,” he says. “We do a lot of gaming out there and for some reason the smaller store had more kids showing up for tournaments.”