Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience, stands in front of his shop on its 30th anniversary, Monday, April 1, 2019. Hibbs opened the shop on this day at the age of 21 in 1989. (JAMES CHAN/ GOLDEN GATE XPRESS)
At a time when movies based on comic books are grossing billions at the box office, it’s easy to forget that comic book stores are struggling to stay in business. One popular comic shop in San Francisco defied the odds for three decades by retaining its customers and attracting many more to its world of fantasy stories on glossy pages.
Comix Experience will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this April Fool’s Day after opening its doors on April 1, 1989, on the corner of Divisadero and Page streets. The store’s owner and founder Brian Hibbs was barely an adult when he decided to turn his passion for comics into a career.
“I was 21 years old when I opened the store,” said Hibbs, now a bespectacled, bearded man with a lot to say (and blog) about the comics industry. “I opened the store with my personal comic book collection and a $10,000 loan, and I’ve built it into a thing that’s lasted.”
Hibbs said the store changed at least five times since it opened to adjust to the demands of the marketplace. The funky cardboard boxes of back-issue comics that collectors used to sift through like vinyl records have been replaced by walls lined with graphic novels. And unlike the cramped quarters of some shops, Comix Experience is spacious and vast. Its front windows draw potential shoppers in from across the street with its flashy, well-lit displays.
“I think we’re in a pretty good spot in the city for sure,” said Comix Experience employee Emma Munger, who has worked at the store for more than five years. “Now this street is like the new Valencia. I think this neighborhood works really well. They have the hotel, so a lot of Europeans come by on their month-long journey…and they love coming in here and getting American comics. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s worked out for a while.”
In addition to its aesthetics and location, part of Comix Experience’s success can be attributed to its customer interactions. The store holds a “Graphic Novel of the Month Club” for kids and adults where the staff votes on their favorite graphic novels before holding a book club with customers to discuss the story.
Hibbs seems to have connections with everyone in the industry, often bringing the creator of the novel of the month into the store or video chatting with them for the book club. Acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman held his first ever American signing at Comix Experience.
“It’s such an important job in the comics community. Running a comic store takes a lot,” said Nick Fowler, who shopped at Comix Experience as a kid and is now an employee. “Brian and everyone else who’s worked here, they’ve been really dedicated and very passionate about comics and people who buy comics, but also about trying to promote good material and to trying to spread the love of comics farther than just people who are already fans or have been reading since they’ve been kids.”
While Comix Experience is thriving, but few stores in San Francisco can say the same. Two Cats, a comic book shop in West Portal, shut its doors for good on March 26. This is just the latest in a long line of comic shop fatalities in the city.
“When I opened [Comix Experience] in 1989, there were 27 comic shops in San Francisco,” Hibbs said. “Now we have nine. I guess it’ll be eight when Two Cats closes. So that’s rough, man. Any loss at this point diminishes us all. I feel that really strongly. I wish that they’d been able to figure out a way to make it.”
Hibbs said he believes that the content and the medium itself are not to blame. He said publishers such as DC, Image and, in particular, Marvel, put small retail stores at a disadvantage.
“Marvel has got an upper management team that is extraordinarily focused on making more money this quarter than they made the quarter before,” Hibbs said. “No matter what. If you don’t make more money for them, you get fired. So everybody’s brain is focused on not ‘how do we make good comic books?’, not ‘how do we increase our audience?’, not ‘how do we take these gifts we’ve been given from these [Marvel] movies and translate that into making sales?’, It’s ‘how do we literally make more money than we did last quarter?’.”
Though Marvel’s comics wing is struggling, their film wing is flourishing in historic fashion. Their latest film, Captain Marvel, currently grossed over $900 million worldwide. Last year, Avengers: Infinity War brought in over $2 billion worldwide, according to the-numbers.com.
“I honestly think that if they were on their game, most Marvel comics should be selling well over a million copies right now. There are free fucking advertisements in the theater!”
As with most retail stores, it would be easy to blame the rise of online shopping or the Amazon empire for the decline of comic shops. But graphic novels and comic books bring a certain complication with them than most other products such as clothing and even food don’t have.
“Unlike basically any other kind of retail in the world, our product has a price printed on it,” Hibbs said. “So if sales go down or if rent goes up, most stores, what they do is they start charging more money, right? I don’t know if you’ve noticed what a burrito costs in San Francisco anymore, but it basically costs the same thing as minimum wage. Well, we can’t do that. I can’t go ‘oh these comics are now eight dollars.’ It doesn’t work. People will not pay that because it literally says on the comic what it [costs].”
Despite all of these complications, Comix Experience appears to be thriving. Hibbs even expanded his business with a second store, Comix Experience Outpost, located in Ingleside. Customers say what has kept them coming is consistency and familiarity.
“I’m pushing fifty now,” said Comix Experience regular Roger Burgner. “I remember in my early twenties…driving up with friends up here because we were comics nerds and we’d get around the Bay Area. I remember coming here ages ago. [Now] I have a couple kids that read comics. We actually take part in the kids [book] club.”
When asked what she loves most about comics, Roger’s daughter Evelyn quickly responded with “the pictures!”
Perhaps it is this generational loyalty that has kept Comix Experience afloat for these last thirty years. Perhaps it is the welcoming ambiance and central location. Perhaps it’s the unmistakable enthusiasm of its employees. But all of this has undoubtedly grown from a love and passion for a century-old artistic medium that is often at the forefront of progress and representation.
“Follow the thing that you believe in and that you’re passionate about,” Hibbs advised. “I’m not rich, I’ll never be rich. But I’m doing okay for myself in a place that I love, doing a thing that I love. I literally wake up in the morning thinking ‘Yeah, I get to go to work!’ How many people think that?”