Thursday, August 18, 2005

Comics: Realty and Reality

Until I started working up here in the Olympian Heights of Bellevue, I never thought about how much the comic book industry depends on a depressed commercial real estate market.

For as long as I've been out here, downtown Bellevue has always been trapped in a weird transitional phase. It has a scattering of big shiny office buildings and a humungous mall, but a lot of the land is still low-rise urban - one and two-story mini-malls, broken by the occasional former private residence that became a law office and then a used car lot and then an abandoned building with weeds popping up through the asphalt.

But the wavefront from the bursting of the Internet bubble (and with it the drop in the immediate need for office space) has swept through, and construction is booming here. In addition to the big hotel/apartment complex going up (shown in the last entry), there is a "superblock" going up just north of here, and Matt's Famous Hotdogs, a local joint that used to be a gas station, is coming down for another big shiny structure. Everything under two stories high seems to be targetted for removal.

And looking at all the construction, I am struck by the fact that the East Side doesn't have a decent comic book shop. Nothing in Bellevue, or Redmond. Our Art Director has some friends who had a shop in Kirkland, but that just shut down. He's going to the U-District for his comics fix, and I still make Bookworld my stop, braving road construction to do so. Now, Bellevue is near Geek Central (Microsoft, as well as a cascade of smaller companies), so you think that a comic store would be a no-brainer. Yet no comic book shop has made the cut here.

I think its because of the requirements of brick-and-mortar comic stores combined with high rents. Comic stores need space, and a lot of it. Comics themselves are relatively slender things, but put years and years of back-issues together, and they become huge, lumbering things. So comic stores are space-intensive. And space costs, particularly on the East Side.

This is nothing truly new - almost all of my comic stores over the years were in areas I would term "distressed" if not "depressed". The North Side of Pittsburgh. The Oriental Theater area of Milwaukee. Downtown Renton. Places where you can get a fair amount of space at a fairly cheap rent. Former carpeting stores in particular account for about half of the "previous owners" of the stores I've haunted. And that makes sense, since carpet stores also are a high-inventory, space intensive retail outlet.

And that's why no comic stores on the Eastside. Even with slumps in commercial development, it has never gotten to the point where the landlord would grab onto any tenant. It would be easier to put the land up for resale for the eventual office building or condo. You have to go to Renton, Kent, and Burien for the prices to come down to the point that it will work. And even then, its a touch-and-go operation.

Economic prosperity, odd as it sounds, may be a bad thing for your Local Comic Book dealer.

Finally, in other comics-related news, my old artist from the days of Forgotten Realms comics, Rags Morales, now has a blog. He's posting art and interviews. So go check him out.

More later,