By Matt Petras
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Phantom of the Attic Comics in Oakland usually uses its wooden racks to display newly released comic books, but, during the COVID-19 pandemic, physical comics have largely not been distributed. Owner Jeff Yandora has been using the racks to display comic book series he recommends, and then he takes a picture for social media to advertise mail orders.
It’s been odd, he says.
“Usually I’m here by myself, and seeing the store, one, without any people in it is kinda weird,” Yandora says. “It’s like a ghost ship. The phantom ghost ship.”
Just like comic shops around the country, comic stores in the Pittsburgh area appear to have been hit hard by the pandemic, forced to lay off employees and find revenue through online sales.
Business has been tough for retail shops of any kind amid the pandemic. Comic shops are in a particularly vulnerable position because they typically draw a relatively niche customer base of collectors and enthusiasts. Diamond Comic Distributors, the chief distributor of new release mainstream comics, stopped shipping books a little more than a month ago, and government offices have prevented most comic stores around the country from allowing customers inside.
Eide’s Entertainment, a four-floor comic book and collectibles store located in Downtown Pittsburgh, actually received a waiver from the governor’s office allowing them to stay open, according to Greg Eide, who has owned and operated the store for nearly 50 years. Eide’s has a small convenience section at the entrance of the store with snacks, drinks and magazines, which has allowed it to cautiously operate with a slew of restrictions.
Eide says he requests people call first and follows standard COVID-19 safety precautions. Still, few people have been entering the store, according to Eide. The store is lucky if ten people come in throughout a given day, he says.
“Some of our best regular customers come in… very big collectors,” Eide says. “People who are very addicted to collecting.”
Sales have dropped significantly as the store leans more into eBay, Eide says. All that being said, Eide has allowed all of his full-time employees to continue working if they feel comfortable. He also received money from the Small Business Association for the store. He’s concerned that other shops may not be as fortunate, but he’s comfortable about his shop’s future.
“I own the building outright, so I don’t have to pay rent, I pay property taxes. I feel I’m far, far, far better positioned than stores of my ilk, comic stores or music stores or book stores or whatever,” Eide says. “I have plenty of money behind me that I can keep things going through this hard time, and I plan on keeping it going.”
Business at Pittsburgh Comics, a shop in Canonsburg, was down about 40 percent in March and 77 percent in April, according to owner Colin McMahon. He also had to lay off his one full-time employee. Unlike some shops that stock old and rare comic books, Pittsburgh Comics primarily focuses on getting new releases to its customers.
“For the store itself, it was pretty much completely stopped,” McMahon says. “Especially with no books coming in, there was really nothing going on here.”
The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a national non-profit that assists struggling book stores, has teamed up with comic book publishers like DC Comics to donate funds to comic shops in need across the country. McMahon says Pittsburgh Comics received $800 from this effort, which he says made paying the shop’s bills less of a headache.
“Overall, we’re okay, and we should be able to get out of this, I don’t want to say unscathed, but not dire,” McMahon says. “The big question for me is, ‘are the customers going to come back?’ I know most of them will, but I’m sure there are people out there who haven’t gone back to work yet or may not be able to go back to work.”
Some counties in Pennsylvania have already moved to the “yellow phase” of reopening on May 8, which allows businesses to allow customers in so long as standard social distancing guidelines are followed. This allowed the New Dimension Comics location in Ellwood City to open, as it’s located in Lawrence County.
On the first two days of reopening, a Friday and Saturday, the store brought in revenue equivalent to about one-third of a normal month, according to Todd McDevitt, owner of the New Dimension Comics franchise.
“The heavy-hitters really came out, the real die-hards,” McDevitt says. “I think some people maybe opened their purse strings a little wider to support us because they knew we’ve been struggling for two months.”
Throughout the pandemic, McDevitt laid off the vast majority of his 78 employees and says revenue has drastically plummeted. Online sales represented only about 3 percent of his businesses before the pandemic, so that component was only able to help so much. Despite a strong start at one of his six stores across Pennsylvania and Ohio, McDevitt expects a slow recovery because he imagines many of his customers will be forced to more carefully spend their disposable income.
An extra hurdle for his businesses is how to approach table-top gaming, a staple of his stores. He assumes table-top gaming will only be able to resume when restaurants can, because of the close, crowded environment it requires. Restaurants won’t open until the green phase of reopening, which Pennsylvanians don’t know when to expect will happen.
In Southwestern Pennsylvania, comic shops will soon be able to open. Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced that counties like Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland will move to the yellow phase on May 15. Soon after, on May 20, Diamond plans to resume distributing comics.
Still, even with that reopening date, it’s unclear how well comic shops will be able to recover. At Phantom in Oakland, Yandora had to lay off his two full-time employees and says sales have slowed to about 10 to 20 percent of their normal numbers – maybe a little better sometimes.
“We applied for some of these loans, and we still haven’t heard anything back, so we’ll see what happens,” Yandora says. “I’m pretty optimistic. I’ll be more optimistic if these grants come through.”
He says the comic book community is supportive and that he’s been receiving some mail orders from customers out of state who heard of the shop from Pittsburgh-area friends.
It’s hard not to think of what things would be like for these stores if the pandemic didn’t happen, though. Last week would have been Free Comic Book Day, a huge event for comic shops around the world that often brings in loads of people who never go to comic shops normally.
Yandora remembered this recently.
“It was funny, because it finally hit me,” Yandora says. “I was here by myself, I think, packing a mail order or working with some mail orders. Normally, this place would be mobbed with lots of happy people, lots of happy kids. It’s a happy event, and we’re so far away from happy at the moment.”