Diamond Comic Distributors announced that the company is moving its inventory hub from Sparta, Illinois to Memphis, Tennessee effective this November. Diamond's Sparta operation involved five different buildings with a total square footage of 150,000 square feet, while its new distribution facility in Memphis contains 225,000 square feet of space under one roof. The increased amount of space will allow Diamond to carry more backlist merchandise such as toys, graphic novels, DVDs, and games; Diamond's Sparta facilities have been jammed to the gills for years. The additional space will not be used to consolidate Alliance inventory with Diamond's, at least at this time.
Thanks to its position on major road and air routes, Memphis should provide Diamond with superior UPS coverage, allowing the company to provide accounts, particularly those in the south, with faster UPS shipments. Additionally, since Sparta was at least a day away from the nearest major trucking hub (St. Louis), the Memphis location should also speed up incoming freight to the Diamond warehouse, which should also increase the efficiency of Diamond's distribution system.
Diamond is hoping that 'as many as possible of its Sparta employees' will relocate to Memphis. According to labor statistics, this may be the best way for Diamond to staff their Memphis facility. In addition to proximity to printers, another plus that Sparta has always offered to distributors has been a pool of available workers; unemployment rates in Randolph County have been consistently high for a decade or more due to printer closings and the decline in coal mining in the area.
We took a look at some recent unemployment rates, and in July of this year, the unemployment rate in Randolph County, Illinois (Sparta) was 7.7%. The unemployment rate in Memphis was 3.8%, or less than half of Sparta's. This will probably affect the availability (and price) of Diamond's pickers, packers, drivers, and so on. On the other hand, it will probably be easier for Diamond to recruit management in Memphis than it is in Sparta, due to the presence of numerous other companies employing the same types of managers and supervisors that Diamond does in Memphis.
For Sparta, Illinois, this marks the end of an era, which began early in the days of the direct market. Sparta was once known as 'Magazineland, U.S.A.' because of its large printing operation -- Spartan Printing -- which employed over 1000 people at its peak. At one time, Spartan printed most of the comics in the United States on its huge, ancient letterpresses. This was during the period when all comics were printed on cheap newsprint with simple color processes (and sold for under a buck). Eventually, Spartan was acquired by World Color Press, publishers began publishing comics in a variety of formats (which led to the emergence of Quebecor as the dominant comic printer), and the Sparta plant was closed in the 90s after a brief period of employee ownership.
The history of direct market distributors in the area parallels the history of comic printing at Spartan. The first distributor with a warehouse nearby was Glenwood Distributors, in Collinsville, Illinois. This happened to be the home of Russ Ernst, who founded Glenwood in the late seventies. Ernst was a bank officer in St. Louis who started Glenwood in his spare time to sell to collectors and stores in the seventies. When Big Rapids Distribution went out of business in 1980, Glenwood quickly grew, and shortly thereafter began air freighting comics to stores all over the country from its base near Sparta.
As Ernst began taking business from other distributors, they quickly figured out that they needed to get their books to stores more quickly in order to be successful. During the 80s, Pacific Comics (owned by Bill and Steve Schanes) opened a distribution center in nearby Steeleville and Phil Seuling's Seagate Distributors opened a DC in Sparta. As Pacific and Seagate went out of business, Capital City Distribution acquired some of Pacific's Steeleville assets and used those to open its facility in Seagate's old space in Sparta. As time went on, Diamond opened its own warehouse in Sparta and eventually acquired Capital's new, larger building there as part of its acquisition of Capital City Distribution in 1996. In keeping with the tradition of comic distributors in Sparta, Diamond also continued leasing the decrepit old Seagate/Capital space on Vine St., renting from colorful local 'Tubby' Henderson. At the peak of operations there in the early 90s, comic distributors employed several hundred people in Sparta.
With no comics printed there and the need to consolidate and expand its facilities, Diamond's decision to leave Sparta makes perfect sense. Memphis is a growing shipping hub, a much larger city, and is a better place to site a major real estate investment. Regardless, it will mark the sad passing of an era in the comics business when Diamond pulls out of Sparta, eliminating the last vestige of a time when comics were 'all in color for a dime,' and Sparta was the center of the universe.