'If we can do it well, we do it here.'
Posted by Jim McLauchlin on November 15, 2018 @ 7:35 pm CT
Calum Johnston is the oldest of the old school when it comes to dealing comics. He started like most kids do, just trading with friends. But the nearest sources for new comics were a couple of drug stores about an hour away.
"So when I was in high school, I’d survey a few friends, get their orders, take the time to go into town, and get their comics," Johnston says today. "Because I was buying a bunch, I’d get a little discount. That way, I was able to get my comics by just putting in the effort."
Johnston’s three-store empire now stretches over 275 miles. It can take him four hours to get from Fredericton to Halifax. It’s a journey he… doesn’t take very often.
"I don’t get enough time to get to my Fredericton store anymore," he laughs. "But I’m always trying. I spend most my time between the Halifax and Dartmouth stores.”
Johnston has traveled a lot in his journey, and he’s also learned a lot, both good and bad...
By and large, Johnston is a fan of expansion. Hey, he has three stores to prove it!
"It creates employment, and it gets more people into this," he says. And the real game is expansion of the reader base.
"I think there’s always room for more stores," Johnston says. "If there could be more good stores, we can expand the market. Stores need to open not to pilfer readership from another store, but to reach new readers. Otherwise, it’s a losers' game."
One way to promo your store is to throw a big party, and invite everyone. For free.
And so Strange Adventures does DCAF, the Dartmouth Comic Arts Festival, every August, as a free show. 2019 will be their eighth year.
"It’s great for families," Johnston says. "We get 2000-3000 people every year with about 120 exhibitors, all doing comics, cartoons, crafts. It’s a fun event people have really started to look forward to every year, and builds our reputation with both customers and cartoonists."
Johnston uses his background in design and printing to help some of those cartoonists.
"We had done an issue of a comic we helped get off the ground called The Last Paper Route by Sean Jordan, the Word Burglar, who’s the hip hop artist out of Toronto," he says. "And the most recent was helping the guys from Grandway Comics, introducing them to a printer who could print their four-color comics. They came out beautiful. The printer had never done comics before."
Johnston says that extending a helping hand builds Strange Adventures’ rep, and creates lifelong friends and allies.
"Helping people with comics, that’s been a real advantage for us as well," he says.
Okay, Johnston believes his expansion is generally good. But there’s some bane to go along with his boon.
"It does take a lot of work, and there are times when I kind of miss having that one-man shop, having just a part-time person to give me Saturdays or Sundays off," he says.
And managing multiple stores means managing multiple lives.
"The amount of scheduling gets daunting," he says. "Any time you add more cooks to the kitchen there’s more potential for issues. Student issues, life issues, family issues get in the way and suddenly it’s ‘I have to cover three shifts at two different places with one person!’ and… you just get stretched."
BEWARE OTHER PRODUCTS
Comics are easy at Strange Adventures. Other things... your mileage may vary.
"Soooo many different product lines we’ve tried," Johnston muses. "Different games, miniature lines, different CCGs when they were huge… I mean, how many people are stuck with boxes and boxes of Spellfire D&D trading cards?"
Johnston is wary of adding different product lines, especially since more stores can mean more problems.
"You think with multiple stores, you can spread the risk around," he says. "But if you make a misstep and order for three stores, well, sometimes that makes it a bigger misstep. Trying to keep on top of that inventory can be a bane."
It’s a problem as old as retail itself: You try your best, but you can never be all things to all people.
"Sometimes you post on your social media, ‘Hey, we just got these cool mini-comics in,’ and maybe you only got three copies ’cause that’s all the person selling them had," Johnston says. "And you get the complaint, ‘Well, why aren’t they at this store? Can you send one over here?’ That can be a bit of a problem."
And again, that 275-mile footprint comes into play.
"You can’t always control where you’re going to have inventory all the time," Johnston says. "It’s a struggle. You do what you can. If we’re going to have a sale at one place, we consider, ‘Well, should we have it at all three?’ It takes more planning."
AND WHAT ELSE?
“I highly recommend doing some work in the service industry for anyone who wants to get a job in... anything. It’s very good experience dealing with the public.”
"I moved to Halifax on a yearlong contract job doing some design work. I wasn’t planning a second store. I met a girl from the area, and well… my store in Fredericton was doing pretty well with the part-timers who had become full-timers. I was just running it remotely. And I thought, ‘Well, when my contract’s over, I don’t want to go back to Fredericton and bump these guys out of full-time jobs,’ and since my wife had a full-time job in Halifax, I figured I’d try a second store here."
"The Grandway guys, they essentially want to produce Marvel Comics and DC Comics of the ’80s. They just started up. They do phenomenal work. Their stuff looks like it just stepped out of 1979. The first issues just came out, and they’re wonderful. It’s nice to see a Maritimes-based comic publisher get started. I think you’re gonna hear some nice things from them."
"It’s interesting to see the differences between the stores, the demographics of the area, the geography. One store sells 50 of one title. Another can’t sell 10."
"We get asked a lot why we don’t carry a certain product. Really, it’s usually a matter of expertise. If we can’t deal with it expertly, we usually don’t do it. I don’t want to go to a place that doesn’t have top-notch service, so we try not to do that here. But if we can do it well, we do it here."
Click Gallery below for ads, photos, and promo items from Johnston’s Strange Adventures.
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