Lessons from a Two-Generation Store (With Photo Gallery)
Posted by Jim McLauchlin on July 15, 2022 @ 3:53 am CT
"I didn’t see anything else as an option," Geoffrey Patterson says. "I had to go into comic books."
Patterson is indeed a legacy. His father, Geoffrey Patterson Sr., founded Geoffrey’s Comics in 1979, and "Li'l G" started working the cash register by himself at age 12. The origin of the store is quite a story in an of itself. The senior Patterson was a social worker at a boy’s camp.
"These were the kids who did something bad enough to go to jail, but weren’t old enough to go to jail," the younger Patterson says today. "Pretty much everyone there treated them like young criminals, but my dad was 'No, these are 14-year-olds who got sucked into something horrible.'"
Patterson started the kids on a reading program with comic books.
"He got a bunch of kids who were junior criminals to read and talk about their reading, and then to write and talk about what they were writing," Patterson says. "He taught a writing class, and then a public speaking class, talking about their real-world experience to each other."
Patterson loved the kids, but not so much the staff.
"The adults treated the kids like they were going to be part of an institutional system forever," the younger Geoffrey says. "My dad couldn’t tolerate that attitude towards other people. So he decided he was going to do something for himself now, own his own business. The only things he really enjoyed were beer and comic books, and there were already too many bars, so he decided to try a comic store."
And so Geoffrey’s Comics came to be in Gardena, California, in 1979. The older Patterson passed away in 2014, and Geoffrey took over full time. In 2015, he added another venerable Southern California institution, Santa Monica’s Hi De Ho Comics, to the portfolio. Patterson now own and operates two beloved stores, and he’s learned much on his journey…
VALUE YOUR SPACE
One of Patterson’s valuable lessons was learned very early.
"When I first started working for my dad, we always had an arcade in the store," he says. "It seems like every comic store did. Stores would rent floor-cabinet video games, and you could rent up to four—after that, you had to get an arcade license."
But young Geoffrey looked at the yield of the machines.
"We were only making about $20 a week from the video games, and it was probably costing us that much in electricity," he says. "More than that, if we just put more back-issue comic boxes there, we could make more than $20 a week. So I convinced my dad and all the adults who worked at the store that this was a bad idea, and… they never thought of that. So I came in at age 12, and changed our floor space."
Analyzing floor space is important, but Patterson thinks there’s a corollary to this rule as well.
"It was an immediate improvement in business," he says. "And it taught me that nothing should ever rest on its laurels, and everything has to be earned."
APPLY INVESTMENT LESSONS
A much more recent lesson? Patterson has been doing deep dives into stock market research with his father-in-law, and applying lessons taken from there into his store business.
Sounds strange? Maybe not.
"I just picked up an X-Men #1," Patterson says. "And there’s no reason to sell that unless you absolutely need the money. That had never been our policy in the past. You get an X-Men #1, you put it on the wall and you sell it. But now, I know I’ll make more money just sitting on X-Men #1 because the rate of return on that is increasing faster than the value of money."
In a world where savings account interest rates are well below 1% and CDs are maybe 1-2%... yeah, maybe there’s something there.
"Once you learn how the world of investments works, and start applying those lessons to comic books," Patterson says, "you could make a lot more money."
Geoffrey’s has always been a haven for a deep and quirky back-issue selection. That’s just the way Patterson likes it.
"A couple weeks ago in one of our staff meetings, the manager of one location said, ‘We’re selling more old comics than new comics,’" he says. "And I was happy to hear that. We’ve taken one thing that’s a specialty for us and made it even better."
Patterson knows that new releases get people in, but he wants to turn his customers on to so much more.
"Every comic store sells the new stuff, and we do, too," he says. "But we really show off our specialty, and that’s the history of comics. We carry a lot of old stuff at really affordable prices."
Patterson also knows that many stores don’t like to carry back issues, and some just flat out don’t. Patterson is cool with that.
"The right answer is to lean into your specialty," he says. "Whatever you’re good at."
Maybe the lesson of the arcade machines didn’t last. Patterson is giving himself a refresher course.
"When things were going great, I allowed myself to think, 'Oh it’s because I’m great and so smart and I know how to do everything right,'” he says. "And… I stopped growing. I somehow thought I had perfected how to run this business. And, on reflection, that’s just never the case."
Reflection, and COVID shutdowns showed Patterson the way.
"The store was going great, doing well, and I stopped analyzing what we were doing, both right and wrong," Patterson says. "And COVID hitting was like getting your knees shot out from under you. It would have been nice to know what I was doing right, how to maximize it, and knowing what I wasn’t doing as well with an eye to cutting it, in advance. As it was, I had to learn all new lessons."
Patterson thinks he now knows the drill.
"The real business work, the analysis and all the financials, you have to dig into it," he says. "You can’t just make stuff up on the fly."
It’s a common refrain among many retailers, and Patterson admits he’s been a bit too old school, and is now playing catch-up.
"I should have had a podcast and better website before COVID hit. I love talking about comics, I’ve got a history and a family that loves talking about comics, and we could have been at the forefront of being the personality talking about the history of comics," he says. "Now I’m trying to catch up; I’m working on it. But it’s more work to catch up than it would have been if I had started earlier."
Geoffrey’s has a website, but a new and much more robust one is now in development. The new website will focus on the history of comics, and "best of" lists for multiple characters.
RELY ON MORE THAN YOURSELF
And yeah, another common lament: Trying to be chief cook and bottle-washer and do every last thing is often a road to ruin, That’s a road Patterson is taking an exit ramp off of.
"A business is all your responsibility, but being in the driver’s seat all the time means you’re working for a lot less money than if you allow someone else to drive," he says. "Working smart, not hard, is a cliché for a reason. I used to have to be the one who bagged and boarded every comic because the sticker has to be right there, but you have to let that go. Train someone else on how you want it to be done, and just let it happen."
AND WHAT ELSE?
"I think I’m one of the few people you’ll interview who really hasn’t done anything but comic books."
"After my dad passed away, I had people come into the store, sometimes neck tattoos and all, who were crying. They said, ‘The only reason I can read is your dad.’ I had more than one person tell me that."
"My dad loved Blackhawk, all the war comics from when he was a kid. But when he opened up, X-Men was really starting to take off. He thought, 'Who are these people? X-Men? But okay, we’ll carry this. And some Batman, too.' And he lucked into choosing something that allowed him to have some freedom, and a business that was growing."
"My dad had a cable access TV show. Podcasts are the new version of cable access TV. He was there on the ground floor, and I should have kept running with that. He just loved talking about comics. And it’s infectious! People love hearing people talk about what they love."
"Be ready to roll with the punches, all the time. We had to move both locations during COVID due to landlord issues. We could have just curled up in a ball, but no, we decided we had to get up and answer the bell. We’re not going to get knocked out. And how we have two new locations we really love."
"One more little fun anecdote about investing: My dad and I bought thousands of shares of Marvel at $1.25 a share when they went bankrupt and we held it until Disney bought ’em. We knew nothing. Everyone said it was a terrible investment, but my dad was like, 'Ummm, Marvel Comics is not going anywhere, so I think this is a good idea.' He never owned another stock in his life!"
Click Gallery below for store photos!
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