This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on January 18, 2016.
The foundation of ComicBook.Com is comics. While we love to cover all aspects of pop and geek culture, our roots lie in the comics community and the plethora of characters and stories that have sprung from it. If you speak with anyone in the comics community about what has made the medium successful in North America, you’ll quickly discover one answer that stands far above the rest: local comics stores. They are the bedrock of comics in the United States and Canada, supporting fans, communities, and conventions with open doors and a dedicated staff.
This year on ComicBook.Com we are highlighting this important aspect of comics and culture by taking a look at one local comic store each week. These are stores that embody what it means to support culture and community. We hope you can visit some of them throughout 2017.
The truth about everything in comics is that it is a business. There is a ridiculous amount of passion throughout the industry; you can easily find it in the fans, creators, and especially the retailers. Yet the success of any comic or store is based on whether they can afford to keep their head above water. You can only go so long on passion before you need to pay bills and buy groceries. That’s a reality that Dennis Barger, the owner of Wonderworld Comics and Quick Stop Comic Shop, recognizes. It’s what has allowed him to fulfill the passions of his customers as well as his own for more than a decade now.
Barger is remarkably open about the business side of his store. He can quote you figures dating back to when the first Wonderworld location opened in 2005. The square footage, customer demographics, breakdown between online and in-store sales, and more all come at you clearly organized and with a story to tell. He’s obviously excited to talk about his business plan and you can’t blame him. Barger has built a store and reputation in an industry that is notably difficult to survive within.The motive behind that reputation isn’t pride though, it’s an eagerness to share with others who can help expand the comics market as well.
As an outspoken critic of some initiatives within the comics retail industry, Barger has never tried to avoid making waves. He welcomes them with a blunt voice backed by his clear vision of how to improve comics sales and credit those who work the hardest on doing so. That’s the goal and it’s one he has pursued through a variety of methods. Barger has continually adapted and altered Wonderworld in order to best suit the market. Quoting Bruce Lee, he says that stores must be “‘like water’, able to change and fill different spaces.”
Wonderworld has been engaged in finding the best way to give customers what they want since its inception. Initially, Barger wanted customers to have everything at their fingertips, but found that a massive sales floor and inventory was wearing out his staff and overwhelming customers. Rather than keep pursuing that goal he changed stream and began to catalog his backstock online. Customers could find what they wanted even more easily, the books were at less risk, and it cut costs down. It’s just one example of how Wonderworld has continued to evolve its winning model.
If there’s a single secret to Barger’s business strategy, it seems to be an obvious one: give the people what they want. Wonderworld has specialized in the variant market, doing its best to curate collections of covers offered only in very limited ratios. It’s a high risk task that requires Barger to order more than he might expect to sell of some titles in order to offer a specialized piece of art. However, the development of their online retail storefront has helped significantly. After 8 years of business Wonderworld reached a 50-50 split between online and in-store customers, allowing them to find collectors across the United States and beyond. It means they can target popular variants, like the action figure designs, and find customers beyond their own backyard.
Some comics readers might see the variant and online markets as being niches, but Barger’s success in these areas has allowed him to expand his customer base in multiple ways. When Wonderworld first opened he estimates the store catered to 95% men and 85% people of European descent. In little more than a decade those demographics have shifted drastically. Barger says that women now make up about 33% of the stores regular customers and that among them only about half would be characterized as caucasian. That change reflects a shift in the American comics market as well with more women and minorities discovering the medium. There’s no doubt that part of Wonderworld’ success can be attributed to welcoming these new audiences.
Barger attributes this growth to the trust he places in his own staff. He says, “Go with what your employees like and they will push the product.” An anecdote he is fond of telling regards Trish, now a manager at Wonderworld, who loved Zombie Tramp, a title that many customers dismissed without a second glance. Her passion for the series led it into the hands of many who shared her taste. It now sells better than Batman or The Amazing Spider-Man at Wonderworld. The sales staff know comics and know what they love, customers have come to trust their recommendations in turn. That level of enthusiasm grows both pull files and visitors to the shop.
Those evolving trends in demographics and taste can be observed at a micro-level at Wonderworld, and Barger is dedicated to serving his customers whatever comics they choose to read. In all of the controversy over the altered gender of Thor, Barger discovered that the number of people pulling Thor books increased by about 650%. Even if the few people who were previously reading Thor: God of Thunder left, the new readers more than made up for the difference. These are changes that excite Barger and his staff too. “I absolutely love this industry’s commitment to finding new voices and characters for the growing customer bases we have” he says.
Despite all of his experience running a successful comics store, Barger claims “No one can predict the future of this industry.” Many of his most successful items were predicted for doom in the past decade, including the loss of physical comics to digital and the downfall of variants, neither of which came to be. The comics industry is constantly evolving and it takes stores like Wonderworld to keep up with it and its new customers. Following the wisdom of Bruce Lee it has become a shop able to keep up with every new development. Barger himself is as excited by running the business as he is watching the action star deliver a finishing blow. “I love this industry, the one thing you can predict is it’ll be full of twists and turns and excitement.”
Name: Wonderworld Comics
Address: 3955 Dix Highway
Lincoln Park, MI 48146
Phone: (313) 292-8697
Website: Wonderworld Comics
Facebook: Wonderworld Comics