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"Some stores won't be coming back"

Interview by Paul Slade
Murder Ballads
Secret London

Gosh has been my favourite London comics shop for over 20 years. On April 6, as the UK's coronavirus lockdown entered its third week, I put some questions to co-owner Andrew Salmond about how the store's fighting back and what might come next.

PlanetSlade: For people who aren't familiar with Gosh, just give us a quick sketch of your operation there in happier times. And where do you fit into the ecology of other UK comics shops - particularly those in London?

Andrew: Gosh's mindset has for a long time been all about outreach. We have a solid base of long-standing comics readers who we cater to, and who are really the bedrock of the business for us, but the shop is set up to attract new customers who might not necessarily walk into a comics shop.
When we moved to Soho back in 2011, we made a conscious choice to make the ground floor of the shop look like a bookstore and move all of the new weekly releases and back issues downstairs. This was a natural evolution of where we had been heading in our old premises, but the move let us design the shop from the ground up. We wanted to create a visual environment where people walking past would be drawn in.
A big Spider-Man in the window would signal to people if the store was or wasn't for them. But a big central table filled with attractive books on all manner of subjects and similar material in the windows makes people curious about what kind of store it is. Once they're in and picking up comics featuring reportage or contemporary fiction or whatever, that's half the battle done. Selling comics to people who don't read comics is the idea. But we're keen to nourish the local community too: we have a rolling series of events and have always been big supporters of small press creators.
London has had a pretty happy equilibrium with its comic shops for a while, with three main stores in the West End providing three very different experiences. We have more of a bookstore feel and do very little merchandise; Forbidden Planet is the megastore with mountains of merch and a basement filled with comics, games, sci-fi novels and so on; and until recently Orbital offered an excellent classic comic shop experience with a strong community feel. Orbital have now stopped new comics, which I think that equilibrium is still adjusting to. They're intending to press forward with a cafe/trades/back issues setup, which will be interesting to see develop.

I know you may not want to give too many figures, but some idea of the scale of business done at Gosh would be helpful for context - weekly turnover perhaps? Number of regular pull orders serviced by the shop? Size of your typical Diamond order in normal times? Footfall in a typical week before all this hit? Whatever you can give us. (1)

Not stuff I particularly want to divulge, sorry. More than some, less than others. What I will say is that we have a pleasingly broad sales base, so that no one department of the store is carrying all the others. We have an extremely diverse customer base and that plays out in the material that we sell. So the old 90/10 rule (90% of your turnover comes from 10% of your stock) doesn't apply in the slightest.

The shop's enforced closure must have been bad enough, but then came the news that Diamond was suspending deliveries of new comics. Until then, you'd been encouraging people to shift their regular buys to mail order. How was the response to that going? What was your initial reaction when you heard the Diamond news?

Everything was changing so quickly in that initial period that it felt like simply another thing to have to work around. Every day something new was announced that we had to react to, so we were constantly trying new initiatives to keep money coming in that the following day would be redundant.
In a way I was kind of relieved about the Diamond announcement, because the idea of what might be happening with the backlog of product if it was still shipping in the States was a little worrying. There was the one week of FOC while everything was in a tailspin that I chopped all our orders to the bone, but we were still looking down the barrel of an awful lot of shelf stock coming our way with no way to shift it. (2)

'I cut orders to the bone but we were still looking at a lot of stock coming in & no way to shift it'

Our standing order customers have been incredibly supportive throughout this. Many have purchased gift vouchers or ordered books to be sent out or stashed for them. It's really meant a lot to us.

Did the Government's lockdown announcement on March 23 have a dramatic effect in its own right? Or had the shop's walk-in business already dried up by then?

Because of the way things had been phased in, turnover was dropping by the day over the previous week. Each day the tourists disappeared a little more, and more people were working from home. The market outside the shop (mainly food stalls catering to a lunchtime crowd) shrunk daily, which was one less reason for people to come to the area.
By the time they closed down the pubs on the Friday (by which time I had furloughed most staff) we were probably down by about 60-70% each day, and by Sunday by about 80%. Come the Monday, I didn't feel I could ask any staff to come in any more and felt it was irresponsible for us to remain open. So we actually announced our closure the Monday morning before the official closure of non-essential stores that evening!

Is there any activity at all in the shop at the moment? I'm imaging you in there alone (or perhaps with someone else working on the other floor) filling the occasional mail order purchase and catching up with admin. Have I got that right?

Yes, for the last couple of weeks it's just been me in the shop trying to keep up with correspondence and process mail orders. I was there throughout the first week, but now I'm trying to limit my journeys, and work from home whenever possible. The tube isn't much fun to catch right now. My business partner (Josh Palmano, who founded the store back in '86) has actually been ill with the virus but is on the mend, so hopefully he'll be coming in again soon as well.
I'm also trying to fast-track the installation of a new POS [point of sale] system that will seamlessly integrate with a new webstore I'm also trying to fast track. That will let us put our entire books inventory online, which I'm hoping might yield dividends. Thankfully they're both cloud-based, so I can work on those from home.

Your central London location must come with a very hefty rent bill attached - far higher than the one most comics shops would face. What's your landlord's attitude been so far? Will the Government's measures to assist small businesses be of any help to you there?

Yeah, it's pretty substantial. The landlords have kept pretty quiet so far other than a mention of deferred rents on their website. We had actually just paid our rent for the next quarter, so there's still to be a conversation about what options we have. I've been waiting for Josh to get well before approaching that.
In theory, the Government's assistance programmes will be a help to us. The business rates holiday period will undoubtedly help, and I have furloughed all of our staff as a part of the Job Retention scheme which covers 80% of wages. But so far everything is on a promise with little detail on administration. We're keeping an eye on things and will take any help we can reasonably get.

How are the shop's employees coping? Has the shop been able to help them out in any way?

We've furloughed all staff on full pay and retained everyone. We certainly don't want to let anyone go if it's at all possible to avoid it. They all have their own lockdown circumstances, but it was important to us to make sure their income was secured over this period.

What are you hearing from the owners of other UK comics shops? How concerned are they that the current crisis might drive their own shops out of business for good? How long can the current situation last before we start to see shops disappearing? How many shops will we be left with when this is all over?

'How many British comics shops will be left? Enough to keep UK distribution sustained, I hope.'

In terms of other UK stores, I think we're all feeling the pressure. Stores outside London were able to maintain turnover much better until the lockdown as there was less of an exodus from their town centres. Now it's all about seeing what they can do with mail order, getting what assistance they can, and using any cash reserves they might have. I think the self-employed wage subsidy announcement was a relief for many owners, and there has been a mix of layoffs and furloughs in response.
I would think we're already at the point where some stores won't be coming back, and we'll see more as each month goes by. None of us can sustain this indefinitely. But hopefully people are reaching our for whatever assistance they can get. I know several who have negotiated rent holidays and reduced their outgoings to a trickle. How many stores will be left? The honest answer is I have no idea. Enough to keep UK distribution sustained, is my main hope.

Even in a store like Gosh, which also sells a wide selection of books, I imagine the weekly floppies are very important to the shop's viability. What percentage of weekly sales did the floppies typically account for? How important were they simply in terms of bringing people into the shop regularly, and hopefully buying something extra before they leave? Where did the floppies sit in your top five product categories? (3)

The periodical comics are still an important part of our business. I hear a lot of talk about new comics as a dying, unsustainable model that it's impossible to make money with, but the fact is that, managed properly, they're still a vital regular source of income.
Even with our focus on the books, new comics still account for a good 25% of our turnover, plus whatever extras people might pick up while they're in. And those regular, week-in, week-out customers really prove their worth in a situation like this. In that last week we were open they probably made up about 80% of our sales, and they're the ones whose loyalty is still bringing most money in for us. Also, they're one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in the store. They're a good bunch!

Again, to take an apocalyptic view for a moment, could this crisis finish off the floppy format once and for all? It's been about to die ever since I can remember, but is it robust enough to survive even this? What's its continuing appeal to readers and publishers, given the availability of digital comics and trade paperback collections?

Tough to say. "Is it robust enough to survive even this?" is a question that applies to so many industries right now that I kind of feel like everything will either receive enough assistance to get through or millions of people are going under.
It's looking like it might change the face of distribution, regardless. If the big publishers manage to convince their book trade distributors to piggyback new comics on their books, that'll change the game significantly. So many questions. Will Diamond survive? Will all the publishers survive? Will Disney and Warner decide it's worth publishing comics any more? I'm choosing to answer all those questions "probably", but who the hell knows? It feels like there are no standard rules in all of this. (4)
The fact is that, without the injection of cash periodicals give them, most stores wouldn't have the leeway to experiment with anything beyond that. We're now in a position where we possibly could, but we're highly unusual in that, and we'd certainly be worse off for the lack of them, as would the range we offer.
As to the endurance of periodical comics, it's a mix of nostalgia, the appeal of serial fiction, the comfort of routine and the allure of physical media. Hell, I haven't brought regular periodical comics in years, but when I'm abroad for any length of time I'll often pick up the odd issue of something that I enjoy because that time spent leafing through a comic is strangely comforting to me.

What can we as readers or collectors do to help our own favourite local comics shop survive? What can the shops themselves do to improve their chances? Have you heard of any particularly imaginative or original strategies coming from the shop owners you talk to? Does Gosh have any initiatives in the pipeline you're able to tell us about?

For customers, keep standing orders active and updated with stores. Give them as much information as possible to order accurately. Once shipping starts again, the margin for error with shops will be razor-thin. Let them know when you want a title and let them know when you want to stop it with as much notice as possible. If people are doing mail order, spend your comics budget on trying out new things, either as back issues or trades. If you have a standing order with anything outstanding, arrange to pay for it and either get it sent out or have it held until you can go in. Buy gift vouchers for the future.

'Mail orders are a big help. I think I speak for all stores when I say they're really appreciated.'

For stores, I wouldn't presume to teach anyone how to suck eggs. Every business is different, every market is different, and nobody knows their own customers like those stores. All I would say is take whatever assistance you need to survive, treat your staff fairly and decently, and be realistic. I think a lot of people are going to have to make smart choices about when to walk away from something before they get in a hole it'll take a long time to dig themselves out of.
As I mentioned, my focus is on getting our inventory available online (we currently only have a limited webstore with exclusive items). Other than that, I think stock control and resource management will be my religion for at least the next couple of years. I'll concentrate on the nuts and bolts and leave the creative solutions to staff members that are better at that kind of thing.

Gosh has always run an extensive events programme in the shop. Is there any scope for moving events like this online? Might this be a way of helping to promote the sale of back stock?

Yeah, we may well do. We do a monthly "drink and draw" in association with Broken Frontier, and we recently did that online. Our monthly reading group has also made moves in that direction. I don't know that launches and so on will work, but we'll look into what we can do: perhaps talks, tutorials and so on might be viable.

To what extent can mail order sales from the shop's existing stock help matters? What are the logistical challenges of fulfilling orders like that at the moment?

Given that it's the only way we can currently make any money, it's quite important. For our particular logistical situation - which is to say it's just me a couple of days a week - I'm managing at the moment, if a little slowly. Other stores are operating a fully staffed mail order operation. So mail orders are a massive help, even if people are having to pay a little more than they would through Amazon. I think I speak for all stores when I say it's really appreciated.

What do you hear from the UK comics creators you talk to? What sort of ideas are they coming up with to replace lost income or get their work out there?

Mainly what I hear is uncertainty. I think it's too early to see what the impact is yet, and I suspect many are relying on savings and other incomes until they can get a clear idea of what's happening. Some may also be able to apply for the self-employment assistance. Eventually they'll just have to look at other avenues for paid work.

Is there any way in which comics shops can help one another at a time like this? Or perhaps that's already happening?

Certainly there is a lot of information exchange going on. Plenty of heated debates going on as well, but so it goes in the industry. There's no shortage of big personalities that are quick to get their nose put out of joint. But we're definitely all in the same boat, and outfits like ComicsPro are doing a lot of advocacy work with publishers.

What else would you like people to understand about the plight every comic shop faces at the moment? Once again, what can we as readers and collectors do to help?

As mentioned above, the best you can do is help stores make informed decisions about ordering, give them whatever financial assistance you can, help boost their signal on social media whenever possible, and be patient with them. Honestly, we don't have any definitive idea of when this is going to end or how we're going to get through it, but we need as much help as possible to do it.

Many thanks to Andrew for taking time to answer my questions when he had so much else on his plate. For more on Gosh visit the shop's website here.

1) Diamond is the monopoly distributor specialist comics shops must rely on both here and in the US.
2) FOC stands for Final Order Cutoff. "It's a form of order adjustment available for certain publishers three weeks before release date," Andrew explains. "Last-minute adjusts, basically."
3) By "floppies" I mean the regular periodical comics issued by publishers like Marvel and DC to tell their stories in serialised form. Until recently, a new batch of these would arrive in comics shops every Wednesday.
4) Disney owns Marvel Comics and Warner owns DC. These are the two giants of US comics publishing, accounting for about 70% of the market between them.

Bonus feature: Twenty-five years ago I interviewed Josh Palmano, then Gosh's sole owner, for a magazine called Inside Money. If you're interested in reading more about the shop's roots and the ambitions Josh had for it even then, take a look at this two-page PDF from IM's April 1995 issue.